Raphael and Renaissance luxury at Villa Farnesina

It’s the 16th century. You’re one of the wealthiest men in Europe – the pope’s personal treasurer – and an art lover. You’ve just built an extravagant private villa in Rome, on the banks of the Tiber, and it needs decorating. Who do you call? 

 Villa Farnesina – hall of perspectives

Agostino Chigi recruited none other than Raphael, along with other talented artists of the age, including Baldassarre Peruzzi and Sebastiano del Piombo. The Sienese banker, who had made his fortune through his banking and mining businesses, was in the privileged position of being able to hire some of the greatest painters of the Renaissance to fill his home with beautiful frescoes. 

 Villa Farnesina – hall of perspectives

Today, Villa Farnesina remains one of Rome’s most beautiful buildings. It’s a private home and an art gallery in one, containing masterpieces such as Raphael’s Cupid and Psyche. Perhaps surprisingly, there aren’t many guided tours of this Renaissance treasure, but it is included in these Rome private tours

Villa Farnesina – Alexander the Great and Roxana

Although most visitors to the Eternal City seem to give the villa a miss, their loss is your gain. As you walk through grand rooms such as the Hall of Perspectives – a dazzling, illusionistic hallway with paintings of landscapes and colonnades – you can savour the tranquil atmosphere, imagining that you’re the master of the house.

Villa Farnesina – Galatea by Raphael 

A highlight of the ground floor is Raphael’s Galatea, which depicts the nymph riding a seashell, surrounded by dolphins and other sea creatures. The nymph’s beauty becomes even more intriguing when you discover the story behind it – that she was most likely based on the courtesan Imperia, Chigi’s former lover. Imperia died young, perhaps at her own hand, and it was Chigi who paid for her lavish funeral. 

Villa of Farnesina – Cupid and Psyche by Raphael – Prilfish on Flickr

Chigi went on to marry another of his mistresses, a Venetian shopkeeper’s daughter named Francesca Ordeaschi. The extravagant wedding banquet took place at Villa Farnesina, and many of the paintings in the villa seem designed to celebrate their love, such as Chigi’s sumptuous bedroom, which is decorated with a large fresco of Alexander the Great with his bride Roxana. 

This beautiful hall on the ground floor was painted by Raphael and his workshop, and portrays the wedding feast of Cupid and Psyche, in the company of Olympian gods. It never fails to make an impression on the first-time visitor, as you find yourself surrounded by blue skies, clouds, festoons of fruit and flowers, angels and gods. The effect is highly theatrical, so it comes as no surprise to learn that Chigi used this room to host theatrical performances, as well as festive events.

In some ways, visiting Villa Farnesina is even better than a trip to an art gallery, despite its smaller size. As well as seeing some masterpieces of Renaissance art, you get a real sense of what life was like for the rich and famous in 16th century Rome: holding hedonistic parties in their suburban villas, and throwing their silver dishes into the river at the end of the night, only to have their servants fish them out. For a glimpse of Renaissance high society – and some of the most breathtaking interiors in Italy – there’s no better place to go than Villa Farnesina.

Alexandra Turney lives in Rome and works for Through Eternity Tours


Written by Alexandra Turney