Updated: Jul 17, 2022
I recently spent a few days in the region of Lazio (the region of Rome) on a little birthday trip, and one of the most unexpected and amazing things I saw was this massive villa and gardens in Caprarola.
The Palazzo Farnese was originally commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in the 1520s to be a fortified manor house just outside of Rome (it's about 65 km/40 mi northwest of the capital). It was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Baldassare Peruzzi to be an impenetrable fortress with a pentagonal shape and a moat, but work was halted when the Cardinal was elected Pope Paul III. It completely dominates the small town of Caprarola below it (click on each image separately to see the whole picture if you're viewing on your computer and not a phone):
Work resumed in the 1560s by the Pope's grandson (also named Alessandro Farnese, and also a Cardinal), who wanted to build a lavish Mannerist palace to be his primary residence outside of Rome. What greets you inside are majestic rooms, entirely covered by frescoes and architectural elements:
At the back of the room is an ornate 3-D garden scene:
This pentagonal exterior protects a circular courtyard in the center:
One of the most extraordinary elements is this grand spiral stairway!
And look down...
There's a marvelous map room:
The Age of Exploration was only a century old so all eyes were on the contours of the continents:
The ceiling had a map of the Constellations (a far cry from the images we're seeing now from the James Webb telescope!!):
Here's a close-up:
There was some intriguing stained glass:
... with this great grotesque detail!
There are some monumental paintings, like this one depicting the Farnese Pope together with Spanish Emperor Charles V fighting on the side of the Catholics during the Counter Reformation against "the Lutherans":
And this one, depicting Charles V and Cardinal Farnese's entrance into Paris in 1540, where they are welcomed by the French King Francis I, thereby highlighting the Farnese family's importance in European events:
The ceilings are dizzying! Note the Farnese family crest -- a series of blue lilies on a yellow background -- that originated in their role as Dukes of Parma. And lower right is a floor-to-ceiling panel depicting a close thicket of trees as you pass through a narrow corridor.
Below left shows the usual battle for souls in a Heaven & Hell fresco; the middle is from the “Room of the Philosophers" and shows the eccentric Greek philosopher Diogenes, who -- it is said -- gave away his possessions and chose to live in a barrel (he's one of my favorite characters of Ancient Greece! Read more about him here); and lower right... well, you decide! 😄
Close-up of the battle between Good & Evil:
Room after room after room...
The interior garden eventually gives way...
... through all the bright windows...
... to a lavish garden full of fountains.
One garden was ringed by these whimsical creatures!
Not sure why the guy lower left is sucking his finger...
You can see the pentagonal shape of the palazzo in the fresco below, which is actually in a different villa, not so far away:
The gardens of the Villa Lante are in the small town of Bagnaia and were built around the same time at the villa Farnese.
You find the same grand, whimsical elements, as well as lots of crustacean symbols as the original owner was Cardinal Gambara (gambas/gambero = shrimp or prawn).
There's a huge reflecting pool...
.... that was beautiful from all directions:
The monumental "Fountain of the Moors" is by famed Renaissance sculptor Giambologna.
Both villas were such surprises, and I love these small trips close to home where I head off without really knowing what I'm going to see. There's so much to see in Italy, it often seems like the surprises are endless and the next eye-popping villa or museum or garden is just around the corner (I DID see a lot more on my trip, including the 13th c. Papal Palace, from when the Popes were forced out of Rome due to internecine fighting! but that's for another post 🙂).
The tour season is in full swing here, or should I say, "bursting at the seams"!? Down in Amalfi, a taxi driver told me that the numbers are 3x pre-pandemic levels, and everybody seems overwhelmed. In the past two years we saw European tourists returning to our shores, but it's been the return of the Americans that has fueled the latest tourism boom. It's nice to be busy again, but I'm happy to have a little break as I shut my computer in a few hours and fly back to the U.S. to see my family over there. If you enjoyed your tour and would like to help keep the frescoes on my villa fresh, you can toss a few florins into the tip jar (click here). Or, come on over and see me and you can buy the first round of drinks 😉.
Safe travels everyone, and alla prossima! (until next time)