The Renaissance theorist and architect Leon Battista Alberti imagined houses as living beings: when they are happy they welcome you to their ‘bosom’, the central hall; when they are badly sited they feel humiliated, ‘enjoying no dignity’ and ‘taking no pleasure’. Gendered as feminine, the building loves to ‘gaze out’ at her surrounding landscape, ‘both a spectacle and a spectator’. Other thinkers wrote that ‘all buildings want to be luminous’ – as if they actively desire the light – and that they ‘surge’ upward. Giorgio Vasari, one the founder of art history, said of one particularly beautiful villa that ‘it seems to be not built, but truly born’. Translators of Alberti’s Latin expanded this idea of living, gazing architecture even further: the house yearns to take in the landscape ‘as if it were a Hawk to look clear round about, and constantly refreshed on every Side with delightful Breezes’.
Vasari is raving about the Villa Farnesina on the bank of the Tiber in Rome, acclaimed ‘the most beautiful and rich thing I have ever seen’ as early as 1512. (‘Bank’ is a kind of pun, as it was commissioned in 1506 by the world’s wealthiest banker, Agostino Chigi, who was also a gifted connoisseur with an unerring eye for the talent of artists and writers.) The Farnesina is the subject of my book just out from Cambridge, the first comprehensive study in English of this much-visited jewel of the Renaissance. I am the first to reconstruct the whole estate as conceived and created in 1506-1520, identifying everything it has lost and reinterpreting its best-known masterpieces by Raphael, Sodoma, Sebastiano del Piombo and Baldassare Peruzzi (the astonishingly young architect who ‘gave birth’ to the whole villa and also painted many of its frescoes). I show how Peruzzi gave Chigi’s low-lying villa that hawk-like uplift and command of the view, emphasizing the open rooftop belvedere (now half-demolished, walled in and closed to the public) that once yielded glorious views of the river and the seven hills of Rome. And I restore those ‘delightful Breezes’ – with the help of the poets who described the vital interaction of the green, scented gardens and the airy loggias, before they too were shut in. Ever since I was a student I’ve been fascinated by how art, literature and landscape architecture interact: I found in the Farnesina a perfect example of a ‘green world’ where all the arts flourished together – though now it’s reduced to a shell preserving only its famous frescoes, sitting in a modern garden much smaller than the original. A 19th-century embankment sheared off most of the grounds.
Palace of Venus in Renaissance Rome … that’s the subtitle of my book and one of its central themes. For many years I’ve worked on the history of sexuality and how Antiquity and ancient mythology were rediscovered – allowing some to imagine a secular life of refined hedonism: Chigi’s artists embodied this vision. In my 2017 book Eros Visible I called the Farnesina ‘the seedbed of an erotic revolution’. The goddess Venus appears in almost every room, and was once prominently displayed on the outside, nude and locked in a passionate embrace with Mars. Venus brings together aesthetic and erotic pleasure, the ‘hawklike’ delight in the environment and the sensuous pleasure of love: the poets imagine her moving in, appreciating the ornament, rushing excitedly upstairs to the roof to enjoy the view, bathing with other gods in the pool, and wishing she had been born there. Agostino lived openly with his mistress Francesca, who bore him three children before they finally married. For their wedding he commissioned three new frescoed rooms swarming with lovers from myth and history, Cupid’s spouse Psyche and Alexander the Great’s bride Roxana. In the nuptial bedroom Sodoma’s Roxana expresses ‘transcendent voluptuousness’ (as a later visitor put it), ‘throbbing with powerful life and seeming to effuse a most delicate perfume’.
Tributes to the Farnesina’s ‘harmony and pure beauty’, its ‘airy loggias’ and ‘miraculous’ painted rooms, echo down the centuries: ‘painting and poetry truly most beautiful … full of visual wonder and delight. … Agostino gathered there everything beautiful and precious that Nature could give, everything artistic that the mind could invent.’ Every aspiring artist went there to sketch. Voluptuous nudes, flying gods and cupids, lifelike vegetation and illusionistic ‘prospects’ increase the sense of floating away into an enchanted world. One of the pleasures of a stay in Rome was walking down from the American Academy with a poet-laureate colleague who is also a keen naturalist. As he entered the villa for the first time his wondering gaze shot upwards to the vault of the Psyche Loggia, through the amazing fictive pergola of fruit and foliage to the blue sky populated with closely-observed birds and mythological creatures that look just as realistic.
What survives is only a fraction of this most creative house, however. Visitors (and some scholars) seem unaware of what has been lost. The exterior paintings have vanished, the gardens have been washed away and built over, open loggias have been sealed so they can no longer breathe. Large areas of the extant building also remain underinterpreted, preventing our understanding of the whole, the total work of art ‘gathered’ by Chigi and his team of artists, poets and intellectuals. This book is therefore a ghost story and a detective story.
I didn’t know Rome at all before I was invited there by my wife Martha Pollak, a distinguished architectural historian and Resident of the American Academy, but I soon became addicted. I first visited the Farnesina when it housed the national collection of prints and drawings, and got to know the brilliant head of restoration Rosalia Varoli. Back then it looked on the outside like your typical Italian villa, painted orange-ochre with patches of picturesque decay, and after years of cleaning it’s now smooth and whitewashed. But when Vasari and the Chigi Pope Alexander VII saw it the whole exterior was animated, painted with mythological creatures looking out into the glorious landscape and erotic scenes that resembled sculptures with a warm light playing across them – ‘very beautiful’ and ‘noble’, matching the dazzling interior. I started to connect the fragments, filling in the hints and findings of earlier scholars, to visualize what this decorated exterior looked like.
Detective work became part of the adventure. Though I write for the general reader as well as the specialist, my endnotes are packed with thorough scholarship, examining every document and published source in ten languages. The visual documentation draws upon some ninety-five sites, museums, libraries and private art collections. But I also probed the villa itself and what is left of the grounds. For example, only a stump remains of Raphael’s first venture into architecture, but I show that it was a grand hotel for visitors, upstaging the villa itself – not just the ‘stable’ as it’s often called. I spent many summers ‘scampering’ (as Martha put it) up and down dusty bricked-up staircases to discover the original circulation-patterns and connections between rooms, poking my camera boom through a tiny aperture in a store-room to find the remnants of a frescoed ceiling, snooping around the back garden to find a magnificent carriage gate, tapping on walls to find the hollow spots where a cheerful fireplace must once have been – the focus of every room, as Alberti cleverly put it. I undid later remodelling and placed walls and ceilings in their original positions, to recreate convivial rooms, well-proportioned, well-lit and comfortably heated. We know that Agostino ‘loved all virtuosi’ and invested in all the arts, including music: I reconstruct the actual recital room and the instruments played there, adorned by Peruzzi with dancing Muses and the gods of Music. We know that Agostino’s poets celebrated the ‘shining’ and impressively vaulted lower ground floor, especially its luxurious marble-clad steam baths: I crawled into basement recesses to find the furnace that supplied hot water, and I reconstruct exactly where this private bathing-suite was situated. We know that Agostino staged boating parties and fabulous banquets on the edge of the river: I reconstruct the form of his colonnaded dining pavilion and the grotto and bathing pool beneath it.
So my book lets the visitor and the reader imagine the brilliant milieu that ‘gave birth to’ the Farnesina, the literature that celebrated it, the artistic rivalries that stimulated fresh invention, the graceful proportions of the original architecture, and the great gardens that once made this villa the most famous beauty spot in Rome. Hundreds of my own photographs and digital reconstructions, as well as images never published before and close-ups of details freshly brought to light – all these provide a personal guided tour, with virtual glimpses of the vanished façade-paintings, orange groves, fountains, grotto, pool and banqueting-pavilion. No wonder Venus wanted to make this place her own.