Arts & Tradition

Villa Farnese: A Safe Haven With a Secret Garden

Larger than life: Art that inspires us through the ages
BY James H Smith TIMEApril 25, 2022 PRINT

In 1504, future pope Cardinal Alessandro Farnese established the site in Caprarola, Italy, which is 50 miles northwest from Rome. A fortified castle was planned to defend against the threat of invasion, but the fortifications were never completed. After lying dormant until the mid-16th century, the site was given new life by Alessandro’s grandson.

When the family lost favor with a change in the papacy, the site was reimagined as a garden villa retreat, just far enough from Rome to offer some peace.

The late Renaissance architect Giacomo da Vignola had previously worked on significant projects in Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica, and he was chosen for the project.

The villa’s platform is carved out from the crest of a volcanic range high over the town. The main road ascends to an elaborate entry that starts with a curved double staircase that leads to a forecourt and then to another double staircase before arriving at the main entrance. 

A pentagonal exterior façade and cylindrical inner courtyard define the building. The Villa has five floors, with the main rooms on the lower floors opening into a courtyard. Apartments for the Farnese family are situated on the middle floors, overlooking the courtyard. They offer a direct entry to the gardens at the rear. 

The gardens offer a respite from the fort-like villa and are accessed from the apartments by two drawbridges that cross a rear moat. The gardens continue the symmetry of the rear facades in a renaissance style that’s inspired by the classical ideals of order and beauty. A path leads from these gardens along the crest to the “giardino segreto,” or secret garden, and a large garden summerhouse known as the casino.

A formal double exterior stair leads to the bold arched entrance. This is flanked by bastion projections at the ends, originally designed to accommodate weaponry on top for greater defense. Five arched windows define the front façade offering a view over the town from the hall, also known as the Room of Hercules. (marcociannarel/Shutterstock)
The circular courtyard holds a powerful presence, as it’s the focus of each room that opens onto it via an arcade on both levels. The arched openings create a rhythm that flows around the courtyard. The lower level offers a bold foundation for the pairs of Ionic columns on the upper level to then project vertically to the heavens. (Fabio Lotti/Shutterstock)
The diameter of the courtyard is 21 feet, the same as its height, creating harmonious proportions that can be sensed when in the space. The circular opening above, in ancient times called an oculus, frames a view to the heavens. (Claudio Bottoni/Shutterstock)
The cylindrical “Scala Regia,” or Royal Stairs, go to the upper floors and are lined with twin doric columns and frescoes. Painted by Antonio Tempesta, the frescoes display the virtues of Cardinal Allesandro Farnese to guests as they mount the stairs. (ClaudioBottoni/Shutterstock)
The magnificent stone staircase, lined with frescoes in Italic and Flemish styles, offer alluring views into imaginative landscapes. The stairs take guests up to the second-floor courtyard arcade that connects to the Room of Hercules, the chapel, and the Farnese family’s apartments.(Fabio Lotti/Shutterstock)
The staircase climaxes with a majestic dome painted by Antonio Tempesta. The Farnese coat of arms is at the center, surrounded by allegorical decorations. (DinoPh/Shutterstock)
The large dining hall, known as the Room of Hercules, is detailed with frescoes depicting a legend of Hercules inadvertently creating the nearby lake of Vico. At the end of the room is a fountain grotto surrounded with cherubs and by a mosaic townscape. The sound of water once soothingly echoed through the room. (Massimo Santi/Shutterstock)
“Sala dei Fasti Farnesiani” (Room of Farnese Deeds) depicts the feats and noble deeds of the Farnese family, including scenes from the founding of the town of Orbetello and bringing peace to the city of Orvieto by driving out invading forces. The frescoes also show the Farnese family as leaders in the service of the church. (Claudio Bottoni/Shutterstock)
On the vault of the Winter apartment, a fresco depicts the celestial spheres and the animated constellations of the zodiac at the time of the winter solstice. (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/CC0 2.0)
Deep in the gardens, the Fountain of the Lilly lies at the bottom of the “water-staircase,” over which water flows to a stone basin. (Daderot/CC0 1.0)
Water flows over a sequence of basins and dolphins down the side of the Dolphin Stairs from the summerhouse to the formal parterre garden below. This part of the terrace is lined by stone herms with cypress trees. (Claudio Caridi/Shutterstock)
The summerhouse, known as the casino, was often inhabited during the summer months. Two loggia, one on either side of the house were popular dining venues offering delightful garden views. (Ragemax/Shutterstock)
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