Villa Farnesina, Rome. Who was Agostino Chigi?

This summer throughout January, I’m catching up with some of my unpublished stories from earlier travels in Europe in 2017. Some posts will be light-hearted, centered around food and accommodation, ‘the best of’ reports, while others are research based essays. It will be rewarding to polish them up and give them a final airing. Of course there will be a few cooking posts along the way too.

                                                          Buona Lettura

I’ve been thinking a lot about Agostino Chigi lately, and wondering why there’s not a great deal written about him. Given that he commissioned one of the most elegant and beautiful buildings of the Renaissance, Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, Rome, and was a generous patron of the arts, I find this quite unusual.

Agostino Chigi, (pronounced kee-gee) was a 15th to 16th century banker who was born in Siena then moved to Rome to assist his father, Mariano Chigi in 1487. He became the wealthiest man in Rome, especially after becoming banker to the Borgia family, in particular Pope Alexander V, followed by Pope Julius 11. If there’s one thing that helps a banker stay at the top, it’s having business dealings in Rome and becoming the Pope’s treasurer. The Florentine Medici, Giovanni di Bicci and Cosimo de’ Medici, also milked their Roman and Papal connections in the preceding years. Chigi’s financial interests expanded to obtaining lucrative control of important minerals, including the salt monopoly of the Papal States and Naples and the alum monopoly in Southern Italy. Alum was the essential mordant in the textile industry. With financial and mining interests, like a modern-day crony capitalist and entrepreneur, Chigi was ready to splurge.

The connection between the arts and banking makes an interesting Renaissance study in itself ¹. Banking families were keen patrons of the arts, not only in a bid to show off their taste and refinement, but also to cast off the slur of usury. Usury, making profit from charging interest on a loan, was a crime in 15th century Europe: a usurer was heading straight to hell, according to the main religious thinking of the day, unless he made a few corrections to that practice, through intricate bills of credit requiring lengthy international currency exchange deals. Banker patrons, worried about their afterlife, could buy a place in heaven by financing religious works -perhaps a marble tomb for a Pope, or some fine brass relief doors for a baptistry, or a few walls of religious themed freschi demonstrating their piety and devotion by appearing as genuflecting bystanders in a painting or two.

Chigi, like other bankers before him, was keen to spend time with the literati and patronised the main artistic figures of the early 16th century, including Perugino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Il Sodoma and Raffaele. These artists, and the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, all had a hand in making Villa Farnesina so attractive and harmonious. But the main feature you’ll notice in the painted works is its secularity: no religious themes appear in the decoration at all. Thus somewhere between the mid 15th century and 1508, when this building was commissioned and begun, the subject of the visual arts had shifted. Here, the freschi depict classical and historic themes: there’s not a Madonna or baby Jesus in sight except for those cheeky putti holding up garlands. I doubt that Agostino Chigi was overly concerned with the sin of usury. Times had changed.

Suggestive coupling of fruits. New world fruits appear in the garlands of Udine.

The ground floor room, the stunning Loggia di Psiche e Amore, was designed by Raffaele, though was mostly executed by one of his followers Giulio Romano, and seems heavier in style. It’s not the best secular work by Raffaele: his most graceful works are held in the quiet gallery of Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin, Germany ( more on this gallery later). The decorative garlands and festoons are by Giovanni da Udine, and although hard to get close to, draped as they are on high ceilings and around tall window sills and pillars, they steal the show.

Sensuous and erotic, the total effect of the Loggia is complete in its aim and purpose. This is a pleasure palace, a space decorated with pagan themes of love and seduction from classical mythology, designed to amuse Chigi’s guests. The modern addition of a walled glass fronting the garden allows more light to shine on the rich colours and detail. It is delightful.

Upstairs in a smallish room, the wall panels by Il Sodoma, ( catchy nick name for the artist, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi , no two guesses why), depict scenes from the marriage of Roxana and Alexander. In such a small space, the painted walls are ceilings are visually overwhelming.

At the end of the 16th century, Villa Farnesina was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ( of course a Cardinal needs an erotically decorated villa) and its name “Farnesina” was given to distinguish it from the Cardinal’s much larger Palazzo Farnese on the other side of the Tevere. Today the Villa is the centre for the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Italian Science Academy and the rooms are open to visitors. Palazzo Farnese, across the river, is occupied by the French Consulate and is not open to the public.

These small decorative motifs on window shutters and in cornices add to the overall aesthetic of the villa.


Some useful accompanying notes.

Giorgio Vasari, (1511-1574) author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, often simply called Vasari’s ‘Lives’, was the first art historian and the first to use the term rinascita ( Renaissancein print, though an awareness of the ongoing “rebirth” in the arts had been in the air since the writings of the Florentine Humanist, Alberti, almost a century earlier. He was responsible for the use of the term Gothic Art, and used the word Goth which he associated with the “barbaric” German style. His work has a consistent bias in favour of Florentines and tends to attribute to them all the developments in Renaissance art. Vasari has influenced many art historians since then, and to this day, many travellers to Italy are blinded by Vasari’s Florentine list and bias, at the expense of other important works in Milano and Rome. Vasari, however, does recognise the works in the Farnesina.

¹ The nexus between banking and art patronage is fully explored by Tim Parks in Medici Money. Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth- Century Florence,one  of my favourite books. I am now re- reading this excellent history: it is written in an accessible style and makes for enjoyable summer reading, for those who like reading about the Renaissance.

² Various papers on the festoons and garlands in the Villa Farnesina in Colours of Prosperity Fruits from the Old and New world, produced by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and purchased at Villa Farnesina in Rome.

Agostino Chigi, 1506. Oil on canvas, anonymous.
 Villa Farnesina is in the quiet part of Trastevere, well away from the tourist hordes in that precinct, and during our visit last November, had only a few visitors. Sadly the garden wasn’t open.
Via della Lungara, 230, 00165 Roma RM, Italy


15 thoughts on “Villa Farnesina, Rome. Who was Agostino Chigi?”

  1. My parents always taught me to begin the New Year as I meant to go on! What a better way than with an essay I shall be delighted to study once work has finished. Or the horrid thunderstorms on the radar are past! * Big smile* Dear Francesca – methinks there is a very good reason why four out of five of your readers may have not been thinking about Agostino Chigi . . . . we may not have ever heard of him! Or am I the only ignorant one . . . well, I did know bankers often espoused the arts . . . a beginning, teacher ?


    1. I know most have never heard of him- I hadn;t either until my visit last November. And I believe this is because too much attention has been put on those Florentine Medici, and I blame Vasari for this- and the Humanist propaganda machine of that city. It’s a subject I’ll return to because I get passionate about weirdo renaissance causes. Thanks, ahead, for reading my longish raves Eha.


      1. Twenty-four hours later I finally got to this delicious lecture: love to have learned something very new and would have relished having you as a lecturer on Renaissance history et al. You make it fun! My many trips to Rome seem to have been somewhat ‘wasted’ on this ‘light’ food and accommodation business as you call it . . .oh dear, methinks have only been to Trastevere to eat 🙂 ! And yet both husband dear and I would have enjoyed . . . . agree with Debi: more please!

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  2. This is spectacular Francesca – one to add to our Rome list! I’m trying to pick the classical scenes depicted – possibly Heracles fighting the lion and Leda and the swan? Not sure about the others. I also love the gaping melons and figs opposite the cucumbers 🙂 Subtle, not!

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  3. Great article. I, too, had never heard of Chigi. I was immediately struck by the loves of Zeus – Europa and the bull, Leda and the swan, Ganymede (twice). Heracles (in one of his labours fighting the Nemean lion) and Aphrodite with her doves. Definitely classical themes. The small decorative motives, however, may owe something to ancient Roman design elements. Will need to add Villa Farnesina to my list of must see. What I liked most is the intriguing lesson in social history. More, please.

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    1. The Heracles depiction is rather distracting at first. And Leda and the swan- my favourite-I seem to travel about collecting these two from galleries. Yes I can see the Roman elements in those panels and I imagined some decoration also from Pompeii. Social history is my favourite subject – we often return to our academic roots and my reading is heading this way lately. There will be more Debi.

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      1. It’s Heracles’s bum, I expect – very distracting – and one wonders what he has to do with the theme of love. I thought Pompeii at first for the decorative motives, but then reminded myself that it hadn’t been excavated until the 1700s. There were plenty of ancient Roman sources of inspiration on the Palatine (Nero’s Golden House, for example which was rediscovered at the end of the 15th century) that might have been more readily available to the Renaissance painters.

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