Masters of the Universe: Farnese Villa at Caprarola

In the afternoon after our adventures in Viterbo, we took a bus up a winding, steep, steep road to Caprarola. What’s in Caprarola? Well, this:

just a modest country house

This is the Farnese Villa at Caprarola. It was built by the architect Vignola for the Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who later became Pope Paul III in the middle of the sixteenth century. And obviously, it’s subtle. The villa is at the top of a really steep hill, with a road leading on axis straight up the middle to the palace:

you can barely see the palace at the veryvery end of the street

Climbing up that steep hill was a challenge, but once you got up there you could definitely understand why ole wily Alessandro sited his palace there. The view from the balcony (where the flags are in the top photo) makes you feel like the master of the universe:

che palle!

You practically feel like you can see the curvature of the earth, the view is so all-encompassing. But it isn’t just the site of the Villa Farnese that astonishes. The building itself amazes: it’s pentagonal, with a circular courtyard:

holy crap! a perfectly circular courtyard!

And of course Vignola was extra-fancy when he built the staircase:

spiral staircase be spiralling

And while I was a little less enamored with the late 16th century frescoes that BLANKETED the interior than my travelling companions, I was incredibly excited to see the gardens. It is of course fall, so they were not as colorful as they might be at other times of the year, but the sheer size and tongue-in-cheek grandeur of them, were astonishing. There were fountains on top of fountains, and sculptures on top of sculptures and a little casino at the top of all:

no big deal, just the backyard

And it was so emphatically Farnese. The giglio, lily or fleur-de-lys, that is the Farnese symbol was EVERYWHERE. You couldn’t get away from it. It was in the floors and the pavements, in the architectural detailing, in the frescoes, everywhere:

it’s in the pavements here
and here all gigantic on the wall

And it made me wonder: if you’re so obviously in control of all that you survey, Alessandro Farnese was pope for crying out loud, what is the motivation to put your name all over it? The repetition of the gigli was so over-the-top that it almost seemed insecure rather than insanely arrogant; papal power was fleeting for sure, but as one of my friends pointed out, the Villa would remain in Farnese hands even after they lost the papacy. It seemed sort-of like Donald Trump’s tendency to put his name on everything, but taken to an even more excessive extreme. Almost as if by putting the Farnese symbol all over the place it made this dream-land more concrete, as if the wonder of it was too ephemeral without something so definitive as an earth-bound label:


Go to the villas. If you ever come to Rome, take a day and go to a villa: Caprarola, Bomarzo, d’Este at Tivoli, Lante at Bagnaia, or at the very least the Villa Borghese or Pamphilj within the city (though these are much more like city parks now). The Forum and Colosseum and Vatican are ok, (if over-crowded and expensive), but if you want to see something truly, truly astonishing, go to the villas.



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