Italian Architecture during the XVIth Century. The palaces and villas of Rome
The Apostolic Palace was one of the largest architectural works of the 16th century in Rome; but, furthermore, this century was the period of the great Roman palaces. In a previous essay we saw how at the end of the 15th century Cardinal Raffaele Riario had ordered a large construction for his residence, now the gigantic building of the Chancellery. Just imagine what the cardinals of the 16th century were able to do with greater resources and with the example of Popes like Julius II and Leo X! We have also seen how the man that would later become Pope Paul III, ordered the construction of the famous Palazzo Farnese in 1530, the work of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who worked on it until his death in 1546. In front of this palace’s façade was projected a rectangular square with two fountains, for which two large old porphyry bathtubs from the Baths of Caracalla were repurposed. The interior of the Farnese Palace has a sumptuous distribution: the monumental internal square courtyard, the galleries running around it on the three floors, and a corridor with rooms around the façades. The rooms are covered with huge coffered ceilings or with high barrel vaults decorated with paintings, while colossal fireplaces fill the end walls of each room.
Another characteristic Roman palace of the time is that of the Massimo family built by other of Michelangelo’s disciples: Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536), who built it during the last years of his life, certainly after the sack of Rome in 1527 to replace the old houses of the Massimo family destroyed by the soldiers of the Constable of Bourbon (Charles III, Duke of Bourbon). The Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne has an austere façade with rigidly simplified moldings, and two floors with tall, rectangular windows, which give the whole building a character of ideal severity. On the ground floor there is an open portico with stone benches that occupy the center of the façade, a semi-public place that the lord, owner of the building, granted to the common people. Two classical statues, housed in two niches at the ends of this portico, seem to remind those who come there of the dignity of the house and its lords. Inside, the irregular shape of the inner patio is admirably concealed by two courtyards: one square, with porticoes, and the other trapezoidal in the back, visible through the columns of the square courtyard. The ingenious layouts to arrange different parts of a construction in order to get a grandiose effect out of the available space were the constant concern of 16th century Roman architects.
The Roman architecture of the 16th century produced even more interesting works in the leisure villas of the pontiffs or the powerful cardinals, who took pleasure in spending time in their country houses filled with the most precious works of art of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. Sometimes the great Roman families, who for two or three generations had enjoyed the rents of the Curia, not satisfied with owning their villas on the outskirts of the city, built other smaller residences in the interior of Rome, where life was less ceremonious. Thus for example, the Farnese family, in addition to the great monumental palace we have talked about, had a smaller palace called the Little Farneselocated just a few hundred meters from their monumental Palazzo Farnese. This smaller property, intended for an individual of the family, was later annexed to the neighboring property of the Chigi family, of Siena, their famous villa in Trastevere decorated by Raphael and Il Sodoma: both properties later took the name of Villa Farnesina. This marvelous residence, the work of the highly refined Baldassare Peruzzi, has an exterior of great simplicity of lines in which the sun draws strong horizontal shadows and the light falls on the recessed pilasters that separate the windows. The interior, on the other hand, abounds in fantastic rooms such as the “Hall of Perspectives” (Sala delle Prospettive), in which the painted decoration suggests spaces open to the outdoors and large loggias with columns that do not exist. Everything is fantasy produced by amazing optical illusions. Peruzzi built this palace for Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker who wanted to build a love nest for his concubine, the “divinaImperia”. This setting for festivities that once astonished Rome is today an empty house, a “work of art” visited by most tourists.
The powerful Medici had their palace built on Via Giulia, a building begun in the time of Cosimo, the founder of the dynasty, but in addition, his successors built a villa on the Pincian Hill, where the Academy of France is currently installed: the Villa Medici. On the outside it has a simple façade admirably intoning with the dark green of the pines and cypresses of the neighboring Roman gardens. Also in front there’s a terrace so that the populace could enjoy the splendid views, a fountain drops water into an antique vase, under cleverly trimmed oaks. In the rear part, the villa’s façade is more cheerful, more rustic, and the garden includes boxwood hedges from Florence, which reminded the Medici of their villas in Tuscany.
One of the most luscious of all Roman villas, on the slopes of Mount Mario dominating all of Rome and much of the Lazio, was built by Raphael around 1516 and remained unfinished. Today it is named Villa Madama, after a real person who later owned it. The front part of the building is badly damaged today. It is not possible to guess anything about its arrangement and shape, but on the eastern façade, which overlooked a garden terrace, there is evidence of the elegance of the Roman decorations done by the school of Raphael; the loggia or portico is covered with painted stucco of incomparable delicacy and finesse. They are the so-called “grotesques” that Raphael learned by studying in detail the wall decorations of Nero’s “Domus Aurea“, whose remains had just been discovered at the time. The same floor plan of the Villa Madama, with its circular patio and its clusters of rooms with apses, is an attempt to resemble the grandeur of the ancient Roman baths.
Another characteristic villa from the 16th century is that of Pope Julius III, which stood on the Via Flaminia, today housing the Etruscan Museum and which still bears the name of his owner, Villa Giulia, designed around 1550 by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, the disciple of Michelangelo who built the Church of the Gesù. At the back, the main body of the building ends in a semicircular courtyard with an open portico on the ground floor; in consequence, this semicircular shape has to harmonize with the adjacent bay, which is straight; the rest of the irregular spaces were used for stairs. But beyond this core, there is a series of low buildings enclosing a long garden that protect with their shadow some low walls without windows: it is a hortus conclusus or closed garden, forbidden from prying eyes, where only the intimate inhabitants of the palace were allowed. Finally, there is a construction partially built below ground level, probably to escape the heat, with a “nymphaeum*” or underground bath in a grotto supported by half-naked caryatids: fresh water from a spring falls into the shallow pool, dripping with ferns and mosses.
The abundance of readily available ancient architectural fragments, column shafts and even stone benches, which were easy to find among the ancient Roman ruins, prompted Renaissance architects to include these decorative elements in the gardens of large palaces and villas: pavilions, loggias and walls with balustrades. Furthermore, Rome was, and still is, a city rich in water; its ancient aqueducts still continue to pour water into the city. Thus it is understood that the architects of these villas for popes and cardinals took advantage of this abundance to beautify these large palaces with ponds, baths and waterfalls.
The most notable of these luscious gardens are those of the villa built by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este in 1548 in Tivoli, near Rome, the Villa d’Este, where water runs everywhere propelled by thousands of fountains and waterfalls, or in fountains arranged in the center of the squares formed by tall cypress trees, or in cisterns in which rustic architectural elements and small fantastic constructions were artfully arranged and that later came to define the typical lavish Italian garden.
Fleur-de-lis: (From the French meaning flower “fleur” and lily “lis”). A stylized Lily used as a decorative design or symbol. The fleur-de-lis has been used in the heraldry of numerous European nations, but is particularly associated with France, notably during its monarchical period.
Nymphaeum: In ancient Greece and Rome, a Nymphaeum was a monument dedicated to the nymphs, especially those of springs. These monuments were originally natural grottoes, which tradition assigned as habitations to the local nymphs. During the Renaissance, a nymphaeum was a place dedicated for al fresco summer dining featuring artificial grottoes with waterflows and sculptures, accompanied by vegetation.
Odeon: (From Ancient Greek, meaning “singing place”). The term refers to several ancient Greek and Roman buildings built for musical activities, such as singing, musical shows and poetry competitions. Odeons were smaller than Greek and Roman theatres.
Parterre: A formal garden constructed on a level substrate, consisting of plant beds, typically in symmetrical patterns, which are separated and connected by paths.
Piano nobile: (From Italian meaning “noble floor” or “noble level”). The principal floor of a palazzo. The piano nobile contains the main reception and bedrooms of the house.