It began as a palace for the Farnese family in the 16th c., with construction undertaken first in 1513, an initiative that was thwarted by the Sack of Rome in 1527, and then relaunched when Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III in 1534. The Palazzo was completed in 1589.
Over time, many 16th century architects had a hand in its construction and renovations, including Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (one of Bramante’s assistants at St. Peter’s) Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, Giacomo della Porta, and even Michelangelo, after Sangallo’s death.
The Farneses were landowners in the Viterbo area who ranked as minor nobility. The lineage died out when Elizabeth Farnese married the Bourbon King of Naples and became Queen of Spain. Palazzo Farnese thus became the property of the Bourbons. Garibaldi changed all this when he took Italy back from the French in 1860, ending the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and kicking out the Bourbon kings. The Bourbon family returned to the Palazzo Farnese between 1860 and 1870, until Italian unification, when they moved from Italy to France.
In 1874 the French Government bought the palazzo from the Italian Government but were told by Mussolini in 1936 that they could not own it, only ‘rent’ it. The French now have a 99 year lease, ending in 2035… for a total rent of one Euro per month!
Many of the original works of art, including 150 sculptures, paintings and ceramics that spanned five centuries of the Palazzo and the Farnese family are located in museums around Europe. However, some of the Farnese art collection, including large statues of Hercules and Flora, are located in the National Archaeological Museum and the Capodimonte Museum, both in Naples.
The spectacular ceiling in the grand salon was frescoed by Annibale Carracci on commission as a wedding gift. Entitled ‘The Loves of the Gods’, it links Classicism to Roman High Baroque in a tromp l’oeil, reminiscent of both Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s style. The other even more spectacular ceiling is in a room not often open to the public as it is in the French Ambassador’s office!
Suzanne McMillen, AWAR, helped contribute to this article.