Friday, January 21, 2011

(2) - Palazzo Farnese

Today's photos:

1. The façade of the sixteenth-century Palazzo Farnese.

2. One of the two seventeenth-century fountains in the piazza in front of the palace.

3. Michelangelo's arch which spans Via Giulia at the rear of Palazzo Farnese.

4. This portrait of Paul III Farnese is unusual in that it shows the pontiff with head uncovered. (internet photo)

5. Il Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, the Rome Opera House.

6. Portrait of Italian composer and patriot Giuseppe Verdi. This is a copy of the famous portrait of Verdi by Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931). There are many copies of the original in existence, but this one is special to me because it was painted in the 1960's especially for me by an amateur artist named Amelia Navarro who also happened to be my aunt. She loved opera, especially the works of Verdi and Puccini, so this portrait of Verdi was for her a real work of love.


Just a few steps from Campo de' Fiori in the center of Rome, you find yourself in front of Palazzo Farnese, generally considered the most beautiful of the many 16th century palaces in Rome. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was considered one of the four meraviglie di Roma (wonders of Rome) along with the Colosseum, Castel Sant'Angelo and the Pantheon. The Romans have cleverly given it the nickname il dado (the die) because of its cube-like shape. The palazzo will be familiar to opera fans because Puccini uses it as the setting for Act II of his opera Tosca.

The palace takes its name from its builder, the noble Farnese family. Its origins can be traced back five centuries to 1495 when Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III: 1534-1549) purchased a building at this site as his residence. The year 1514, however, is considered to be the real beginning of the palace as we know it today because that is when extensive renovations and enlarging of the original structure began. It was not completely finished until the rear façade was completed in 1589, seventy-five years from its starting date of 1514, and forty years after the death of the Farnese pope.

A curiosity

The construction of the building progressed so slowly that the talk around town among the Romans was that the wealthy cardinal might have run out of money. One day some clever Roman attached a small box to the unfinished building with the following sarcastic notice: Elemosina per la fabbrica (alms for construction).

The chief architect of the building beginning in 1514 was Antonio da Sangallo the Younger who remained on the job until his death in 1546, long before the building was completed. A competition was advertised to choose Sangallo's successor to complete the construction. To nobody's surprise the competition was won by none other than Michelangelo. To him we owe the upper half of the palazzo, especially the beautiful cornice across the top of the façade, but also the large central window and balcony with the coat of arms of Paul III. After Michelangelo's death in 1564, the work was completed by Giacomo della Porta in 1589.

A curiosity

During his tenure as architect, Michelangelo intended to build a walkway leading from the rear of Palazzo Farnese, crossing Via Giulia and the Tiber River to connect with another building, Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, also owned by the Farnese family. What a wonder that would have been! Unfortunately, the only part of Michelangelo's design that was actually built was the first arch over Via Giulia, and this in 1603, long after the artist's death in 1564. That single arch still spans Via Giulia today and it is a landmark in the City, especially interesting in the summer when it is covered with hanging vines. When the vines are not there you can clearly see on either side of the arch a fleur-de-lis, the dominant symbol on the Farnese family coat of arms. In fact, today the arch is usually referred to by the Romans as l'arco dei Farnese (the Farnese arch). But I like to think of it as Michelangelo's arch!

After the death of Paul III in 1549 the building was occupied by other members of the Farnese family, such as the pope's grandson, Ranuccio Farnese and Ranuccio's brother, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. The coats of arms of these two Farnese family members can be seen on the façade of the building, one on either side of the coat of arms of Paul III. It was another Farnese cardinal, Odoardo, who began construction of Michelangelo's walkway in 1603. But perhaps the most famous resident of the palace was Queen Christina of Sweden. She lived here for a few months when she arrived in Rome in 1655 following her abdication and conversion to Catholicism. (For more about Christina see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 6, Christina of Sweden).

At the rear of the building, on the balustrade of the loggia, is a Latin inscription telling us that Cardinal Alessandro Farnese finished the construction which had been begun by Paul III.






Alessandro Cardinal Farnese, vice Chancellor, Bishop of Ostia, completed the building in 1589 which had been begun by Paul III Supreme Pontiff before his pontificate.

Paul III decorated his magnificent palazzo with many valuable works of art, and the collection was continued and enhanced by his family members who followed him as residents of the building. After the heyday of the Farnese family, most of the works of art were carried off, some ending up in museums, particularly in Naples, and others in private collections. Now, for the first time since their removal, many of these works, about 150 of them, have been gathered together in their original home in an exhibit which is open to the public from December 17, 2010 until April 27, 2011. It is an excellent opportunity to visit Palazzo Farnese which is not regularly open to the public. Unfortunately no picture taking is allowed in the interior of the building.

A curiosity

But why is Palazzo Farnese not usually open to the public? Since 1874 it has served as the seat of the French Embassy to Italy, so admission to the interior is a rare occurrence. At first the French were renting the building. Then in 1911 Italy sold it to the French government, retaining, however, the right to reclaim it, which it did in 1936. At that time it was again handed over for use by the French with a ninety-nine year lease in exchange for a palace in Paris to be used as the Italian Embassy to France. The French and European Union flags fly on the façade of the palace today.

I visited the exhibit on January 4 and found it very impressive. I'll just mention the two things which I enjoyed the most. The first was the opportunity to visit the office of the French Ambassador, which looks out over the piazza from Michelangelo's balcony and window on the façade. This is also the room where the second act of a historic performance of Tosca was performed "in the places and at the times of Tosca" in 1992. During the period of the exhibit there is a large TV screen in the room which is showing excerpts from that performance. Another item I enjoyed was a large painting of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, painted in 1549 by Marcello Venusti. This was just eight years after Michelangelo finished the work in 1541, so this is the closest thing we have to a "snapshot" of the fresco, as well as the opportunity to see it up close. The connection of this famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel to the Farnese family is, of course, that it was Paul III Farnese who commissioned Michelangelo to fresco the altar wall of the chapel. (Read about the Sistine Chapel in Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 25, The Sistine Chapel).

In the piazza, also named Farnese, there are two graceful fountains, the work of Girolamo Rainaldi who set them up in 1626. Each fountain consists of a large granite tub which was recycled from the Baths of Caracalla. Rising up from the tub is a smaller basin, in the center of which is depicted a fleur-de-lis (to recall the coat of arms of the Farnese family) from the top of which a jet of water shoots up. All of this rests on a large travertine base which raises it up above street level. The two fountains are identical.

A curiosity

It is very difficult to get a picture of Palazzo Farnese and especially the fountains, without motor vehicles in the way. Never mind that the piazza is a pedestrian precinct and no motorized vehicles are allowed, except for the one carabiniere vehicle near the entrance. Obviously this doesn't mean much because the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero did a study and found that in 2010, the piazza with the highest number of tickets for violating the pedestrian precinct, either by driving through it or parking in it, was Piazza Farnese with 2,368 fines, followed by Piazza di Spagna with 1,438 and Piazza Navona with 1,268. Plans have now been made to place small poles at the automobile entrances both in Piazza Farnese and in Piazza Navona to prevent undisciplined drivers from entering.

Opera in Rome

Rome has a first-rate opera house, Il Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, and I usually try to attend at least one or two operas every year. This last year, busy with several projects, including the writing of two books, I neglected my operatic outings. So to make up for that failing, I have purchased tickets for three operas in 2011. The first one on February 12 is L'Elisir d'amore by Gaetano Donizetti. It's an opera I have never seen, so I am looking forward to it. My second performance, on March 24, will be Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi (with famed director Riccardo Muti at the podium), another opera I will be seeing for the first time. My final operatic experience of the season will be on June 18 when I'll see one of my all-time favorites, La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini. So I'm looking forward to a banner operatic year in 2011!

Celebrating Italian Unification: 1861-2011

It's possible to link this topic with the previous one because one of the operas I will see this year, Nabucco by Verdi, is known as the Italian patriotic opera per eccellenza. It is doubtful that Verdi intended this to be a patriotic opera when he wrote it, but it caught the fancy of the Italian public at its debut in 1842. At that time in its history, Italy was under Austrian domination, while the opera tells of the Babylonian domination of the Jews. The Italians of that time just seemed to equate their own oppressed plight to that of the Jews.

This patriotic interpretation of the opera is centered on the very famous and very beautiful chorus Va Pensiero which is sung by the Jewish prisoners in Babylonia. In our own time this chorus has been adopted by the political party of Umberto Bossi, La Lega Nord (The Northern League) as the Anthem of Padania, a vast area in the northern part of Italy where Bossi's Party is very strong. There has even been some attempt to make Va Pensiero the National Anthem of Italy. Even though I love that operatic chorus, you can take it from me that it will never take the place of the Italian National Anthem, Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy). The words are a poem written by Goffredo Mameli, a young poet who was killed when he fought as a volunteer soldier with Giuseppe Garibaldi in the battles for the unification of Italy in 1849. Verdi was certainly a staunch Italian patriot, but Mameli's credentials as a patriot are unsurpassed.


Post a Comment