Agostino Chigi was a rich Sienese banker who was the only person other than the Pope who managed to get Raphael to carry out large commissions. The Villa Farnesina was his Roman pleasure villa, just steps from the Vatican in the area now known as Trastevere. Here, he famously held lavish banquets in a loggia (now destroyed, but it sat alongside the Tiber) from which golden plates were tossed in order to impress guests with his wealth. I wonder how many times he pulled this party trick before they realized the plates were being collected downstream with nets. The villa can now be visited and the frescoes by Raphael and his school are splendidly restored.



Raphael's Triumph of Galatea, 1512
Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea, 1512

On the main floor you first enter the Loggia di Galatea, which has some elements by Raphael within a grotesque framework that recalls earlier schemes by Pinturicchio. The master Raphael himself is fully responsible for the highly influential fresco depicting the Triumph of Galatea, a mythological scene of erotic pursuit based on a poem by Poliziano. Galatea is riding a propeller-driven seashell assisted also by putto-guided dolphins in order to escape the unwanted attentions of the cyclops Polyphemos (who, having killed Galatea’s lover Acis, is shown in the adjacent fresco). The other figures, such as sea gods, centaurs, and cupids, add to a general feeling of mythology, sexuality, and action.

Deruta maiolica dish circa 1520 after Raphael
Deruta maiolica dish circa 1520 after Raphael

A particular detail of the dolphin biting an octopus is cited as evidence of Raphael’s, or his patron’s, specific knowledge of an ancient source, and desire to reproduce it. As noted by D. Kinead in an important article of 1970 (JSTOR link), the moral and reproductive characteristics of the octopus are described in a 3d-c AD natural history treatise by Oppian as being in marked contrast to those of the dolphin. The dolphin represents love, while the octopus (who basically has sex till he exhausts himself and dies) is lust; this is a small iconographic reference to the meaning of the whole fresco.

This famous fresco was reproduced in print by Marcantonio Raimondi, which in turn  was the source for numerous versions in maiolica that focused on single elements of the print. For example, a plate from Deruta circa 1520 takes the swimming putto and rotates him so that he is standing on the dolphin. I reproduce it here because it is hard to find – it’s in a private collection in Assisi and reproduced on page 128 of the exhibition catalogue “La Ceramica Umbra al Tempo di Perugino” (Silvana Editoriale 2004). Maiolica pieces like this attest to the stylistic domination of Raphael in this period and to a desire to satisfy a glut in the market for real Raphael products. If you keep an eye open in the maiolica sections of small museums across Italy, you’ll find plenty more examples of works after the Galatea that depict either the female figure or this putto, though the dolphin biting an octopus may have been too obscure for maiolica audiences, because it is not included.

Obscene fruit in the Farnesina

The more famous Loggia di Psiche e Amore is a Raphael invention although much of it was carried out in the harsher style of his follower Giulio Romano. The decorative festoons are by Giovanni da Udine. In these you can individuate exotic fruit and vegetables (you can buy an italian book on this at the entrance desk), and there is a very famous cucumber which is rudely juxtaposed with some circular fruit.Upstairs there are two painted rooms currently visitable. Chigi’s bedroom has a remarkable fresco by il Sodoma representing the Marriage of Roxane and Alexander. A hallway with perspective games is by Baldassare Peruzzi. Various areas are still under restoration or closed for office use.

Terracotta Frieze on villa Farnesina

Located in Trastevere on via della Lungara number 270. Open Mon-Sat 9-13, cost 5 euro. See official website.

Further reading:

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