Updated: May 9, 2021
The Palazzo Farnese is the seat of the French embassy in Italy, but it is so much more than that.
The paradigm of High Renaissance art and architecture!
When planning a trip somewhere, I can’t imagine that ‘embassy’ would figure as a top destination on one’s itinerary. But do read on, and you might just add this special site to your list of things to see when in Rome!
There are many incredibly magnificent palaces in Rome. Some of them, like Palazzo Colonna you can visit privately. Some that are close to the public. The Farnese Palace (Palazzo Farnese) is the seat of the French embassy in Italy, but it is so much more than just that. It is an enriching cultural center. Each year, more than 50,000 visitors visit the palace. The embassy hosts a number of events including seminars and debates, and music, theater and cinema festivals. The palace is a majestic paradigm of High Renaissance architecture. Located in the eponymous piazza, on the east side of the River Tiber (where such landmarks as Piazza Navona and the Pantheon can also be found), the palace is a sixteenth century marvel, boasting an impressive collection of books as part of the École Française de Rome and an array of dazzling artwork lining its walls and adorning its ceilings.
No monumental palazzo would be properly Roman without intriguing history, and this one boasts a fascinating background involving the union between the papacy and a royal family, and a myriad of notable residents that passed through its rooms, including a rather unconventional Swedish queen and a monarch seeking refuge during one of Italy’s most crucial moments in history!
A little history
Construction of the Palazzo Farnese began in 1513 at the behest of cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who was elected pope in October of 1534 under the name Paul III. It took seventy-six years to complete the palace, and four famous architects were involved, including Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and the inimitable Michelangelo. At the death of Paul III, the palace came under the auspices of his descendants, all three of whom were cardinals: his nephew Ranuccio, also known as the Cardinal of Sant’Angelo, Alessandro Farnese il Giovane, and his great great grandnephew Odoardo. The three would see to the completion of both the construction and decoration of the palace. With Elisabetta Farnese, his last direct descendent and wife of Philip V of Spain, the palace would come to fall under the ownership of the Bourbon dynasty in Naples.
Shortly after the unification of Italy and the proclamation of Rome as its capital, the Ambassador of France, the Marquis of Noailles, would gain permission from Francesco II, last king of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, to host the embassy within the palace. In 1875, the palace would also become home to the aforementioned research institute and library, the École Française de Rome, located on the second floor of the palazzo. After France acquired the palace in 1911, Italy would buy it back in 1936. That same year, the two countries would sign a reciprocal agreement involving both the Italian embassy in Paris and the French embassy in Rome that would last 99 years with the palace becoming a place for cooperation and exchange between the two neighboring European countries.
The façade exemplifies the harmony, balance, and proportion that characterizes the High Renaissance period. Twenty-nine meters in height and fifty-seven in length, it is made of bricks and travertine, a form of limestone especially popular in Roman architecture. Its creation was entrusted to Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, the first architect. Michelangelo, who would continue Sangallo’s work in 1546, had already designed the large cornice, or ornamental molding, in the shape of a lily flower—symbol of the French royalty—which graces the façade and serves to cover the roof. Michelangelo would go on to introduce other modifications, including a central opening framed by four columns on the first floor. He would also incorporate the pope’s coat of arms, with the symbol of the keys and a crown on top. The façade was restored in the year 2000, on the occasion of the Jubilee, in line with its original appearance in the sixteenth century.
The vestibule, designed by Antonio da Sangallo, was inspired by antiquity. It is fourteen meters long and adopts the basilica plan with a large central nave and columns in ancient granite from the Baths of Caracalla.
Halfway up the length of the staircase leading to the upper floor is an atrium, which was originally open-air, but which was closed at the end of the nineteenth century. The atrium hosts three sarcophagi, decorated with ornate mythological scenes. One sarcophagus depicts the story of Diana and Endymion, in which Diana alights from her chariot to take him with her to the heavens. Another sarcophagus depicts the nine muses. Stuccos from 1580 show two dragons, symbol of Pope Gregory XIII, protecting a lily flower.
The first floor
The first floor of the Palazzo Farnese is where you will find the many rooms and corridors that are the palace’s claims to fame.
The Salone d’Ercole, or Hercules Room, derives its name from the giant statue of the deity displayed within the room. The room itself is monumentally large, measuring eighteen meters in height. The walls, which were supposed to be decorated with frescoes from the Carracci brothers, are bare. Only a series of imperial busts framed by medallions line the walls.
Three tapestries from the seventeenth century made by the historic Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris, famous for producing tapestries for French monarchs, illustrate scenes from the frescoes of the Raphael room in the Vatican: The Fire in the Borgo, the Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, and the Mass at Bolsena.
Two statues representing allegorical virtues, sculpted by Guglielmo della Porta, belonged to the funeral monument for Paul III at St Peter’s Basilica. They frame the polychrome marble fireplace made by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola in the seventeenth century.
Sala dei Fasti Farnesiani—“Hall of the Farnesian Wonders”
The office of the ambassador today, this salon once was a reception room for the Farnese family. Its ceiling is the oldest in the palace. The frescoes, commissioned by Cardinal Ranuccio to the Florentine artist Salviati, were painted between 1552 and 1558. Upon his death, Taddeo and Federico Zuccari completed the work. These large central paintings, framed by allegorical figures, depict the Farnese family glories. Salviati makes use of trompe-oeil effects, mimicking architecture and three-dimensional sculptures that are in reality only painted onto the walls. (This effect, evident in other parts of the Palazzo Farnese, I can say with confidence was one of the most striking in the entire palace!) Among the figures depicted in these epic scenes are Ranuccio il Vecchio leading his troops and claiming his ancestral land and other highlights involving the Farnese family.
Sala dei possedimenti—The Farnese family “possessions room”
In 1860, Francis II of the Two Sicilies and Maria Sophie of Bavaria, descendants of the Farnese family, sought refuge in the palace after they were forced to leave Naples. The room, likely painted by Antonio Cipolla as accommodations were being prepared for the king, is uniquely decorated with romantic flourishes and framed by medallions illustrating the villas, castles, and landscapes belonging to the Farnese family, including Caprarola, Piacenza, and the duchy of Parma.
The white room is also known as Christina, Queen of Sweden’s room. The monarch is remembered for being remarkably sharp, an avid learner whose many interests attracted scientists to the Swedish capital, but also for her scandalous decision not to marry! She stayed at the Palazzo Farnese from December 1655 to July 1656 after her abdication from the throne. Once in Rome, she invited much festivity, became friends with none other than famed sculptor and architect Bernini, and hosted poets and intellectuals within the palace. This particular room was also office to Camille Barrère, one of the most important ambassadors of the nineteenth century.
Galleria dei Carracci
Famous for its frescoes, the gallery derives its name from brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci, originally from Bologna. They completed work on the hall between the years 1597 and 1608.
The work was commissioned on the occasion of Ranuccio Farnese’s marriage to Margherita Aldobrandini, niece of Pope Clement VIII. The central fresco celebrates their union in mythological symbolism.
The trompe-oeil effect is also put to dazzling use here in the gallery, combining elements of sculpture, painting and architecture. The atlases seem to be made from marble, and the medallions mimic the effects of bronze. The brothers were inspired by Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo and works like the Sistine Chapel in their use of elements like the ignudi. The gallery is considered a masterpiece by experts.
The second floor
The École Française de Rome, a public research institute, is located on the second floor. With its 230,000 volumes, it is the largest French library located outside of France. Each year, the library welcomes around 24,000 visitors.
Looking out from the second-floor window, you can spot the corkscrew lantern of S. Ivo alla Sapienza, built by Francesco Borromini.
From the carved wood window shutters to the doorknobs bearing the French fleur de lis, the details that adorn the palace are an art and architecture lover’s dream. Pay attention to these, as well as the breathtaking coffered ceilings of the different halls. My personal favorite was that of the Salone Rosso!
How to get there
Arriving to the Palazzo Farnese is fairly straightforward. From Termini, Rome’s centrally located train, metro and bus station, you can take bus number 64 to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele stop. From there, it is about a five-minute walk to the palazzo.
The Palazzo Farnese is definitely worth seeing, especially for those with an interest in art. Rome has an inexhaustible wealth of sights to tempt art lovers, so if you find yourself with time to spare after a walk through the halls of the Palazzo Farnese, why not explore another must-see, the Borghese Gallery? Click the link to learn how you can book a private tour with an art expert and see masterpieces from Caravaggio, Bernini, and more!