Did you know that the first pentagon in history was built in the 16th century? It’s the Farnese palace located in Caprarola, a small city of goat herds located in Tuscia, about one hour’s drive from Rome.
Who were the Farnese?
The Farnese family originated from the north of Lazio – Castrum Farneti. Initially, they were
soldiers working for the local nobility but thanks to a very successful marriage strategy the Farnese managed to move to Rome where they started a slow but very successful climb to the highest ranks of the roman aristocracy.
With time the Farnese became one of the most influential, powerful and rich families in Europe
and all that success was because of a woman – Giulia Farnese or as they used to call her in Rome “Giulia la Bella” (Giulia the Beauty).
When Giulia was only 15 years old she married Orsino Orsini a not particularly handsome youth of the lower aristocracy, however, the marriage was just a cover-up for the romance that Giulia had with the relative of her husband, the Spanish Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia.
The cardinal, about 60 years old, completely lost his head for Giulia who by the way was the same age as the pope’s daughter Lucrezia, in fact as oddly as it may sound the two girls became close friends. When a few years later in 1492 the cardinal Rodrigo was elected pope with the name of Alexander VI, he rewarded Giulia for her “kindness” by making her brother Alessandro Farnese a cardinal.
This was the first big step to the top for the Farnese family. Alessandro Farnese became cardinal when he was only 25 years old, the fact that he was so young gave him the opportunity to make a glorious career within the catholic church. Furthermore, he was intelligent, educated, cultured and patient in short, he had all the qualities necessary to become pope.
In fact, in 1534 at the age of 67, he was elected with the name of Paul III. Considering his advanced age, the pope had no time to lose so immediately after the conclave he distributed the most important positions within the administration of the Papal State to his relatives and appointed his oldest grandchild the 15-year-old Alessandro a cardinal.
This young man would soon become the main character of our story because it was him who with his refined taste and immense fortune made the palace in Caprarola one of the most spectacular palaces in the world: The Pentagon.
During his papacy pope Paul III had to face many difficulties; the spread of the protestant faith in the north of Europe, the continued attacks of the Muslims in the west as well as the war between France and Spain. The war between these superpowers had led to various disastrous events such as for example the Sac of Rome in 1527 therefore it’s not hard to understand why pope Paul III ordered the building of a fortress just north of Rome.
The construction started in 1530 and followed the project of the Florentine architect Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane. The building was given a pentagonal shape to make it unreachable by the enemies. At the 5 corners, big towers were to be erected, from where soldiers would be able to scout if any strangers were approaching.
Nevertheless, after the death of both the architect Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane (1546) and pope Paul III (1549), the construction of the fortress stopped abruptly, only to pick up several years later but with a brand-new destiny.
In 1559 when the work picked up thanks to the Gran Cardinale (Alessandro Farnese the young) and the architect Vignola, the political situation of Italy had changed, because of the Peace of Crépy (1544) the wars between Spain and France had ended and constructing a fortress close to Rome was no longer a priority. At this point, the Farnese didn’t have a pope in the family anymore and therefore it was extremely important to show the world that even after the death of Paul III their wealth and power hadn’t diminished.
Vignola was given a very difficult task, that to convert the cold and crude fortress into a lavish palace where to house parties and guests the most important people of the time. He started by transforming the partly constructed towers placed at the five corners of the pentagon into beautiful terraces from where it was possible to admire the beauty of the landscape of Tuscia.
He also created the highly appreciated round courtyard surrounded by a portico from where you can enter the various chambers.
The palace was divided into two sections: the summer and the winter apartments, this way the Gran Cardinale could enjoy the cool air of the north in the summer and the warm caress of the sun in the winter.
Frescos, marbles, tiles and surprising special effects span over the walls of the two levels of the palace. Many are the rooms that make us sigh with marvel for example the Scala Regia, the main staircase that is connecting the floor of the prelates with the apartments of the Gran Cardinale.
Its architecture is inspired by the spiral staircase of Bramante in the palazzo del Belvedere at the Vatican, but what makes the staircase in Caprarola unique is without a doubt its rich frescos.
Here is where you can clearly comprehend the unconfined admiration of the Farnese family for ancient art. Mythological creatures that once populated the walls of the rooms of Emperor Nero’s Golden Palace revive in the staircase of the Palazzo Farnese thanks to the talent of the mannerist artist of the 16thcentury such as Antonio Tempesta, Federico and Taddeo Zuccari and Bertoja.
The rooms of the noble floor tell us the story of the success of the Farnese family and exalt the character and the magnificence of the host the Gran Cardinale – Alessandro. Undoubtedly the most spectacular room is the Room of the World Globe where you can admire a world map from 500 years ago. The map created between 1573-1575 is quite accurate with only a few errors such as for example the lack of Australia and New Zealand that in fact were not
discovered until the XVII century. Above the doors, there are portraits of the most famous explorers such as Columbus, Magellan, Vespucci and Marco Polo. The ceiling is ornate with a spectacular map of the sky with various zodiac signs and constellations.
This room is said to have inspired Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni, who visited Caprarola in 1578 to create the outstanding geographic map gallery in the Vatican.
Of course, a renaissance palace would not have been complete without a garden, well the Gran Cardinale had three. Two of the gardens were part of the lower level and could have been accessed directly from the palace while the third garden was located far enough to ensure cardinal privacy and intimacy while he was enjoying the pleasures of life - hunting, dining and spending time with his guests. Still today these gardens are a perfect example of the refined Italian style with geometrically cut hedges that create mazes intertwined with fountains and sculptures.
Today the many fountains have been restored and if you’re lucky you might see them joyfully spill out the water as once did the cardinal.
With Roma Experience, you have the unique chance to see the palace at its best with expert guides.