Close, But Not Too Close to Rome

As hard as it had been to find my way around Ronciglione, I was even more confused when I arrived in Caprarola.  There were, as usual, no signs anywhere – at least that I could see. After circling around a piazza a few times under the watchful eye of a few anziani (old fellows) sitting outside a bar, I finally got out and asked them,  ‘Dov’è il Palazzo Farnese?’  ‘Là.  Là sù.’ (There.  Up there.)  Since they were pointing at the top of a very narrow, very steep street I had taken for a pedestrian zone in my drive rounds the piazza, I then, very reasonably, asked,  ‘Come ci si arriva?” (How do you get there?)  I got the ‘guard dog’ look. (In the Garden of an Aesthete, Oct. 15, 2014)  There was an awkward silence.  Finally one of them said, ‘Con la macchina.’  By car.  By the time I got to the top of the hill and found the rather dodgy-looking parking lot, I was so rattled, I forgot to take a photo of the castle exterior.


Interior courtyard of Palazzo Farnese.

But it had all been worth it.  As I walked up to the entrance, I could see that, unlike other tourists, I had arrived on a day the palace was open.  My spirits at seeing the open door were only slightly dampened when the fellow at the biglietteria informed me visits were by guided tour only.  I wasn’t too concerned.  I was the only tourist.  Maybe I would get lucky again and have a private tour.  But I did wonder why he was so strangely vague about when the tour would start. About ten minutes later the mystery was solved.  The school group he had been waiting for had arrived.


A guide who tailored her script to her audience and a very respectful group of students made for an unexpectedly pleasant guided tour.

It could have been a lot worse.  As I tagged along, I became more and more impressed with the guide, who rather than spouting endless dates and names and events, asked the students lots of questions, leading questions, to try and draw out the information, get their imaginations working and engaged in what they were seeing.  Of course I was able to enjoy all this without having to worry about being quizzed on any of the content later on.


In the landscape of the ‘Rustic Fountain’, the cities of Parma and Piacenza, a not so subtle reference to the vast territory under Farnese control.

By now I had visited enough of these palazzi to know how things went.  If you want to see the garden, first you have to tour the interior.  There are over thirty rooms in Palazzo Farnese. Fortunately, some of them were not open to the public that day. That still left quite a few, so there was lots of time to go into the history of the palace.

I hope the students were able to absorb more than I did.  After a few rooms – actually, maybe after the first room – I gave up trying to follow, let alone absorb what the guide was saying.  The walls and ceilings were covered – literally covered with frescoes.  It was an insane, A.D.D.-inducing mishmash of mythology, biblical and historic events.  And the structure itself was terribly disorienting. An open circle on a pentagonal base, which, in the castle’s first life as a fortress, was perfect for hurling things at your attackers from the interior as well as the exterior walls.


The luxurious villa we were gawking at was the work of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ‘Il Giovane’  (The Young One), who by the time he reached his eighteenth birthday, was well-accustomed to a lifestyle of immense extravagance and social prestige.  Nowadays we’d say he was one of the ‘1%’.  He probably would have continued this lovely life had it not been for one inconvenient development.  In 1549 his grandfather, who before becoming Pope Paul III had been the original Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, died.


It happens.  Grandfathers die.  But when your grandfather was pope and the expectation shared by you and your extended family is that you will continue the family tradition, things can get complicated.  The conclave of cardinals that gathered to elect the new pope was divided into three more or less equal factions, one of which wanted to reconvene the Council of Trent; one wanted to drop it altogether and the Farnese’s just wanted guess who to win.  In the end, after the usual intrigues and machinations that these things involve, a compromise candidate, i.e. somebody nobody wanted, won.  And Pope Julius III did not take kindly to the Farnese family’s expansionistic endeavours, which by this point had reached the gates of Rome.


Sensing that a lower profile might be in his best interests – especially after one of his relatives was arrested and charged with plotting to kill the newly elected Pope – young Alessandro decided to take a break from the Vatican.  He would undoubtedly have preferred to go to Frascati, the hilltop town south of Rome where the Vatican elite typically sought refuge from the searing heat of Roman summers (next week’s post), but unfortunately his grandfather had built the family fortress in the backwater of Caprarola.


Summer. The guide may have explained what is going on in the rainbow – and the torso-less head.  I have no idea.

But it wasn’t long before the Cardinal began to see the advantages of Caprarola.  Close, but not too close to Rome.  Clean, country air.  And an existing structure dominating the surrounding countryside, which, with the best architects of the time and his unlimited funds, could easily be transformed into a luxurious Renaissance villa.


Spring. This time there’s a different head. And it’s to the right of the cherub. Is that meaningful?


One of the rooms was dedicated to the many, and of course illustrious exploits of the Farnese’s. Apparently the male posterior was an object of considerable interest even then.


Did they have chiropractors in those days? I don’t know how any of Cardinal Alessandro’s guests could have spent more than a few hours here without getting a sore neck.

I read somewhere that when San Carlo Borromeo, the Bishop of Milan visited, he chastised Alessandro.   The money spent on decorating the palace could have gone a long way to alleviating the suffering of the poor.  To which the Cardinal replied, ‘I have given the money to the poor, little by little, making them earn it with their sweat.’


The walls were much easier on the neck than the ceilings and you didn’t need to know any history to appreciate the beautiful trompe l’oeil columns in the corners.


The amount of work and money that must go into restoring and maintaining these places!


Apart from Jacob’s Dream, most of the frescoes in the cardinal’s bedroom did not strike me as at all conducive to a good night’s sleep.


In the Sala degli Angeli, there was a surprising range of angels. The one on the right has the usual aura of piety, but that is not at all how I would describe the one of the left.


My favourite room was the Sala del Mappamondo. The ceiling was covered with a gorgeous depiction of the constellations.


Along the far wall was the map of the world as it was known in 1574.


I was so intrigued with the female figures in the corners that, even though I lingered behind the group, to the annoyance of the guard who kept up the rear, I never got a shot of the complete map.


In spite of the clothes, this one has such a modern air about her.

Finally.  The garden.  After the visual onslaught of the interior, I was looking forward to a lush oasis of tranquillity, filled with beautifully harmonious and colourful plants.


Next to the palace was a charming terrace and pergola covered with roses. A good start.


The grotto was…unusual.


Hmmm… My thoughts exactly.

Unlike Cardinal Ippolito, who had made sure all the gardens at Villa d’Este were highly visible, not only from the entrance to the property at the bottom of the hill, but also from his villa at the top, Cardinal Farnese decided to ‘hide’ a large section of his garden.  Guests walking through a grove of chestnut trees would be surprised to discover a giardino segreto.  Today’s visitors may be surprised to feel no surprise or sense of discovery when they come to this part of the garden.  How could they? In the 1950’s the chestnut trees were replaced with larches (rather sparsely planted) and the narrow, forest path was widened.


At the top of the water chain, the casino.  The cardinal’s summer pleasure pavilion.


River Gods lounge next to the Fountain of the Chalice from which water flows – sometimes – into the water chain below.

When we reached the garden I had asked the guide if it was OK if I went ahead.  She was fine with that, but the fellow whose possibly thankless job up until now had been to keep up the rear, was not.  It turned out that in the garden his duties were extended to include running ahead of the group to turn on the water in the fountains.


I am sure this meagre trickle of water is not what the Cardinal had in mind.


Everywhere you looked – the frescoed interior, here in the garden – there were Fleurs-de-lys, symbol of the Farnese family.


The pleasures pursued in the casino were, ostensibly, only those of the mind.

Surrounding the pavilion was one of the strangest sights, horticulturally speaking, that I had ever seen.



Initially these statues reminded me of the statues surrounding the Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa.  (An Emperor’s Country Retreat, Feb. 22, 2015).


But even the most restrained of these statues had nothing in common with Hadrian’s classically elegant caryatids


Is the goat-like attire meant to be a reminder for those who may have forgotten where they were? Capra = goat = Caprarola.


If this was all meant to be a joke, they had what strikes me as a very creepy sense of humour in those days.


And what are we to make of these two in the corner? Pleasures of the mind? I don’t think so.


A wide staircase leads to the upper parterre and bosco (forest) beyond.


Dolphins line the balustrade. No water pours from their open mouths today. Maybe the water gets turned on only when the President of Italy – the casino is one of his official residences – is present.


Per dire poco (to say little) it wasn’t what I had expected.  And although sometimes I have changed my opinion about a garden – always from negative to positive; I’ve never yet visited a garden that I liked while I was in it and over time grown to dislike it – I didn’t think this would be one of those gardens.




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