Palazzo Farnese

Rome, 1517-89

Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Michelangelo




Farnese Patrons

While he was a cardinal, Alessandro Farnese commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to design the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.  After he became Pope Paul III, he expanded the project and passed it on to his son Pier Luigi (died 1547), who passed it on to his sons Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese (died 1565) and Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, under whom it was completed in 1589.


Span of Construction

The construction of the Palazzo Farnese spanned seventy-two years and involved three generations of the Farnese family and four major architects.



Many of the most important architects of the sixteenth century worked on the Palazzo Farnese.


Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1517-46). Although substantial changes were made after his death, the greatest share of credit for the Farnese Palace is due to its original architect, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.  Under his direction between 1517 and 1546, the palace's plan was established and a number of parts were completed.  


Michelangelo (1546-50). Michelangelo also made substantial contributions that greatly affected the final effect of the façade and the courtyard.  


Vignola (1550-73). Vignola built the side wings and much of the rear wing, which deviated from Michelangelo's design.


Giacomo della Porta (1573-89). Giacomo della Porta finished the rear wing in 1589.


Current Use

Today the Palazzo Farnese serves as the French Embassy in Rome.


Architectural Importance

The Palazzo Farnese was the largest and grandest palace in Rome when it was completed.  It replaced the earlier Caprini and dell'Aquila palaces as the most influential model for domestic palaces.


The new design type it established spread throughout Italy and Europe, spawning many variations over the centuries.





Acquisition of Property

The Palazzo Farnese stands on a large site that was acquired over a period of years beginning in 1495, when Cardinal Alessandro Farnese bought an older house.  When completed, the front of the site served as a piazza, and the rear, which faced the Tiber River, was planted as a garden.


Proximity to the Tiber and Villa Farnesina

The property was located on the west side of Rome at a point just across the Tiber from the Villa Farnesina, which was then the Villa Chigi.


The Farnese family rented the Villa Chigi's gardens prior to buying the whole property from the Chigi family in 1577.


Proposed Linkages with the Farnesina

Michelangelo had proposed connecting the Palazzo Farnese and the Villa Chigi physically by a bridge and visually by opening the middle three bays with a loggia on the piano nobile of the rear wing. This would have provided a view of the palace gardens, the river, and the Farnesina from the courtyard side of the front wing.


Pavement Design of Piazza Farnese

An engraving made in 1549 illustrating the finished façade of the Palazzo Farnese also includes a grid pattern in the pavement of the piazza, which possibly reflects Michelangelo's intentions for the project.  Each square of the grid corresponds with a bay of the façade, thus relating the size of the piazza to the size of the palace, and integrating the two.  Such a pattern would have made the palace's scale apparent to viewers, who would be able to relate the size of the paving squares underfoot to the building in the distance.  Although the spacing of the squares is smaller, this more-recent illustration gives some idea of how a grid pattern would have affected a viewer's perception.


Michelangelo's interest in coordinating buildings with their urban settings to alter the viewer's perception was manifest by his contemporary work at the Campidoglio, where he compensated for the trapezoidal piazza by using a curved pattern within an oval.



A pair of fountains punctuate the piazza's open space without blocking a frontal view of the palace's center.


The fountains' granite basins were made in Egypt and brought to Rome by the ancient Romans.  The stone fountains take the form of the fleur-de-lis motif of the Farnese arms.





1514-16:  Renovation of older house.  In 1514 Cardinal Alessandro Farnese commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to completely renovate a house that he had acquired in 1495.


1517:  Appointment of Antonio to begin new palace. Antonio was engaged to expand the renovated older residence into a fine new palace.


1519:  Occupancy of façade wing. The façade wing, which had been refurbished and rebuilt on two stories, was occupied in 1519.  Construction moved slowly on the side wings.


1523:  Courtyard ground story completed. By 1523, the ground story of the courtyard was complete.


1534:  Accession of Alessandro as Pope Paul III. After becoming Pope Paul III, Alessandro directed Antonio to make a radical enlargement of the plan.  Antonio's new plan, which evolved over several years, called for far longer side wings.  As a result, the façade became the short side, and the new dimensions measured 190' wide and 242' deep.  The only parts of the renovated palace that were retained were the vestibule, three vaults of the courtyard loggia, and two rooms on the right front section of the palace.


1541:  New contract. The contract was re-negotiated by Duke Pier Luigi Farnese, who assumed ownership of the palace.  Papal funding then increased, and construction progressed more rapidly.


1546:  Appointment of Michelangelo. Paul III, apparently displeased with Antonio's cornice design, invited several architects and painters to submit new designs, and from these he selected Michelangelo's.  Vasari connected this humiliating event with Antonio's death later that year.  Michelangelo was then put in charge of the whole project, of which many parts had been finished or were well underway.


1549:  Death of Pope Paul III. Pope Paul III died in 1549, and construction ceased.


1550:  Appointment of Vignola.  In 1550, Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese appointed Vignola as chief architect.


1568:  Completion of two stories of rear wing. Vignola completed two stories of the rear wing in 1568.


1574:  Appointment of Jacopo della Porta. Jacopo della Porta, who was appointed in 1574 after Vignola's death the year before, worked on the rear wing.


1589:  Completion. The palace was finished with the completion of the rear wing in 1589.






Antonio da Sangallo designed and supervised the construction of the façade except for the parts that Michelangelo changed or added, namely, the deep cornice, the central window of the piano nobile, and the ornamentation over it.


Although parts of the façade remained from the early phase of the project, most of the present form took shape in the 1540s.  At this time it began replacing the Palazzo Caprini and the Palazzo Branconio dell' Aquila as the model for new palaces.  It was new in using heavy cornices, rusticated quoins, and pedimented windows as the major forms of articulation instead of using the orders.  Although other palaces of its type were completed earlier, the Palazzo Farnese is the finest example.


The Palazzo Farnese was based on a different approach to the treatment of bays and stories than that used by Bramante.


Limited Use of Rustication

Instead of covering the entire lower story, rustication was only used for quoins defining the palace's corners and for a story-high portal accentuating its center.  The portal is similar to Bramante's Porta Julia, the gate to the Belvedere Court of the Vatican, in having precisely cut voussoirs.


Uniformity of Stories

Instead of the different stories having contrasting wall textures, all three stories have the same relatively smooth wall texture of brick, although the color of the ground story is darker and grayer than the tan of the upper stories.  The homogeneity of the stories and the relatively smooth texture of the brickwork, which focuses attention on shapes rather than surfaces, makes the building read as a single block.  The accentuation of the corners adds to this effect.


Slightly Varied Window Trims

Although the window trims of each story are different, they are unified by their similarity in size and use of many common components.  On all stories, moldings connect the window sills into a continuous edge whose front plane juts forward under jamb supports as ressauts.


Ground-story windows. In using consoles to support sills and lintels, the windows of the ground story recall those designed in 1517 by Michelangelo to fill in the ground-story arches of the Medici Palace.  


Piano-nobile windows. The tabernacle frames of the piano-nobile windows are composed of Corinthian-order engaged columns supporting pediments whose shapes, like those of Raphael's Palazzo Branconio dell' Aquila, are alternately triangular and segmental.


Third-story windows. The third-story windows are composed of both tabernacle frames, which were used on the piano-nobile windows, and consoles, which were used below the ground-story windows.  They are distinct from the windows of the other stories in having arched openings and broken pediments, an irrational combination of structurally unrelated forms.


Reduction of Emphasis on the Orders

The orders have been reduced in size and function from typical story-high engaged columns or pilasters that appear to carry the roof or the next story to colonettes that carry decorative pediments over the windows.



Because the features were simple and did not include story-high columns or pilasters, which would have required that proportion be considered, the exterior wall treatment of the Palazzo Farnese could be adapted to palaces of other sizes and shapes.






Pope Paul III, who apparently found Antonio's design for the cornice unsatisfactory, invited Michelangelo, the painters Sebastiano del Piombo and Perino del Vaga, and the painter-architect Giorgio Vasari to submit new designs.


To test the visual effect of his cornice design, Michelangelo temporarily mounted a mock-up wooden section of it on the façade's corner.  His design, which was far taller and had greater outward projection than Antonio's, was chosen.


Central Window

Michelangelo designed a more emphatic entrance by walling in part of the arched central window Antonio had used over the entrance and accentuating its sides with the orders in three forms--as columns, as engaged columns, and as pilasters.


Farnese Arms

Michelangelo placed a large cartouche (oval ornamental form) containing the Farnese arms over the central window.  The smaller cartouches on the sides were later additions.


The principal motif of the arms is the stylized lily known as the fleur-de-lis.  It was incorporated in trims and other ornamental features both inside and outside


Unified Effect

The central focus created by the massing of ornament at the center of the building unifies its great expanses of wall, which might have seemed divided by Antonio's concentration of unadorned voids at the center.





Three-Part Division

The vestibule, which was one of the palace's most admired features, was completed during the first phase of construction (1517-19).  In addition to being larger, it differed from most palace vestibules in being divided into three parts. A barrel-vaulted central passage is separated from alcoves with flat ceilings by lines of columns on each side.



The vestibule's starkness and use of Doric-order columns and a barrel-vaulted ceiling reflect the influence of Bramante.


Despite its purism, Mannerist elements were evident in the proportions of the entablature.  Because Antonio made the architrave narrow and omitted the frieze, the coffered ceiling seems to compress the entablature.



From the vestibule, one can see the garden through the palace because its opening at the rear is aligned with it.





Antonio's Superimposed Arcades

The courtyard reflects the work of both Antonio and Michelangelo.


Antonio had probably planned to use superimposed arcades on all three levels, and at the time of his death, two stories had been finished.


One of the most distinct features of the courtyard is the use of two sets of moldings on the tops of the ground-story piers at the level of the impost.  The second, higher set of moldings probably resulted from Antonio's heightening the courtyard in 1541, when he enlarged it and heightened the portico.


Antonio's Models

Antonio's design is based on the ancient Roman Theater of Marcellus, which was built in 13 BC. Like its Roman model, the courtyard consists of piers that carry arches and are decorated by engaged columns whose orders are graduated.


Antonio's choice of such a severe model reflected the influence of Bramante, whose cloister at Santa Maria della Pace and lower galleries at the Belvedere Court were similarly Spartan in ornamentation.


Michelangelo's Changes

Michelangelo modified the second and third stories.


Second story. On the second story, Michelangelo filled in the arches and added windows that were topped by triangular pediments.  


Third story. On the third story, he designed a solid wall containing windows.  Segmental pediments are carried by brackets that are located above the window surrounds, and thus create the illusion, when seen at eye level, that the pediments are floating.  Clusters of Corinthian pilasters between the windows continue the sequence of graduated orders established by the Doric and Ionic engaged columns on the first and second stories.


Mannerist Aspects

Michelangelo's additions create an interplay between blind and open arches on the middle and lower stories and between simple and complex window frames on the middle and upper stories.


The use of two solid stories gives the court a somewhat closed-in effect despite its generous size.  If the piano nobile had been built as Michelangelo designed using a three-bay loggia that cut all the way through to the garden side, the constricted effect would have been partially offset by the increased brightness and view of the gardens.





Involvement of Four Architects

The rear wing involved the work of all four of the palace's architects.


Antonio's ground-story loggia. Antonio built a three-bay loggia facing the garden at the center of the rear wing on the ground story.  


Michelangelo's piano nobile loggia. Michelangelo designed a loggia in the three central bays of the piano nobile. Because the loggia extended from the courtyard to the garden facing, it would have been possible to see the gardens from the courtyard windows of the front wing.


Vignola's building first two stories. Vignola built the first two stories of the rear wing, which included the three-bay loggia that Michelangelo designed for the center of the piano nobile.  


Jacopo della Porta's completion. Jacopo della Porta closed Michelangelo's loggia in accordance with the wishes of the current patron, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.  Jacopo built the central three bays of the top story as a loggia facing the garden, but it was not opened all the way through to the court.  The rear wing was completed in 1589. 


Piano Nobile Windows of Central Bays

In having consoles instead of colonettes to support the pediments over the windows, the three central windows of the piano nobile are different from the outer ones, which match those of the palace's front and sides.  They are similar to them in having alternately triangular and segmental pediments and having pedestal bases supporting the sills.


The family crest over the central window echoes the larger crest that Michelangelo placed over the main entrance of the façade.


Unifying Elements

On all three stories, the central three bays are separated from the rest of the rear wing by narrow bays containing niches.  This creates vertical continuity through the five-bay center.  Further vertical continuity of this section is suggested by the use of story-high orders on all stories.


Horizontal continuity between the central bays and side areas is suggested by the use of string courses, darker brick on the ground story, and matching windows on each story.


The central story of the central section has qualities that relate it to both the horizontal outer sections and the vertical central section, much as a plaid combines elements of the vertical woof yarn and the horizontal weft yarn.  The arches, although they are blind, give this section continuity with the arches of the upper and lower stories of the central bays, and the use of infill in the arches gives it continuity with the solid walling of the outer sections.





Restraint in Ornamentation on Exterior

The quiet elegance and restraint of Antonio's façade can best be appreciated by comparing it with earlier palaces that are or were richly adorned with sculpture and architectural trim such as the Palazzo Branconio dell' Aquila in Rome and the Palazzo Leone Leoni in Milan.


Opulent Interior Decoration

The interior of the Palazzo Farnese was richly ornamented by painted and stuccoed decoration, which was carried out by the leading artists of the late-Renaissance and early-Baroque periods.  Ceilings were painted with illusionistic frescoes or coffered in geometric patterns.  As elsewhere, the Farnese-family crest and its fleur-de-lis motif was much in evidence.


One of the palace's most celebrated rooms is a gallery on the piano nobile of the rear wing, which della Porta closed.  It contains Annibale Carracci's ceiling paintings illustrating the Loves of the Gods, which were executed at the end of the century and are much admired as harbingers of the Baroque style of the next century.



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Palazzo Farnese, Rome, 1517-89



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