Farnese Family




Rise to Prominence in 15th Century

By the 15th century, the Farnese family, who owned land in Lazio (region northwest of Rome), had achieved local prominence in Rome as papal condottieri and civic officials.  Early in the century, Ranuccio Farnese (d. c.1450) was appointed a senator by Pope Martin V and was made a standard bearer by Pope Eugene IV. Papal land grants enlarged Farnese territory.


Ranuccio's son Pier Luigi married an aristocrat, and their son Alessandro had a highly successful career in the Church that catapulted the Farnese family to a new level of wealth and prominence.


Alessandro's Advancement in the Church

In 1493, Alessandro became a cardinal by the appointment of Pope Alexander VI, whose mistresses included Alessandro's sister Giulia Farnese.  Because of his sister's presumed influence in his elevation, Cardinal Farnese was nicknamed the "petticoat cardinal."


Like many cardinals, Alessandro had a mistress and children.  He obtained declarations of legitimacy from ruling popes for several of his children.  Because of his increasing dedication to Church matters, Alessandro gave up his mistress in 1513


Through ability, dedication, and his good relations with the reigning popes, Alessandro achieved importance and influence as well as great wealth from having been granted many ecclesiastic offices, including 16 bishoprics and the papacy.


Alessandro was also able to increase the family territory by obtaining papal land grants for his service.


Collections of Antiquities and Paintings

After the Farnese family died out in the 18th century, the Farnese collections of antiquities and paintings passed to Don Carlos of Spain, who moved them to Naples.  They are currently in archaeological and fine arts museums there.



POPE PAUL III 1468-1549



Alessandro was elected Pope Paul III in 1534.  During his 15-year pontificate, the longest in the Renaissance, he did a great deal to secure his family's fortunes by naming his son and grandsons to cardinalships and titles.


Conferring Cardinalates

Paul immediately conferred the rank of cardinal on his two oldest grandsons, 16-year-old Giudo Ascanio Sforza, the son of his daughter Costanza and Bosio Sforza, and Alessandro Farnese (1520-89), the 14-year-old son of his son Pier Luigi.


Later, when his grandson Ranuccio was old enough, he was also made a cardinal.  His cardinal grandsons were also benefited with lucrative papal offices.


Conferring Titles of Nobility

Like several papal predecessors, Paul ceded papal territory to his surviving son, Pier Luigi, and after his death by assassination, to his grandsons Ottavio and Orazio, making them the dukes of Parma, Piacenza, and Castro.


Paul's claims of territory for his son and grandsons and his conferring the rank of duke on several family members brought him into conflict with Emperor Charles V.


Arranging Prestigious Marriages

Paul also arranged prestigious marriages for his grandsons.


Ottavio marries Margaret of Austria/Parma. Ottavio, while only a boy of 14, was married in 1538 to the 16-year-old widow of Duke Alessandro de' Medici, Margaret of Austria (1522-86), the illegitimate daughter of Charles V.  She inherited much Medici property including the Villa Madama, whose name refers to her.   She is now known as Margaret of Parma in reference to Ottavio being the Duke of Parma.


Orazio marries Diane of Valois. In 1553 Orazio was married to Diane of Valois, an illegitimate daughter of the French king, Henry II (ruled 1547-59).  


Private Patronage

The most important of Pope Paul's non-official architectural commissions were two domestic projects that he began for his sons when he was still a cardinal:  the Palazzo Farnese and the fortress at Caprarola that would become the Villa Farnese.


Palazzo Farnese, Rome, 1517-89. In 1517, Cardinal Farnese commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to design the Palazzo Farnese.  The original scheme provided two separate apartments with individual entrances and staircases for his sons.  Construction ceased in 1527 after the Sack of Rome and was not begun again until 1541, when he gave it to his surviving son, Pier Luigi.  After Pier Luigi's assassination in 1547, the palace passed to the pope's grandson Ranuccio, and after his death, to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who finished it.  The scope of the palace was enlarged in keeping with the family's new stature as a papal family after Alessandro's election as pope in 1534.  The façade became the short side, and the only parts that were retained were the vestibule, three vaults of the courtyard loggia, and two rooms on the right front section of the palace.  Antonio da Sangallo determined the plan, the design of the windows, and the masonry of tan brick with quoins on the corners.  He completed many major parts, including the main entrance and vestibule, the ground-story loggia on the rear wing, and two stories of the courtyard.  Antonio died before the cornice and rear wing had been begun.  Antonio's successor Michelangelo changed the design of the cornice to one that was far larger.  He also made the entrance more emphatic by enlarging the window over the portal and surmounting the door-and-window ensemble with a Farnese coat of arms, whose scale was large enough to crown the entire entrance.  Michelangelo changed Antonio's courtyard design as well by filling in the second-story arches and using windows on the upper stories.  After making these design changes, in 1550 Michelangelo left the palace's construction to others.  


Fortress phase of Villa Farnese, Caprarola, 1515. Early in his career, while he was still a cardinal, Alessandro commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Baldassare Peruzzi to design a pentagonal fortress for his son Pier Luigi at a family property at Caprarola. Vignola later turned the fortress into the Villa Farnese for Paul's grandson Alessandro.  In converting Antonio's fortress, Vignola left the moat dry and used the platform roofs of Antonio's bastions as terraces.


Vatican Patronage

Paul commissioned many important works at the Vatican during his papal years.


Sala Regia, 1538-1449. The pope commissioned the restructuring and redecoration of the Sala Regia, a formal reception hall that is adjacent to the Sistine Chapel.  Construction took place between 1538 and around 1540.  Perino del Vaga executed the gilded coffering of the barrel-vaulted ceiling.  The walls were painted after Paul's pontificate, and it is not known what he had planned.  


Pauline Chapel, 1542-50. Paul commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to build the Pauline Chapel, which was decorated by stucco coffering by Perino del Vaga and frescoes by Federico Zuccaro.  He commissioned Michelangelo to decorate the side walls with scenes illustrating the Crucifixion of Peter and the Conversion of Saul. Saul is better known as the Christian apostle Paul, for whom the chapel is named, although the name is popularly though to refer to its patron Pope Paul.


Apartments in Castel Sant'Angelo. Paul III commissioned the decoration of a suite of apartments in the Castel Sant' Angelo, where his predecessor Clement VII had taken refuge during the Sack of Rome.  Perino del Vaga painted the walls with fictive architecture and decorated the ceilings with gilded stucco coffering. 


St. Peter's, 1534-49. Paul commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Peruzzi to continue work on St. Peter's according to Antonio's new design with an expanded façade.  After Antonio's death in 1546, Paul brought Michelangelo to the project.  The building committee would not agree to Michelangelo's changes, which involved tearing down much of Antonio's work, until pressured by Paul himself, who paid Michelangelo's salary from papal funds.


Michelangelo's Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, 1536-41. Paul's predecessor, Clement VII had commissioned Michelangelo to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Clement died before the work was begun, and Paul recommissioned it.  Although the subject of the work commissioned by Clement was a ‘Resurrection,’ it is unclear whether this meant a Resurrection of Christ or a Resurrection of the Dead (i.e. a Last Judgment).  Therefore it also remains an open question as to whether the subject represents a change to the original commission.  As it exists today, Michelangelo's Last Judgment forms a thematic conclusion to his earlier ceiling painting of the Creation of the Universe and the early history of mankind.


Titian's Portraits, 1545. In 1546, while Titian was staying in Rome as Pope Paul's guest, he was commissioned to paint several portraits of the family including a portrait of Paul III that repeated the pose of Raphael's Pope Julius II. He also left an unfinished dynastic portrait, Pope Paul III and His Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio (illustrated on right), which recalls Raphael's family grouping of Leo X with his cousins.


Civic Commissions

Pope Paul repaired much of the destruction incurred during the Sack of Rome before the 1536 visit of Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Emperor.


Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. In 1538, Paul turned his attention to the Campidoglio, the ancient seat of the city’s civic government.  He began the first phase by clearing the area around the two pre-existing structures, the Palazzo del Senatorio and the Palazzo dei Conservatori.  The pope commissioned Michelangelo to move the ancient Roman equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius to the site and design a monumental staircase for the Palazzo del Senatorio.





Alessandro's Position and Wealth

As the eldest son of Pier Luigi Farnese, Alessandro, would normally have inherited his father's estate, and his brother Runuccio would have entered the Church.  But because the pope was 71 when elected, he was apprehensive about how long he would have to advance the careers of his grandsons in the Church.


Consequently, Alessandro was made a cardinal at the age of fourteen and named a vice-chancellor, a lifetime appointment, at the age of fifteen.  With the income from these and other positions endowed by his uncle over the 15 years of his pontificate, the younger Alessandro became one of the richest men in Italy.  He put much of his wealth into building and decorating palaces, villas, gardens, and a major Roman church.


Painting Commissions


Vasari's Sala dei Cento Giorni, Palazzo della Cancelleria, Rome. As vice chancellor, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese lived in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the official residence of that office, and commissioned the redecoration of many of its rooms.  The best known of these is the Sala dei Cento Giorni, which was named for the hundred-day span in 1546 that Vasari spent painting it.  The frescoes depict scenes from the life of Paul III, his papal uncle.  One of the scenes commemorates Paul's patronage by illustrating the rebuilding of St. Peter's.  


Titian's Portrait of Cardinal Farnese, 1545. When Titian was in Rome as Paul III's guest, Alessandro commissioned him to paint his portrait.


Titian's Danaë, 1545. Cardinal Farnese also commissioned Titian to paint a voluptuous reclining nude representing Danaë, the beautiful princess that the Roman god Jupiter visited in the guise of a shower of gold.  She was given the facial features of the cardinal's own mistress.


Architectural Commissions and Acquisitions

Cardinal Farnese continued the construction of many Farnese family commissions that had been begun by his grandfather, and he acquired additional property as well.


Purchase of Farnesina, Rome. After first renting its gardens, Cardinal Farnese purchased the Villa Chigi, renamed the Villa Farnesina, from the Chigi family.  The villa was located across the Tiber from the Palazzo Farnese, and Michelangelo proposed a bridge linking the two properties.  


Completion of the Palazzo Farnese, Rome, 1565-79. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese completed the Palazzo Farnese, which had been begun by his grandfather for his father and uncle.  After their premature deaths, the palace passed to Alessandro's brother Ranuccio, who died in 1565.  At that time, Michelangelo's changes to Antonio da Sangallo the Younger's original design had been implemented and construction of the rear wing was underway by Jacopo Vignola, who died and was replaced by Giacomo della Porta.  For the central bays on the rear wing, Michelangelo designed loggias that opened all the way through to the courtyard on all three stories, which would have made it possible to see the gardens from the front wing's courtyard facing.  Cardinal Farnese decided to fill in the arches and build a reception room on the second story.  (The ceiling of the resulting room was later decorated by Annibale Carracci with paintings illustrating the Loves of the Gods.)  The view to the gardens through the rear wing's top story was also blocked by being filled in on the courtyard side.  The Palazzo Farnese represented an ideal arrangement of building and site in being a freestanding structure surrounded by an ample piazza from which the entirety of the building could be appreciated.  Its design was one of the major influences on the course of palace design in sixteenth-century Italy.


Villa Farnese, Caprarola, begun 1559. In 1559, Alessandro commissioned Vignola to design the Villa Farnese, which rose from the pentagonal fortress begun for the first Cardinal Farnese.  A spiral staircase beside the vestibule leads to the circular courtyard.  A loggia-fronted room on the piano nobile of the front wing, contains a grotto fountain at one end.  The curved entrance ramps were added after Vignola's death.  The gardens adjacent to the building include a pair of square parterres that parallel the two rear wings.  A park-like part of the grounds extends behind them and leads to another formal garden.  Known as the Giardino Grande, this garden features a series of fountains that lead up the hill to a small casino.  Giacomo del Duca is usually credited with building its fountains in the 1580s, and Girolamo Rainaldi is thought to have designed the gardens around the casino in the 1620s.  


Orti Farnesiani, Rome, begun c. 1570. Alessandro commissioned Vignola to design the Orti Farnesiani, a terraced garden on the Palatine hill, which overlooks the ruins of the Roman Forum.


Il Gesù, Rome, begun 1568. Alessandro agreed to fund Il Gesù if certain conditions were met:  he would be the sole patron, and within the general design that had been agreed upon between the Jesuits and himself, he would have the right to select the architect and specific features of the design.  Il Gesù, which was part of a monastery in Rome, was the home church of the Jesuit order, whose founding had been approved by Alessandro’s grandfather when he was pope.  The church's main body, designed by Jacopo Vignola, is like Alberti's Sant' Andrea in having chapels instead of aisles along the sides and in using a barrel-vaulted ceiling over the nave. Il Gesù also has short transepts that make its overall shape, in a plan, rectangular.  Many of its features were intended to reflect the Council of Trent's recommendations on church architecture, which largely focused on improving the congregation’s ability to see and hear the services.  Alessandro's name is inscribed on the frieze of its façade, and it was he who selected a façade design by Giacomo della Porta instead of one by Vignola.  Della Porta accentuated the portal by doubling its pediments and upright members to create a rhythmic reverberation.  The façade was seen as a model of how to combine vigor and restraint and was highly influential on the architecture of the following century as exemplified by Carlo Maderno’s façade of the church of Santa Susanna.  The Jesuits were missionaries and active church builders around the world, and the plan of their mother church became widespread.  





Farnese Political Continuance

The Farnese family continued to rule in Parma and Piacenza in northern Italy until they died out in the 18th century.


To the northwest of Rome in Lazio, the Farnese-ruled city of Castro was destroyed in the Wars of Castro in the 17th century.  Caprarola, where the Villa Farnese is located, is in Lazio.


Collections of Antiquities and Paintings

After the Farnese family died out, the Farnese collections of antiquities and paintings passed to Don Carlos of Spain, who moved them to Naples, where they are currently in archaeological and fine arts museums.
















Patron Families 3 of 8




Titian's Pope Paul III and His Grandsons Cardinal Alessandro

Farnese and Duke Ottavio Farnese