Be different, visit the other Farnese Palace World Meanderings (n°36)
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
If you spend some time in Rome you will certainly enjoy great holidays going from the Roman Forum to Trevi Fountain, from St Peter’s Basilica to Campo de’ Fiori, from the Colosseum to the Sistine Chapel… All these are very interesting but not so original. Why not get off the tracks and do something different?
There are many little known and less crowded places to see in the countryside surrounding busy Rome that can make your holidays more exciting and the Farnese Palace in Caprarola is a matchless example among them.
You may have heard of the Farnese Palace that presently is the French Embassy in Rome. Located close to Campo de’ Fiori this palace can be visited only by reservation three times a week and you need to book a ticket on line previous to going to Italy. But the Farnese family had another palace built at the beginning of the 16th century in Caprarola.
This was a turbulent time in European history. King Henri VIII of England, King Francis I of France and Charles V ruler of the Holy Roman Empire kept fighting one another creating or dissolving alliances through the years.
In 1526 Henry VIII, Francis I and Pope Clement VII joined their forces in response to the growing power of Charles V. The Emperor divided his armies in two, but if the first army was defeated in Burgundy, the second one reached Rome where its soldiers who hadn’t been paid for weeks, ransacked the city.
The 1527 Sack of Rome lasted for almost a whole year during which 10,000 inhabitants were killed and over 30,000 others fled from town. In 1528 out of the 55,000 people who lived in Rome before the sack only 10,000 remained. Charles V’s soldiers who were mostly Lutherans not only looted the Catholic churches but also plundered palaces, houses and shops. Noble families and famous artists of the time sought refuge in other towns where they built new houses.
This is how Cardinal Alessandro Farnese started to build a fortified residence in Caprarola in 1530. The construction works came to a halt in 1534 when Alessandro was elected pope, Pope Paul III, and it was not before 1555 that his grandson, Alessandro Farnese Junior, resumed works.
Meanwhile wars had come to an end and the Farnese family had its Roman palace rebuilt. The Caprarola palace was to become a summer residence for the family. Alessandro hired one of the best architect and artist of the time, Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola who did such a wonderful job that the palace was and still is today an absolute architectural marvel.
The palace was built on top of Caprarola, a typical Italian village that is only a one-hour drive North of Rome. Vignola designed one of the most fascinating Renaissance castle in all Europe. It’s an impressive 5-storey pentagonal edifice surrounded by a moat with a round inner courtyard, dozens of rooms and a spectacular spiral staircase supported by 30 Doric columns.
But most of all its frescoes make this palace unique. No less than 7640 sq meters (9137 sq yd), ornate the walls and ceilings of 13 huge rooms that are open to the public.
Going up the incredible spiral staircase you will follow the footsteps of all the aristocrats who used to climb it still riding their horses! Don’t miss the Hercules room, the map of the world room designed according to the stories and memories of the 16th century sailors and travellers, the fantastic Dawn room or the Angels’ room.
Each fresco is a masterpiece adorned with stuccoes and trompe-l’oeil.
After visiting the palace go down the big outside double staircase have a stroll in the classical Renaissance gardens and enjoy its peacefulness. The palace is open everyday except on Mondays, from 8:30 am till 7:30 pm.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny