Few of Rome’s marvels are more marvelous than the Villa Farnesina, the riverside villa built in the early sixteenth century for the Tuscan banker Agostino Chigi, who commissioned this enigmatic retreat at the peak of a dazzling career. The Italian merchants of the Middle Ages were the most advanced in Europe, but Chigi used recognizably modern economic methods to connect finance, culture, and statecraft on an international scale. Born in 1466 as the eldest son of Mariano Chigi, a wealthy banker from Siena involved in Vatican finance and Tuscan politics, he moved to Rome around 1487 as a permanent expatriate, working within a tight-knit group of Tuscan “merchants following the Roman Curia” that included the Medici and the Sienese firm of Spannocchi, chief bankers for Pope Alexander VI Borgia.

Chigi married into another Sienese merchant family, like most of his colleagues, and settled with his wife, Margherita Saraceni, in an unpretentious townhouse in the same neighborhood as his fellow Tuscan bankers, directly across the Tiber from the Vatican. There he traded grain, cloth, and other commodities; farmed taxes for the papal state; and in 1499, to his father’s horror, offered a substantial loan to Cesare Borgia, the pope’s son, in support of his first military campaigns.

Up to the age of thirty-five, Chigi lived the life of a successful banker, drafting endless contracts and business letters in his profession’s distinctive and labor-saving cursive script, moving commodities and money, and providing loans to proud but overextended aristocrats. His close association with the Medici bank gave him an education in social advancement and an introduction to the mineral that would make his fortune: alum.

A desiccant used in fixing dye, alum was a crucial resource for the cloth industry, by Chigi’s day a global operation that mingled and transformed wool from the Cotswolds, silk from Xi’an, and cotton from Kerala into Damascus brocades and Flemish tapestries. Deposits of the mineral were rare, scattered across Spain, Italy, and Asia Minor, and Chigi realized that monopolizing the supply would give him control of the cloth market. With the participation of the Spannocchi firm, he spent the year 1501 obtaining the rights to all the alum mines in Italy. His father bristled once again at his propensity for huge, risky investments, but the returns were almost immediate. Applying the latest methods for extracting alum and streamlining its delivery, he charged his customers high prices and ensured huge profits for himself.

By August 1503, when the Borgia pope died, Chigi was already an exceedingly wealthy man, and his prospects improved when the cardinals elected a Sienese pope, Pius III. The Spannocchi brothers, confirmed as papal bankers, shouldered the huge expense of the pontiff’s impending coronation. But Pius III died of sepsis twenty-six days after his election, throwing the Vatican into another conclave and the Spannocchi firm into bankruptcy. Chigi promptly bought out their share of the alum business, to their eternal resentment, and still had enough cash to finance the bribes that helped elect Pope Julius II, the legendary papa terribile, in October 1503. The result of this meeting of megalomaniacs was a flowering of culture that propelled Rome into the forefront of the Italian Renaissance.

United by their outsize ambitions and volcanic energy, pope and banker became close friends, thrilled by the prospect of turning the city of Rome into a gleaming Christian capital. Thanks to the pontiff’s implacable will and the banker’s financial acumen, artists, architects, musicians, and writers began to turn a dilapidated ruin into what once again looked like the Eternal City. Along with stories about the fearsome Pope Julius, news of Chigi’s wealth spread as far as Constantinople, where Sultan Bayezid II referred to him as “the great merchant of the Christian world” and sent him a gorgeous Arabian horse that he proudly rode through the streets of Rome.

His only possible rival as Europe’s richest man was Jakob Fugger, the copper baron of Augsburg, to whom Pope Julius leased the papal mint in 1508. Too shrewd to fight, the two magnates collaborated through shared agents to create an unprecedented form of large-scale, politically active international banking. Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici had emerged as similarly public figures within the limited confines of fifteenth-century Florence, but the discovery of the New World and the maritime passage to India gave these sixteenth-century financiers a truly global reach.

Chigi’s modest house in Rome’s banking district no longer fit his status. Indeed, no existing building in Rome, ancient or modern, could quite express who and what he had become. The times were propitious for creating something completely different.

Like so many of his undertakings, Chigi’s new residence burst through all the old categories—social, architectural, and cultural—for a merchant’s house. He moved across the Tiber to participate in a project Pope Julius initiated in 1505: transforming the Via della Lungara, the road that ran from the populous neighborhood of Trastevere to the Vatican, into an elegant suburban thoroughfare. The pope encouraged cardinals in particular to build sumptuous garden retreats along its route, country houses within the ancient walls of Rome.


In forsaking the bankers’ quarter to reside among these princes of the Church, Chigi, far from emulating his illustrious neighbors, set the standard for them all with an ingenious combination of ancient Roman suburban villa, pleasure garden, medieval tower house, and Renaissance palazzo. As the poet Julius Caesar Scaliger put it, privatus superat reges (a private citizen outdoes kings). A lavish theater for his public persona, it also sheltered the most intimate aspects of his private life. The sophisticated decor and the throng of antiquities proclaimed his phenomenal wealth to the outside world, while his strong room, strategically placed between his bedroom and his office and accessible only by a hidden stairway, contained cash and jewels sufficient to sustain the Republic of Venice or the Papal States for a year. In contrast to Fugger, who built his financial empire on credit, Chigi never lost track of tangible assets, and for good reason. From the moment he took possession of his beauteous abode in 1511, he knew that a long-festering lawsuit brought that year by his former mentors, the Spannocchi, might force him to hand over a fortune in an instant.

James Grantham Turner’s magisterial study The Villa Farnesina: Palace of Venus in Renaissance Rome captures the project’s intimate link with fantasy from the very moment of its conception. It has been called the Villa Farnesina since its purchase in 1579 by the “Gran Cardinale” Alessandro Farnese, whose grandfather, another Cardinal Alessandro (later Pope Paul III), had bought the lot next door in the 1490s, years before Pope Julius campaigned to beautify the street. From their own hopelessly outmoded house, both Cardinals Alessandro must have gazed wistfully over the garden wall at their neighbor’s stupendous collection of ancient statues and exotic plants.

In Chigi’s day poets referred to his Viridario (garden house), his Suburbanum (suburban residence), and felix villula (“happy little villa,” though little it is not), and they presented it straightforwardly in their encomia as a palace of Venus—for good reason. In 1511, as a childless widower of forty-four Chigi was looking for a bride to enliven its rooms with Chigi heirs. His wife Margherita had died in 1508, just as he and Julius II began to plan a series of military and diplomatic campaigns to strengthen Rome’s hold over the Papal States. Between 1509 and 1512, Chigi emerged openly as one of the pope’s ambassadors, and therefore he needed a consort to match his privileged position.

On diplomatic service in Venice in 1511, he found a candidate: twenty-five-year-old Margherita Gonzaga, the “natural” daughter of the Marquess of Mantua. He began negotiations with her father for marriage, but the plans fizzled in 1512. Elisabetta Gonzaga, Margherita’s supercilious aunt, objected to Chigi’s “being a banker and merchant, a thing hardly becoming to our House,” and Margherita, who still hoped (in vain) to marry her onetime fiancé, resisted any other match. As Chigi waited and bargained, he never lacked for company. For some time he had subsidized the Roman courtesan Imperia Cognati, and he paid for her tomb when she died (perhaps by suicide) in 1512.

He focused most of his attention, however, on a young Venetian named Francesca, whom he brought to Rome as part of his triumphal entourage in August 1511, over her humble father’s strenuous objections. We know very little about Francesca, whose surname appears in several different versions in surviving records. Turner uses Andreana, the Villa Farnesina’s website uses Ordeaschi, and Chigi’s first biographer, his great-grandnephew Fabio Chigi, used Andreazza. (But then Chigi is also known as “Ghisi” and, in Venice, “Gixi.”) There is no evidence that she was a courtesan, although this is often stated, and we have no idea how Chigi met her. We do know that he put her in a convent for an unknown amount of time to be educated by nuns, and that he then took her into his house to live with her more uxorio, as contemporaries put it—as man and wife. He made no further efforts to contract a noble marriage. The palace of Venus was hers from the moment she moved in.

With its lavish color illustrations, The Villa Farnesina is a thing of beauty appropriate to its subject and Turner’s passion for it. It exhibits the same thoroughness, insight, and ardor that its distinguished author brought to his previous book, Eros Visible (2017). For that definitive account of Renaissance erotica, Turner scoured libraries, museums, and archives all over the world to amass an exhaustive repertory of early modern erogenous imagery, eluding the efforts of censors by looking beneath every paper pasted over a naked body and using digital enhancement to evaporate inky cancellations and bring erasures back to impudent life.


Turner is no less diligent in his minute examination of the much-remodeled and mostly inaccessible building’s three main floors, two mezzanines, two basements, and sadly reduced gardens. (More than once he wore swimming trunks under his street clothes in case he needed to wade through the flooded subbasement.) Since 1946 the property has belonged to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the national honorific society founded in 1603, and it has undergone two important restorations. Most of the closed rooms have been used either as offices or as storage spaces, and many of them still show the signs of long neglect. (Today, one room makes a virtue of the situation: layer upon layer of shabby wall covering has been peeled back to reveal decorations in fresco, paper, cloth, and perhaps even leather, fashionable in Chigi’s day.) The mighty strong room has been turned into a bathroom for visitors.

Piecing together this complex and its half-millennium of history is a Herculean task, and Turner has consulted a vast number of drawings and scholarly publications to guide his readers through the process that turned the spark of an idea into a complex of buildings and gardens, and then adapted it to the changing circumstances of its owners. He divides the development of Chigi’s villa into two major periods of construction and decoration: the initial project of 1509 to 1512, and then, in 1518, a large-scale remodeling and redecoration that prepared it for Chigi’s marriage to the patient Francesca in 1519. The U-shaped building at the center of Chigi’s domain was designed by the young Sienese painter and architect Baldassare Peruzzi, a protégé of the Sienese architect, sculptor, painter, medalist, engineer, and treatise writer (among other talents) Francesco di Giorgio Martini. Before coming to Rome, Peruzzi had worked with Chigi’s father to create an innovative villa in the Sienese countryside, and with the painter Bernardino Pinturicchio and his talented, precocious assistant Raphael Sanzio, painted fresco decorations for the library attached to Siena’s cathedral by its archbishop (the future short-lived Pope Pius III).

Peruzzi’s design for Chigi incorporated a previous structure, hiding the irregularities of the resulting façade by covering the entire surface of the building with mythological frescoes painted in white, gray, and golden earth tones. Today only the tiniest traces of these figures survive above one portico, but Turner has used old drawings and literary sources to provide a dazzling, plausible verbal and digital reconstruction of the entire decorative scheme. The overarching theme was “the loves of the gods,” including a ribald portrayal of Mars and Venus captured in hot embrace by a golden net, the work of her cuckolded husband, the divine blacksmith Vulcan. Decorated façades were all the rage in early modern Rome, but most of them featured stately themes like ancient Roman triumphs or famous men and women from history. The Chigi villa, on the other hand, made its debut in society decked out like a party pavilion. The mood is not quite that of the sprezzatura—making difficult things look easy—praised by his ever-elegant contemporary Baldassare Castiglione. Neither is it simply an erotic romp: Chigi’s message runs more along the lines of “Work hard, play hard.”

Peruzzi’s frescoes on the interior of the villa proclaim the same gospel of success rewarded by pleasure, with a conspicuous emphasis on the figure of Hercules, the indefatigable hero who finally became a god for his efforts. Turner has devoted close scrutiny to the painted frieze that runs beneath the ceiling of Chigi’s waiting room, from its choice of mythological scenes (Hercules conspicuous among them, but also the golden river Pactolus) to its use of stucco and gold leaf to make painted plaster sparkle in three dimensions. On the ceiling of the open-air portico that served as a summer dining room, Peruzzi recorded the position of the constellations on the night of Chigi’s birth, November 29, 1466, suggesting that the great man’s greatness had been written in the stars. (In the same years, Michelangelo was making a similar statement about the divinely ordained reign of Julius II on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.) In addition to gilt stars on a deep blue background, keys to the ceiling’s celestial significance, Peruzzi portrayed the constellations as mythological figures, turning the entire loggia into a delightful pictorial riddle for guests to solve over the wine that flowed in abundance. (Meanwhile the sober Chigi picked up their unguarded comments.)

Thanks to painstaking work by the art historian Costanza Barbieri, we know that these rooms were stuffed nearly to bursting with ancient statues; the little waiting room seems to have had eight of them, and the building’s original supporting structure, which Turner has managed to reconstruct convincingly, was strong enough to permit the display of more marble figures on the upper floors. In the winter, guests gathered not in the drafty portico but in an impressive south-facing (hence sun-warmed) salon with a massive marble fireplace and an oil painting on canvas by the Venetian artist Sebastiano Lucian (later nicknamed Sebastiano del Piombo), whom Chigi had brought back from Venice along with Francesca and the Cretan printer Zacharias Kallierges, who set up a Greek press in Chigi’s basement. That space was nothing like the dreary cavern we see today: it was a well-lit semibasement, reached by a broad stairway that has since been eliminated. Most of the semiunderground area belonged to the kitchen, with a wine cellar in the subbasement, but the area directly beneath Chigi’s study contained a bath with hot and cold running water, which Turner is the first to identify. This, like Chigi’s strong room and bedroom, was accessible by a private stair, so that in effect the west wing of the villa was Chigi’s private tower. (In Siena, a tower was one of the first prerequisites for a noble house.)

Sebastiano’s monumental painting, The Death of Adonis, now hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. (The Medici got their hands on it after Chigi’s death.) It shows the hunter-paramour of the love goddess splayed in a field with the Ducal Palace of Venice in the background—perhaps the youthful alter ego of Chigi, perpetually “slain” by his domestic love goddess? The work is evidently a souvenir of the banker’s Venetian sojourn, sharpened by the artist’s own pangs of nostalgia. (Chigi had apparently tried to entice Titian to Rome before inviting Sebastiano, but Titian would never leave Venice.) The Venus in the painting, a plump brunette receiving comfort from her son Cupid, may well be a portrait of Francesca.

Sebastiano also tried his hand at frescoing the lunettes beneath Peruzzi’s astrological ceiling, but he had never wrestled before with the difficult medium, and the results display struggle rather than sprezzatura. So Chigi summoned Raphael to paint the nymph Galatea scudding across the Mediterranean in a gigantic seashell drawn by dolphins, one chewing on an octopus, like the dolphin carved on yet another of the ancient sculptures in Agostino’s collection (see illustration at beginning of article). Turner agrees with the Italian scholars Mara and Eugenio Lo Sardo that the seashell’s incongruous paddle wheel is an odometer, a distance-marking machine described in the ancient architectural treatise of Vitruvius (and there called a “hodometer”). He mounts a stout, detailed defense of the quality and versatility of Peruzzi’s fresco painting, but Raphael’s mastery of the medium is of another order entirely. Wittily, Rome’s most sought-after artist painted one brawny Triton with sea-green tails as if he had issued from the hand of Michelangelo, but Michelangelo never managed Raphael’s exquisite finesse.

With the death of Pope Julius in 1513, Chigi’s life took yet another turn. The new pope, Leo X, was the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and like his father spent money faster than he made it. The years of close collaboration with an active pope were over. Instead, Chigi threw himself into patronage of culture and education. Turner, following the lead of the art historian Amélie Ferrigno, shows how the great merchant furthered the education of his staff through lessons and sponsorship of printed textbooks on astronomy and mathematics.

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra; fresco by Baldassare Peruzzi in the Villa Farnesina

Villa Farnesina, Rome/alamy

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra; fresco by Baldassare Peruzzi in the Villa Farnesina, circa 1511–1512

Shortly after Leo’s election, Raphael designed a stable and guesthouse at the far end of Chigi’s property, which were inaugurated by a papal visit in 1514. The lavish structure survives now in a stretch of ruined wall and the vestige of an entrance gate. Both the guesthouse and Peruzzi’s villa building were unabashed landmarks in a rapidly developing capital city; they towered over most of the modest structures in Trastevere, which usually ran to two stories in the Middle Ages. Chigi’s complex also included a riverside dining pavilion with a lower level at the water’s edge—except when the Tiber swelled with one of its seasonal floods. This is where he famously hosted the banquets of exotic delicacies served on gold and silver dishes that were promptly flung into the Tiber (and collected by nets strung underwater—one way to keep Chigi’s noble guests from pilfering the dinnerware).

Turner sees Francesca not simply as a passive muse but as an active participant in the extensive 1518 remodeling, undertaken so that Chigi could celebrate their marriage with suitable pomp. However humble her origins, she had established a secure place in the opinion of his friends and evidently in his own heart. Their marriage contract refers to seven years of living more uxorio and four children, with a fifth conspicuously on the way. From the outset, these Chigi heirs learned to write an aristocratic humanistic script rather than their father’s mercantile cursive, one of many signs that they were regarded as nobility rather than future members of the merchant class. As their tutor wrote of them, “They are not merchants; they are gentlemen”; accordingly, Chigi expected his eldest son to marry an aristocrat and live the life of a feudal landowner. His second son, ideally, would become a cardinal. His daughters, like his eldest son, were meant to marry well (and they did). Their father could afford dowries for both of them, so neither was pushed into a convent.

In this second phase of construction, Peruzzi raised the ceiling and adjusted the walls of the upper floor to create a lofty dining room for the couple’s November wedding. It was decorated once again with a frieze that featured scenes from Pindar and shows how swiftly artistic style had changed under the attentive patronage of Julius II and Leo X. The new salon’s most stellar feature, however, was its fictive perspective scheme of marble columns framing scenes of contemporary Rome beyond the garden walls (including a “self-portrait” of the building itself). The dining room connected in turn to a formal bedroom that boasted an ebony and ivory bed and a fresco cycle by another painter active in Siena: Giovanni Bazzi, nicknamed “Sodoma” for his interest in young men.

Along with Hercules and Venus, the figures of Caesar and Augustus, as well as the poems praising them—“you are a king in spirit,” “for others, Augustus, wealth produces shining splendor/You on the other hand, are a light, a great glory to wealth”—provided a thematic focus for the frescoes in Chigi’s villa. The historical Augustus, however, notoriously met his wife Livia Drusilla when she was pregnant with the future emperor Tiberius, so Sodoma resorted to another imperial figure: the role model of that Augustus, Alexander the Great. Sodoma’s painting of Alexander’s marriage to the Bactrian maiden Roxane is guided by a description (ekphrasis) by the Greek writer Lucian of a painting by the artist Aëtion and imitates the style of ancient Roman frescoes in a brilliant display of learned allusion. The lovely young couple stand in gracefully for the fifty-two-year-old bridegroom and his pregnant bride, who were bound at last in holy matrimony by Pope Leo himself. The fresco also honors the animals of the household: the Turkish horse appears as Bucephalus, Alexander’s faithful steed, as he does on other walls of the room, and next to the fireplace Chigi’s red-and-white spotted terrier weaves its way around the legs of Alexander’s companion Hephaestion.

It would be hazardous to assume that all the learned references flying about the villa also flew over Chigi’s head—not much escaped that gimlet eye. His letters may be devoid of literary style, but his father and two of his brothers were dedicated letterati. He had erudite advice, moreover, from his chancellor, Cornelio Benigno of Viterbo, a scholar of Greek and Latin who also managed Chigi’s complex affairs. Benigno, whose office and bedroom occupied the east wing of the villa, undoubtedly drew up all its mythological programs with the artists who decorated its interior and exterior, and with the Cretan printer Kallierges he published erudite editions of Greek texts by Pindar and the Syracusan poet Theocritus on their basement printing press.

The redecoration of the villa’s entrance portico was entrusted to Raphael, who produced a beguiling fresco series recounting the ancient tale of Eros and Psyche in a sylvan bower made of exotic plants from Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The fruits are ripe to the point of bursting, and directly over the entrance to Chigi’s waiting room, Mercury, the patron god of merchants and thieves, gestures toward the kind of erotic vegetable sculpture that is still featured at weddings in southern Italy: a phallic gourd plunging into a juicy fig. The labors of Psyche—“Soul”—to be reunited with her lover, Eros, were an apt evocation of the labors endured by the bride to have her stature legitimated by the pope himself.

Despite all these exuberant depictions of hope, love, and fertility, Chigi may already have known that he was dying when Pope Leo performed what turned out to be a November marriage in more senses than one. His health had been declining for months, and on April 11, 1520, at fifty-three, he died in his splendid residence, surrounded by his wife and children, his chancellor, and the rest of his household. Three weeks earlier, almost incapable of speech, he had still been driving bargains with the Republic of Venice. A sudden fever had carried off Raphael just a few days before, on April 6, his thirty-seventh birthday. For Rome and its cultural life, the nearly simultaneous loss of the great artist and the great banker, as well as their great friendship, marked the end of an era (though unsurprisingly the Venetian ambassador regarded losing Chigi as much less of a tragedy than losing Raphael).

Six months later, almost exactly a year after her marriage, Francesca Chigi was dead, too, allegedly reeking of poison. Whether she died by murder or suicide we may never know, but Agostino’s youngest brother, Sigismondo, certainly wasted no time moving into the Roman property with his beautiful, aristocratic wife, Sulpizia Petrucci. They brought up Agostino’s five children together with nine of their own, ushering in another season for this garden paradise. What gives the Villa Farnesina its poignancy is our inevitable sense of the impermanence of all things mortal—fruits, plants, animals, people—and the enduring power, despite it all, of love and beauty.