Palazzo Farnese, Rome

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Palazzo_Farnese_Vasi.jpg
A mid-18th century engraving of Palazzo Farnese by Giuseppe Vasi

Palazzo Farnese, Rome (housing the French Embassy), is 'the most imposing Italian palace of the sixteenth century' (Sir Banister Fletcher) (1) (http://www.italycyberguide.com/Geography/cities/rome2000/H15a.htm). This widely admired High Renaissance private palace was imitated, almost without a break, into the early 20th century. It was built by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546), with an added third story and revised courtyard by Michelangelo.

Dominating a small city square, which makes it more prominent, the memorable features of its facade are the alternating pediments that cap the windows of the piano nobile, the central rusticated portal and Michelangelo's projecting cornice. The central window Michelangelo revised when the cardinal became pope, adding an architrave to support the largest coat-of-arms with papal tiara Rome had ever seen. When Paul stepped to the balcony, the entire facade became a setting for his person.

The palace was commissioned by Alessandro Farnese, who had been made Cardinal in 1493 when he turned 25 (thanks to his sister, who was Pope Alexander VI Borgia's official mistress) and was living a princely lifestyle. When he was made pope, as Paul III, he employed Michelangelo to enlarge it, as an emblematic 'power house' suitable to the Farnese family. Concurrently, he engaged Michelangelo to fresco the Sistine Chapel.

The palazzo was begun by San Gallo in 1517, redesigned in 1534 and 1541, modified under Michelangelo from 1546 onwards and completed by Giacomo della Porta in 1589. Several main rooms were frescoed with elaborate allegorical programs, by Annibale Caracci (1560-1609) and other artists, 1597-1608.

Here has stood for generations the Farnese Hercules, one of the most famous sculptures of antiquity, which has fixed the image of Hercules in the European imagination.

On the garden side, which faces the Tiber, Michelangelo proposed to give the palazzo's vast bulk some breathing room with a bridge to link the center of the garden facade with the Pope's villa, the Villa Farnesina on the Trastevere side.

In Puccini's opera Tosca, (1900), set in Napoleonic Rome, the heroine's confrontation with the malevolent Chief of Police, Scarpia, takes place in Palazzo Farnese. The Palazzo was inherited from the Farnese by the Bourbon kings of Naples, from whom the French government purchased it in 1874. Though the government of Mussolini ransomed it in 1936, the French Embassy remains, under a 99-year lease.

The Palazzo Farnese houses the great scholarly library amassed by the 'Ecole Française de Rome,' concentrating especially on the archeology of Italy and medieval Papal history.

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