Villa Farnese

Dominating the small town of Caprarola, just east of Viterbo’s Lake Vico, the pentagonal Villa (or Palazzo) Farnese was built over the course of the 16th century by successive heads of the phenomenally wealthy Farnese family, a dynasty that included several cardinals and a pope. The principal architect of the Renaissance masterpiece that survives today was Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola.

Now the property of the Italian state, the villa has a new museum in the basement, telling the story of the Farnese family through the use of projection systems and ‘immersive holographic’ displays. The museum route – for which there’s an additional admission charge – also includes a visit to the palace kitchens.

A room in the Villa Farnese

Elsewhere, the Villa Farnese is very sparsely furnished but the rooms are nonetheless hugely impressive because of their lavishly marbled and frescoed walls and ceilings, and ornately tiled floors – though not all are decorated as richly as the one in the photo above. The ceiling paintings are so glorious that you’re liable to leave with a stiff neck – unless you choose to lie flat on your back in the middle of every room.

The artistic and architectural highlight of the interior is the Scala Regia, a spiral staircase supported by Ionic columns and decorated with fresoes by Antonio Tempesta. A section of the staircase and its domed ceiling are shown in the gallery below.

The rear of the villa gives out onto formal gardens and, beyond those, an expanse of parkland that would have done Kubla Khan proud. A path rises through a veritable forest of mature trees, and then up a wide set of timeworn stone steps with a central ‘water staircase’, past mannerist statues and grottoes and into another set of gardens, filled with every kind of decorative device and graced by the pavilion – or casino – shown in the gallery below. The pavilion was the summer residence of the first president of the Italian Republic. (See this Bing bird’s eye view to better appreciate the scale of the villa’s grounds.)

  • Looking up at the front of the villa
  • The walls of the central courtyard
  • Scala Regia
  • Scala Regia domed ceiling
  • Constellations ceiling painting
  • Looking back at the villa from the formal garden
  • Statuary abounds in the gardens
  • The pavilion (or casino)
  • Looking down over Caprarola from the edge of the gardens

The Villa Farnese is open daily except Mondays – and except on January 1st, May 1st and December 25th. See the official website (in Italian) for more details, including admission charges.

The park is open on weekdays only. High winds can also prompt the park’s occasional closure, owing to the danger of falling branches. That was the case on the day we visited but, in a desperate attempt to gain access, we proposed drafting and signing a waiver that absolved the Palazzo Farnese and its employees of all responsibility if we came to harm. To our amazement this was approved – but Hidden Lazio can’t guarantee that the same expedient would work every time. (We didn’t come to any harm, by the way.)

Article and photographs contributed by Russ Willey