by Roderick Conway Morris

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Radio France
Villa Medici with the Dome of St. Peter's (right)

Villa Medici and the Cardinal's Secrets

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 29 January 2000


Villa Medici's enviable position on the Pincian Hill makes it one of the most prominent buildings on the skyline, but because of its singular inside-out arrangement the monumental facade overlooks not the panoramic sweep of the city below but the villa's gardens at the back.

The restoration of this facade by the French Academy, which has occupied the building since 1803, is now the occasion for an enlightening exhibition, 'Villa Medici: A Cardinal's Dream,' devoted to Ferdinando de' Medici (1549-1609), who was principally responsible for the villa, and to the art collection he built up before and while in residence there. The show continues until March 5.

Ferdinando was still in his twenties when he acquired the land and a smaller existing villa from the estate of Cardinal Ricci, a close associate of the Medici clan who died in 1574. Although Ferdinando himself was a cardinal from his mid-teens on, he never took holy orders - an oversight that proved convenient when he came to shed his scarlet robe and hat to become grand duke of Tuscany in 1587, marry and have children.

Following family traditions, the young Ferdinando had early aspirations to become a collector, bought some important marbles and other pieces, and achieved the impressive level of debt expected of a gentleman of his standing - although when he took over Ricci's property, his brother Grand Duke Francesco (with whom Ferdinando did not get on) objected to his squandering even more money on what Francesco slightingly referred to as 'a garden.'

When Ferdinando himself inherited the dukedom and left for Florence, most of his collection was carried off to Florence, some pieces being dispersed even further afield. Fortunately, a detailed inventory was made of the villa's contents not long after Ferdinando's departure, so it has been possible for the academy to borrow back, for the show, nearly 100 characteristic pieces, among them some of the most highly prized.

Ferdinando aimed to build a palace worthy of a Renaissance connoisseur, but in an environment that was still chronically insecure. The hiatus between the death of one pope and the election of the next led to periodic outbreaks of disorder, as did the unruly behavior of Rome's aristocracy and the perennial problem of banditry. Accordingly, the new villa's external walls and outward facade retained a solid, fortress-like appearance.

But the placing of the monumental facade overlooking the gardens was also the result of other considerations. Ferdinando wished to display some of his finer classical reliefs and busts in an opulent stucco setting in imitation of ancient architectural models. But the Counter-Reformation was at its height, the Catholic view of the pagan past extremely ambiguous and Ferdinando's position as a cardinal an additional complication. Pius IV had already forbidden Cardinal Ricci to adorn his palazzo and villa with antiquities, had hidden the sculptures in the Vatican's Belvedere courtyard in wooden boxes and had allowed cartloads of archeological finds to be removed from Rome.

So Ferdinando went ahead with his magnificent classical showpiece facade, but placed it so as to be invisible to public view. Yet the design was enormously influential, being taken up elsewhere, notably at the villas Borghese and Doria Pamphili. Also influential was the long gallery, comprising a wing of the Villa Medici, that Ferdinando had constructed to show sculpture indoors - an early example of a museum style that in due course became almost universal.

The cardinal's need to balance personal taste with Counter-Reformation pressures and prevailing rules of decorum was equally evident in the villa's interior. Religious works predominated in the public reception rooms, while more risqué and erotic pieces were confined to his private apartments.

One of the most curious paintings in the latter category is by Ferdinando's in-house painter and decorator, Jacopo Zucchi. It depicts a fantasy scene of some exotic imagined isles, inhabited by a bevy of voluptuous nude women - portraying Rome's beauties of the moment, including Ferdinando's lover, Clelia Farnese -- overseen by the cardinal himself in the guise of a semi-naked noble savage.

Scantily clad female forms also feature in Zucchi's surviving ceiling panels in Ferdinando's private rooms, with their lovely views over the Medici gardens and the rolling landscape of umbrella pines in the Borghese Park beyond.

These scenes partly derive from Ptolemy, a major source of 16th-century cosmology and astrology. Galileo was subsequently to demolish Ptolemy's theories and end up before the Inquisition for his pains. Having recanted under threat of torture, the scientist spent his last days in Rome imprisoned at Villa Medici. And one can imagine him casting a jaundiced glance at these ceilings, before leaving the city to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023