by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Mania to Collect

By Roderick Conway Morris
PARMA 6 May 1995
Museo di Capodimonte, Naples
Paul III and his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavo by Titian, 1545-46



It was typical of the newly-rich, self-aggrandizing Cardinal Alessandro Farnese that, on becoming Pope Paul III in 1534, he should have stopped work in progress on the family palace and ordered a vastly scaled-up version (Michelangelo ultimately being called in to do the facade). A hundred feet high and two hundred across, Palazzo Farnese (now the French Embassy) was by far the biggest and most imposing private residence in Renaissance Rome.

It is tempting to see the yawning interior vacuum of this architectural behemoth, supplemented by the huge Palazzo della Cancelleria almost next door, which one of Paul's cardinal-grandsons occupied, as the initial impetus for the Farnese's collecting mania. Certainly the 15 years of Paul's reign marked a period of frenzied acquisition of individual works and entire existing collections, whilst dozens of pieces of classical statuary were taken from excavations at the Caracalla Baths and at Tivoli, the Pope also shamelessly appropriating pieces from the Vatican for his family's palaces.

Meanwhile, Paul carved out a chunk of papal territory in northern Italy, establishing the new Duchy of Parma and Piacenza for his son Pier Luigi, which endured as a family statelet for nearly 200 years. By the time the line became extinct for want of a male heir in 1734, the family collection, almost all of which had by then be transferred to the Duchy, consisted of well over 3,000 paintings, and tens of thousands of drawings, books, sculptures, bronzes, ceramics, coins, medals and jewels.

'The Farnese: Art and Collecting', a rewarding exhibition, which aims to recreate, in part at least, in a single space this extraordinary amassing of art works, is being held at the freshly-restored Ducal Palace at Colorno, about a dozen miles north of Parma, till 21 May. Thereafter the show will go on to Munich (June through August) and Naples (October through December), where, despite significant dispersions overseas (some key items of which are on loan to the exhibition) the core of the collection, divided between the Capodimonte, Palazzo Reale and Archaelogical Museums, has been located since the 18th century.

The Farnese's origins can be traced back to 12th-century Orvieto, in Umbria, when they began to play a prominent role in the life of the city. Their activities as mercenaries, principally in the service of the papacy, won them estates and recognition as minor nobles. But, though later generations continued periodically to make their mark as warriors, the Church proved their road to wealth and influence.

Their decisive breakthrough came when Alessandro Farnese's famously beautiful sister Giulia became the mistress of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia.

Within months of Borgia becoming Pope, Alessandro was appointed Vatican Treasurer and numerous other lucrative and prestigious posts followed. Having got a grip of the papal purse-strings, the intensely ambitious Alessandro mastered the levers of power, and in due course stepped into St Peter's shoes as Pope Paul III. A lifetime in holy orders did not prevent him from fathering several children, whom he succeeded in having legitimized.

Michelangelo is recorded as having said that Paul's grandson Cardinal Alessandro, one of the principal founders of the collection, knew 'nothing whatsoever about paintings'. But, even if this were true, an immensely wealthy family with good advisors (which the Farnese certainly had) could scarcely go wrong in 16th century Italy. Some of the works in the collection were directly commissioned - such as family portraits by Raphael and Titian. And Paul III's cardinal-grandsons, Alessandro and Ranuccio, had the supreme good fortune to have as a consultant and librarian Fulvio Orsini, one of the greatest antiquarians and connoisseurs of the age. Not only did he guide the brothers in their purchases, but also built up his own collection (which included outstanding pieces rejected by the family). On Orsini's death, his collection was incorporated into the Farnese's, bringing with it works by Mantegna, Raphael, Lotto, Sebastiano del Piombo, Sofonisba Anguissola and El Greco (who lived in the Farnese household for a time), not to mention a priceless horde of classical coins and other antiquities.

Given the incompleteness of surviving inventories the complex development of the Farnese collection is often difficult to trace, but the show's commendable catalogue by several hands contains much recently discovered information. One of the most startling revelations is the number and quality of works seized by the Farnese from neighbouring families in the Duchy.

The Farnese's attempts to impose absolute rule in Parma and Piacenza were strenuously opposed by the local nobility. The first Duke, Pier Luigi, made himself so unpopular that he was stabbed to death in 1547. In 1611 the 4th Duke, Ranuccio, claimed to have uncovered a plot against his life, rounded up the supposed conspirators, extracted confessions under torture, had them decapitated in Parma's main piazza and confiscated their property. Among them was Barbara Sanseverino of Colorno, whose collection included important works by Mantegna, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, Correggio and Parmigianino. This and other appropriated collections were also rich in northern works such as Pieter Bruegel's 'Misanthrope' and 'The Blind leading the Blind', and Marinus van Reymerswaele's 'The Misers'.

Driven, from generation to generation, by the twin motors of making dynastically advantageous marriages and assuring the survival of their lineage, the Farnese seldom seem to have enjoyed domestic happiness. Forced into marriage with Paul III's 14-year-old grandson, Ottavio, 2nd Duke of Parma, the 16-year-old Margherita of Austria, natural daughter of Emperor Charles V, was so outraged at the match that she refused to consummate the marriage for two years, and having been delivered of twins, contrived almost never to meet her husband again. Margherita Aldobrandini, the even less fortunate niece of Clement VIII, was married off at 13 to the 4th Duke, Ranuccio I, 'victim' of the 1611 conspiracy, and after numerous disastrous pregnancies finally managed to produce a healthy male heir a dozen years later. The 7th Duke, Francesco, grudgingly married his brother the 6th Duke's widow - in order not to have to pay back the dowry.

Ironically, the realization of the Farnese's long-term ambition of marrying into one of Europe's royal houses heralded the end of the line. For soon after Elisabetta Farnese married Philip V, first Bourbon king of Spain, the last Duke, Antonio, died, suffering from the family's by now characteristic obesity (which had long superceded the lean and hungry look evident in the portraits of their 16th-century forebears), leaving his title and possessions to 'the pregnant womb of the Serene Duchess Enrichetta d'Este'. This hapless woman nursed a phantom pregnancy for nine months. When it was finally declared null and void, the entire Farnese patrimony was ceded laterally to the Spanish Bourbons, who presently transferred almost everything moveable to their kingdom of Naples.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024