Many of Rome’s best palaces remain closed to the public most of the time. This is the case in particular with the Palazzo Farnese, prestigious seat of the French embassy in Rome. To break with the tradition, the Palace has exceptionally opened its doors to the public from December to April 2011 for a temporary exhibition on the Farnese family. The exhibition itself is rather disappointing, however, it is a unusual opportunity to enjoy the Palace’s hidden treasures, the best of them being the famous frescoes by Annibale Carracci in the gallery bearing his name.
Carracci, one of the leading artists of the school of Bologna in the late 16th/early 17th century, was called to Rome by Cardinal Oduardo Farnese to decorate his family palace and produce a masterpiece able to compete with the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He was already well known as a painter and had been recommended by another member of the Farnese family, the Duke of Parma who was based in the northern city near Bologna. With such a challenge in mind, Carracci created his cycle of frescoes on the love of the Gods inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the classic tales which became fashionable again in the Renaissance. The frescoes were so fresh and new that they marked a turning point in the history of art and opened the way for the new Baroque style. Carracci gave it all, so much so that he died soon after.
Cardinale Oduardo commissioned the fresco for the marriage of his nephew Ranuccio with Margherita Aldobrandini, niece of Pope Clement VIII, who was renowned for being an extremely strict and rigid counter-reformation pope. The Farnese wanted to shock him by using a pagan theme full of nude and evocative scenes. They succeeded in their venture, as the Carracci gallery became so famous that it was often compared to the Sistine Chapel, and Annibale Carracci considered the heir of Michelangelo.
Other Farnese treasures include the collection of antique sculptures, and among which the famous statue of Hercules, resting after his work. The sculptures were found during the excavation of the Caracalla Baths, ordered in the 1530s by the Farnese Pope Paul III, who built the palace between 1515 when he was still a cardinal and the 1540s (he was Pope between 1534 and 1549). Michelangelo famously designed the facade, adding to it the Pope’s emblem, the largest ever seen on a Roman palace.
The collection of sculptures which used to decorate the reception rooms and gardens, is no longer in the Palace but moved to Naples when the last descendant of the Farnese family, Elisabeth, married the Bourbon King of Naples in 1714. It can be seen today in the Archeological Museum of Naples. Only a few of these sculptures temporarily moved back to Rome for the exhibition, most notably the heads of the Philosophers such as Homer among others. As for the other masterpieces, giant photographic reproductions are displayed in the exact location where they used to stand, but it doesn’t really give a feeling of what the place was like during the glory of the Farnese. The atmosphere inside the Palace remains however the austere atmosphere of an efficient public administration.