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Page revised in June 2009.
Orti Farnesiani sul Palatino (Book 10) (Map B3) (Day 1) (View C9) (Rione Campitelli)
One of the first decisions taken by Pope Paul III after his election in 1534, was to give the cardinal's hat to his grandson Alessandro, who was aged fifteen. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese played a major role in assisting his grandfather and his successors. He was a great supporter of the Jesuits (he built il Gesù), a great collector of works of art and a capable advocate of the interests of his family.
The Farnese had a large palace in Rione Regola, but Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who was a man of the Renaissance and therefore very fond of the ancient past of Rome, decided to buy several parcels of land overlooking Campo Vaccino, the site of the Roman Forum. He then commissioned il Vignola with the design and construction of a summer residence for the Farnese.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) First entrance; 2) Porticoes and Fontana della Pioggia; 3) Second floor; 4) Third floor; 5) Aviaries on the top floor. The small map shows also 6) Entrance to Villa Spada (Mattei); 7) S. Sebastiano al Palatino; 8) S. Bonaventura.
The excavations carried out in the second half of the XIXth century spared only the stairway leading to the aviaries and the gardens to the right of them; the turret next to the aviaries and the building at the end of the alley no longer exist.
Up the steps
A feature of Italian Renaissance gardens was the attention paid to symmetry and perspective; similar to Villa d'Este, Orti Farnesiani had a series of terraces connected by stairways flanked by trees and decorated with statues.
In order to escape the heat of summer the ancient Romans used natural caves as a shady recess which they embellished with statues: Emperor Tiberius recreated Polyphemus' cave at his villa by the sea near Sperlonga.
In the lack of natural caves, Italian gardens had artificial grottoes which often were given the appearance of a nymphaeum, a monument dedicated to nymphs of springs and thus they had a source of water; the caves were designed in order to receive some natural light. What is left of the decoration of Orti Farnesiani was based on mythological themes to help the visitors forget the worries of the real world.
The property was inherited by Charles of Bourbon, who later on became King of Naples; he spoiled the villa to enrich his collections in Naples and Caserta. In 1861 Francis II, the last King of Naples, sold Orti Farnesiani to Emperor Napoleon III of France. The Italian government acquired the property in 1870 and it started a systematic plan of excavations to search for the old Roman monuments.
In the Gardens
The fountains were added in the XVIIth century by Girolamo Rainaldi when the supply of water to the Palatine was restored, however because the pressure with which this arrived was low, the fountains were not of the spouting type, but "sweating" ones, where water flowed on the surface as sweat does on the skin.
Orti in Italian means kitchen-gardens, but when Cardinal Farnese chose to call this residence Horti Farnesiani, he probably had in mind that hortus conclusus was the walled garden where Mary conceived Jesus Christ; it was divided into quadrants and it had a well or a fountain at its centre: it derived from the Roman peristilium, examples of which could be seen in the nearby Palatine palaces.
Very little else is left in the Forum and in the Palatine of the Farnese period, but wandering about one comes across some fleurs-de-lis, their heraldic symbol. Giacomo Boni, one of the archaeologists who led the excavation campaigns on the Palatine asked to be buried in Orti Farnesiani; his tomb is at the foot of a tall palm.
The main gate of Orti Farnesiani was located on the road which crossed Campo Vaccino; in 1644 the Farnese built an ephemeral triumphal arch next to this gate to celebrate the possessio of Pope Innocent X; it became a tradition and the design of these arches was commissioned to the best architects. The gate has been relocated to Via di S. Gregorio and it serves as the grand entrance to the archaeological area.
Orti Farnesiani did not include the whole of the Palatine Hill; its southern side, that facing Circus Maximus, was part of Villa Mattei; later on this section of the villa was sold to the Spada.
The Barberini owned another (minor) portion of the Palatine; it was not a villa, but a vigna (vineyard) on an artificial terrace built by Emperor Tiberius; the gate of Vigna Barberini is decorated with a modern painting (on ceramics) portraying the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, because it serves as entrance to the church by the same name.
S. Bonaventura and S. Sebastiano al Palatino
The small churches of S. Bonaventura and S. Sebastiano
al Palatino were spared
by the extensive excavations of the Palatine and they are today very sought
after wedding spots.
Via di S. Bonaventura, the quiet street leading to the two churches, gives a pretty good idea of how the eastern and southern parts of Rome appeared to an XVIIIth century traveller: isolated churches, Roman ruins and the walls which surrounded large villas. You may wish to see some other silent streets of Rome.
S. Sebastiano was built in the Xth century on a Roman temple dedicated by Emperor Heliogabalus to the Sun. The church and the monastery were protected by walls and towers. The area was abandoned when in 1630 Pope Urban VIII acquired it and rebuilt the church (design by Luigi Arrigucci).
There are records saying that the oldest church on the Palatine was called S. Cesario in Palatio, probably a corruption of Aedes Caesarum in Palatio, the terrace built by Emperor Tiberius; the exact location of this church was forgotten and eventually in the XVIth century this name was given to S. Cesareo at the beginning of Via Appia. Rodolfo Lanciani, one of the most important archaeologists of the XIXth century, thought he discovered the site of the old church at the foot of the terrace, but other archaeologists think that it was inside Villa Mattei.
The last stretch of the street is flanked by XVIIIth century Stations of the Cross; it leads to the
church and monastery of S. Bonaventura built in 1689 by
the Spanish Franciscan Fra Bonaventura (Miguel Gran). The church was built on the site of a large Roman cistern. You can see its structure from the archaeological area.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 10: Teatro
di verdure nella Villa Corsini alla Lungara