The Story of Cupid and Psyche Continues in Villa Farnesina
Yesterday I posted about the new exhibit at Castel Sant’Angelo that brings together dozens of works of art illustrating the fable of Cupid and Psyche. This show, as I wrote yesterday, particularly interested me because I love the idea of an exhibit that tells a story. And what a story, with jealousy, diversity, courage, trust, abandonment, forgiveness and true love conquering all odds, well, Disney could not have topped it.
In fact I have so much to write about it that I am continuing the subject today. If you are not familiar with the story of Cupid and Psyche, you can read it here. What I find especially inspiring about it is that Psyche, the female character, is clearly the hero of the story. Cupid may be her “prince Charming” but it is her story, and it is she who succeeds at Venus’ impossible tasks, risking her life to be with the man she loves.
This 2nd-century story became popular in during the Renaissance and it was often the subject of artwork in bedrooms because if its romantic theme, and because it ends with a wedding banquet. The perfect subject for the art decorating the bedroom of a newlywed couple.
One of the most famous sites to utilize this subject is Villa Farnesina, the exquisite and rarely visited Renaissance palace in Trastevere. The villa was designed by Baldassare Perluzzi and built between 1508 and 1512 for the rich Sienese banker, Agostino Chigi. One of the richest men of his day, Chigi financed the caprices of many popes and their greedy relations. He was genuinely in love with his long-time mistress Francesca Ordeaschi, but because of his high social status, it wasn’t suitable for them to marry. Not being able to find a highborn woman whom he could bear to spend the rest of his life with, he moved Francesca into the villa and lived openly with her there. In an unprecedented and bold social step, they finally married in 1519, a veritable fairy tale not at all unlike the story of our Cupid and Psyche. Even more unheard of is the fact that the pope, Leo X De' Medici officiated the ceremony.
No surprise then that on occasion of his long-awaited nuptials he had the ceiling of the villa’s loggia frescoed with scenes from the popular story. Like the mere mortal Psyche, Francesca was being welcomed into the social stratosphere of the super-elite, despite being not much more than a courtesan. Apparently Chigi’s ego didn’t have a problem with him representing himself as a god in this scenario.
The walls the loggia are frescoed by several noted artists, most importantly Raphael, but it’s the ceiling that illustrates our story. Although Raphel may have been involved in the ceiling’s design, it is almost entirely the work of his greatest pupils, Giulio Romano, Giovan Francesco Penni, Raffaellino del Colle and Giovanni da Udine. The ceiling is gorgeous enough to be satisfying on its own, but when you know the story it makes it that much more rewarding.
Each spandrel illustrates a different scene from the fable, each one lovelier than the last, and the story in this case begins with Venus pointing out Psyche to Cupid. The frescoes are glorious, a celebration of the high Renaissance style that Raphael inspired. This is one of those places I could spend hours in, just feeding my eyes with the lush details and graceful figures.
The spandrel above is one of my favorites. I love mythological art because you can always find the symbols of each character somewhere. Juno's symbol is the peacock which you can easily to the right of Venus' legs. Ceres, in the center, is the goddess of grain and harvest and she wears blades of wheat in her hair.
Venus clearly was not expecting Psyche to be able to pull this one off.
It's hard to tear your eyes away from the beautiful figures, but the festoons are every bit as worthy of praise, and were the work of Giovanni da Udine. It's not unusual for subtle sexual messages to be hidden in festoons bursting with fruit and vegetation like these ones. Sometimes it is obvious, even explicit, such as in the fresco of Mercury, right above his hand.
If you think I have an over-active imagination, take a look at the fruit just to the left of the oddly shaped cucumber (?). It is difficult to see here, but it is clearly a fig. If you speak a bit of Italian, you will know I'm not seeing things.
In the center of the ceiling, these two large magnificent frescoes crown one of the most splendid, and least-known, wonders of Rome.