Palazzo Farnese di Caprarola and its grotesque gems

While the word “grotesque” has become associated with something ugly or disgusting, it originally referred to a decorative form of Ancient Roman art. It comes from the same Latin root as “grotto” or “cave” and was first seen in the Domus Aurea, an unfinished palace started by the Emperor Nero in Rome:

At the end of the 15th century, the style was rediscovered and copied, and can be seen on many villas around Rome and throughout Italy.

Grotesque art includes images of foliage, flowers, animals and mythical creatures, usually arranged in a symmetrical pattern. I realised how much I liked it was during a visit to the Villa d’Este, a beautiful site in Tivoli commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este in the 16th century. Here is an example of some grotesque patterns surrounding this fresco of a lady representing “temperance” in that villa.

Tivoli 039After my visit to Tivoli, and also to Villa Giulia in Rome, I was keen to travel to Caprarola, near Viterbo, to admire the grotesque art in the Palazzo Farnese. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese commissioned famed architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola to design this massive pentagonal fortress in the 16th century, mainly to show off his family’s power. When I arrived in Caprarola it was unfortunately a rainy day but the mansion still looked impressive as I approached it from the small town below.

caprarolaGiven the poor weather, the gardens were closed. However, the rain also kept other visitors away so in the end I practically had the palace to myself and was able to swan around pretending to be a Farnese noblewoman. It also meant I concentrated more closely on admiring the stunning interior decorations, including the grotesque patterns. The first rooms I was able to peek into were on the ground floor, surrounding an internal courtyard. Depictions of spring, summer, autumn and winter decorated the roofs, while the walls were covered with several splendid grotesque examples.


grotesque2I carried on up Vignola’s stunning spiral staircase, leading up to the Piano Nobile, the main floor open to the public. The staircase was also covered with frescoes and grotesque decorations, and had an impressive dome roof.


dome4On the Piano Nobile, some of the frescoes depicted moments of glory for the Farnese family, others showed mythical and biblical scenes. They were all surrounded by more grotesque decorations. Here are some of my favourite images:


athenamedallionThe last room open to the public was one of the most interesting. It was the “room of the world map”, and was covered in frescoes of explorers, such as Christopher Columbus, along with maps of what was known of the world then. Signs of the zodiac were painted on the roof. Here is the attempt at the Americas:



zodiacI would highly recommend a visit to Palazzo Farnese, especially if you enjoyed Villa d’Este, in Tivoli. There are some nice restaurants in Caprarola, so it makes a lovely day trip when you are staying in Viterbo. I enjoyed a tasty soup in Trattoria del Cimino . Public transport links are not that clear from Viterbo. I think it is best to walk to the Riello bus terminal, which is outside town to the north, along Via Palazzina, then past the big Iper supermarket. There you can find out the timetables and make sure you get the right bus. Now that I know the logistics I’m hoping to come back with my mum or another guest around April/May, when the weather will be better and hopefully we will also be able to see the gardens.

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