Palazzo Farnese, Roma

The French Embassy:   I made a quick trip to Rome this past week to visit the Palazzo Farnese, a reservation made several months ago.  You have to reserve early and provide lots of personal information if you want to pay a visit to the French Embassy in Italy!




Today the Palazzo is owned by the Italian Republic.  In 1936 an arrangement was made with the French to house their embassy for 99 years at the high cost of $1.00 per annum.   The Italians have a similar arrangement in Paris.




See those men behind me?  They are there to make sure only authorized people enter the Embassy.  Trust me, they do a good job! Even with my reservation, I almost wasn’t let in (it seems they needed my actual passport, not just a photocopy that serves me in 99.9% of cases….ummmm… I won’t be making that mistake again).




This pair of matching fountains stand symmetrically in front of the Palazzo.





I was there as an art lover, of course, scheduled to take a tour in Italian of the many beautiful objets that adorn the fabulous palace.  Chief among them being the fabulous frescoes by Carracci!


But, before moving to the frescoes, let’s look at the incredible building!


Above is an overview of this very important Renaissance palazzo, located in a prime area of central Rome. First designed in 1517 for the Farnese family, the building expanded in size and conception to designs by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger when Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III in 1534.

The palazzo’s construction involved some of the most prominent Italian architects of the 16th century, including Michelangelo, Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola and Giacomo della Porta.


Above is an engraving of the Palazzo with the two matching fountains.


Let’s talk frescoes!


Several of the palazzo’s main salons were painted with elaborate allegorical programs including the Hercules cycle in the Sala d’Ercole or the Hercules Room; the “Sala del Mappamondo” or The Room of Maps; and the well known The Loves of the Gods  (1597–1608) by the Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci.

220px-Palazzo_Farnese_detail               Venus_and_Anchises



In 1595, Annibale and Agostino Carracci had traveled to Rome to begin decorating the Palazzo with stories of Hercules, appropriate since the it housed the famous Greco-Roman antique sculpture of the hyper muscular the so-called Farnese Hercules.

Annibale developed hundreds of preparatory sketches for the major work, wherein he led a team painting frescoes on the ceiling of the grand salon with the secular quadri riportati of The Loves of the Gods.

Although the ceiling is riotously rich in illusionistic elements, the narratives are framed in the restrained classicism of High Renaissance decoration, drawing inspiration from, yet more immediate and intimate, than Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling as well as Raphael’s Vatican Logge and Villa Farnesina frescoes.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the Farnese Ceiling was considered the unrivaled masterpiece of fresco painting for its age. They were not only seen as a pattern book of heroic figure design, but also as a model of technical procedure; Annibale’s hundreds of preparatory drawings for the ceiling became a fundamental step in composing any ambitious history painting.

The lucky French, to occupy this magnificent building!

You knew I would soon veer to art, didn’t you?

Oranges and Italian art:

Because of a combination of new artistic techniques and some apparently reasonable, but mistaken, assumptions about the history of citrus, oranges appeared frequently in paintings by any number of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.

In making the break from Byzantine scholasticism to the new humanism of the Renaissance, artists began setting their religious figures against naturalistic backgrounds. Not having seen the Holy Land, they glibly set their Annunciations and Resurrections in Italian villas and on Italian hills.

Crusaders, among others, had long since reported that orange trees flourished in Palestine, so, as a kind of hallmark of authenticity, the painters slipped orange trees into masterpiece after masterpiece, remaining ignorant to their deaths that in the time of Christ there were no orange trees in or near the Holy Land.

In his “Maestà,” the Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna showed Jesus entering Jerusalem through the streets of Siena, past orange trees in full fruit.

Fra Angelico painted Jesus resting under an orange tree.

It was almost unthinkable for a great master to do a “Flight into Egypt” without lining the route with orange trees.

A “Last Supper” was incomplete without oranges on the table, although there is no mention of oranges in the Bible.

Titian’s “Last Supper,” which hangs in the Escorial, shows oranges with fish.

A Domenico Ghirlandaio “Last Supper” goes further: a mature orange grove is depicted in murals behind the Disciples.

The deterioration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” has been too extensive for any oranges in it to be identified, but in all likelihood, according to Tolkowsky, they were there.

Most painters thought of the Annunciation as occurring indoors, and Paolo Veronese, for one, moved orange trees indoors to authenticate the scene, setting the plants in trapezoidal pots, of the type in which orange trees were grown in his time in northern Italy.

Fra Angelico also used orange trees to give a sense of the Holy Land to his “Descent from the Cross,” which was otherwise set against the walls of Florence, and, like many of his contemporaries, when he painted the Garden of Eden he gave it the appearance of a citrus grove.

Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in a family chapel of the Medici show Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar looking less like three wise kings from the East than three well-fed Medici, descending a hill that is identifiable as one near Fiesole, dressed as an Italian hunting party, and passing through stands of orange trees bright with fruit.

Actually, Gozzoli’s models for the magi were Lorenzo de’ Medici; Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople; and John Palaeologus, Emperor of the East.



The orange tree was more than a misplaced landmark. It was also a symbol of the Virgin, erroneously derived from an earlier association that medieval theologians had established between Mary and the tall cedars of Lebanon.

Thus, countless paintings of the Madonna or of the Madonna and Child were garlanded with orange blossoms, decorated with oranges, or placed in a setting of orange trees.

Mantegna, Verrochio, Ghirlandaio, Correggio, and Fra Angelico all complemented their Madonnas with oranges.

Sandro Botticelli, in his “Madonna with Child and Angels,” set his scene under a tentlike canopy thickly overhung with the branches of orange trees full of oranges.

In the Neo-Latin of the Renaissance, oranges were sometimes called medici— an etymological development that had begun with the Greek word for citron, or Median apple.

It is no wonder, therefore, that in art and interior decoration the Medici themselves went in heavily for oranges. In Florence, oranges are painted all over the ceilings of the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

The Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici was one of the world’s earliest collectors of citrus trees, and in Tolkowsky’s view the five red spheres on the Medici coat of arms were almost certainly meant to represent oranges.

When Botticelli painted his “Primavera,” under a commission from the family, he shamelessly included Giuliano de’ Medici as the god Mercury, picking oranges.

Botticelli also painted his “Birth of Venus” for the Medici.

It was Venus, and not the Hesperides, according to a legend current at the time, who had brought oranges to Italy.

Botticelli’s model was Simonetta dei Cattanei, wife of Marco Vespucci and Giuliano de’ Medici’s Platonic love. Simonetta came from Porto Venere, where Venus was alleged to have landed with the original oranges, so Botticelli painted her in the celebrated scallop shell bobbing on the gentle swells off Porto Venere, and lined the coast behind her with orange trees.

Giuliano’s son, Giulio de’ Medici, who became Pope Clement VII, commissioned Raphael to design a villa for him with a great double stairway leading to a sunken garden full of orange trees.

All this was bound to engage the envy of royalty in the north, and at the end of the fifteenth century, in an expedition often said to mark the dividing point between medieval and modern history, Charles VIII of France went to Italy intending to subdue the peninsula by force of arms. Instead, he fell in love with Italian art, architecture, and oranges. When he returned to France, every other man in his retinue was an Italian gardener, an Italian artist, or an Italian architect. Charles was going to transform the castles and gardens of France.

McPhee, John (2011-04-01). Oranges. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.



Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun @ the Met

Remember this painting?




The work of the French 18th-century painter, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), is being featured in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York right now. Amazingly, this is the first retrospective and only the second exhibition devoted to Vigée Le Brun in modern times. The 80 works on view include oil paintings and a few pastels from European and American public and private collections.

The Met’s website has great images and good information about the artist and the exhibition here

The images and information in this post is taken largely from the Met’s website.




One of the finest 18th-century French painters and among the most important of all women artists, Vigée Le Brun is a beacon of inspiration to all women. She was remarkable not only for her technical gifts but for her understanding of and sympathy with her sitters.

With her exceptional skills as a portraitist, she achieved success in France and Europe during one of the most eventful, turbulent periods in European history and indeed the path of her own life reflects that turbulence.

To wit: At the age of 21, she married the leading art dealer in Paris. Her husband’s profession created a conflict of interest that at first kept her from being accepted into the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Nevertheless, through the intervention of Marie Antoinette, she was admitted at the age of 28 in 1783, becoming one of only four women members.

However, her association with the royalty forced her to flee for her safety from France in 1789; she traveled to Italy, where in 1790 she was elected to membership in the Accademia di San Luca, Rome. She worked independently in Florence, Naples, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Berlin before returning to France, painting portraits of, among others, members of the royal families of Naples, Russia, and Prussia.

Despite the fact that she was in exile, she exhibited at the Paris Salons. That seems pretty amazing to me.

One of the best features of the museum’s website is that you can take an audio tour online of the exhibition here:


Let’s look at a few of the key objets in the exhibition:

Here’s her portrait of her brother, painted when she was 18 and he was 15.


Etienne (1758–1820) is presented as a draftsman holding an artist’s portfolio and porte-crayon. He later developed a reputation as a witty poet and playwright.  The French Revolution marked his life in serious ways as well as that of his sister.


Here’s her portrait of her stepfather, whom she disliked intensely:


The stepfather, Monsieur Le Sèvre (1724–1810), was a gold- and silversmith who brought Vigée’s family to live above his shop on the rue Saint-Honoré. He is shown seated at a desk, reading, in a satin robe and nightcap, typical at-home attire for men of the time. The sympathetic portrayal belies the intense dislike Vigée felt for him. She accused him of hoarding her income.


Her mother, Madame Jacques François Le Sèvre:

VLB 1774-8 Jeanne Maissin


The sitter (1728–1800) had married our artist’s father, Louis Vigée (1715–1767), a portraitist and official at the Académie de Saint-Luc.  After his death, she married Jacques Le Sèvre, a goldsmith. Madame Le Sèvre encouraged her adolescent daughter’s professional aspirations by chaperoning her sittings and taking her to see works of art. Vigée’s mother wears a satin cloak trimmed with swans’ down and bows of a color the artist particularly favored.


Her allegorical interpretation of “Poetry.”


Vigée was nineteen when officials sealed her studio on the pretext that she was painting professionally without having joined a guild. She therefore applied and was admitted to the Académie de Saint-Luc. Of the works she contributed to her first exhibition, three were allegories of the arts: Painting, Poetry, and Music. Here, Poetry, a draped nude, writes in a portfolio with a goose quill. She looks upward, conveying a moment of inspiration.


Her patron, the queen Marie Antoinette in Court Dress:


In 1777, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria wrote to her daughter Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) asking for a portrait. Vigée Le Brun received the commission, her first from the queen. She remembered that the queen “walked better than any other woman in France, holding her head very high with a majesty that singled her out in the midst of the entire court.”


The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat


Vigée Le Brun shows the duchess (1749–1793), a close friend of Marie Antoinette, bathed in pale golden light. She wears the straw hat and costume of an elegant courtier-shepherdess.


Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress


The queen and her circle had grown weary of the discomforts of the formal attire worn at Versailles. In the early 1780s, in private settings, they therefore abandoned their corsets and hoops for draped, loosely belted muslin chemise dresses, which were relaxed and natural.

With the support of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, Vigée Le Brun became one of fourteen women (among 550 artists) admitted to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture before the Revolution. At her first Salon, she displayed a number of portraits, including one of the queen in a white muslin dress and straw hat. The characterization of the monarch was admired. However, the pastoral costume was condemned as inappropriate for the public portrayal of royalty and the artist was asked to remove it from the exhibition.


Comtesse de Ségur

Antoinette-Elisabeth-Marie d'Aguesseau, comtesse de SÈgur (1756-1828)

VigÈe-Le Brun Elisabeth Louise (1755-1842). Versailles, ch?teaux de Versailles et de Trianon. MV5962.


The countess (1756–1828) shared in the work of her husband, a diplomat, historian, and supporter of the American War of Independence. With her lips parted in a smile, she here abandons the mask of impassivity traditionally embraced by courtiers.

This luminous, subtly painted image is in the new style Vigée Le Brun adopted after she saw Peter Paul Rubens’s Presumed Portrait of Susanne Lunden.



Baronne de Crussol Florensac

RO 307

The baronne de Crussol Florensac turns to gaze at the viewer over her shoulder. She holds a musical score and wears a splendid red costume with a deep black velvet collar and a matching hat. Little is known of this woman of great beauty, elegance, and distinction. The support, a wood panel, contributes to the lustrous surface of the picture.


Marie Antoinette and Her Children


In 1785, by order of Louis XVI, the office of royal households commissioned this important portrait of Marie Antoinette from Vigée Le Brun, the first woman to attain the rank of painter to the king. Inspired by depictions of the Holy Family, the work was intended to extoll the queen’s maternal role. The empty bassinet alludes to her fourth child, who had recently died.


You can see many more images from the exhibition at the Met’s website linked above.


It’s about time!