Spiritus Mundi: The Loggia of Galatea in the Villa Farnesina

Across the Tiber River and directly opposite to the urban centre of papal Rome, Agostino Chigi -the richest man in Europe- commissioned from 1506 to 1510 the unique suburban dwelling which today is called the Villa Farnesina. The hall known as the Loggia of Galatea provided a space for the wealthy banker Chigi to not only revive the lifestyle of the ancient Romans, but also to display his own magnificent spirit. Known as ‘Il Magnifico’ by his contemporaries, Chigi was an extravagant host who dazzled the nobility and literary of Rome with luxurious banquets set within the imaginative loggia. Modelled after the suburban villas of antiquity, the open design of the Loggia of Galatea conveyed a spiritual realm situated outside that of the Christian paradigm. The frescoes adorning the loggia likewise manifest a philosophy that is Neo-Platonic rather than Catholic. In particular, Sebastiano del Piombo’s Polyphemus and Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea evoked the very subject matter of Neo-Platonic love while the astrological ceiling by Baldassare Peruzzi implied Chigi’s destiny for magnificence. The inventive ways in which Renaissance interests in antiquity, mythology, and astrology were fused into the images displayed on the walls and ceiling revealed Chigi’s masterfulness in portraying his role as a wealthy Roman patron while simultaneously communicating the mindset of an educated humanist. Thus, the Loggia of Galatea suggests the illusionary world of Renaissance Rome and the personal realm of a humanist.

The notion of Neo-Platonic love during the sixteenth century, in which the soul could transcend its bodily prison through the intellect, was a fashionable belief amongst the humanist elite as demonstrated by the loggia’s decoration. In keeping with this contemporary notion of love, the pagan myth of Galatea and Polyphemus was reinterpreted into a humanist context as seen in the adjacent frescoes by Sebastiano del Piombo and Raphael. The artists’ representation of the pagan narrative was derived from literary sources, with which Chigi’s guests would have been familiar with, such as Ovids Metamorphosis and Polizianos Stanze per la Giostra.[1] The unrequited love that the monster Polyphemus has for the sea nymph Galatea can be viewed as a Neo-Platonic metaphor for the human desire to overcome the earthly prison of the body (cacer terreno) in order to attain spiritual purity (amor celeste).[2] Thus, the contrasting figures of the bestial monster and the divine nymph reflect the philosopher Marsilio Ficinos description of the humanist soul which seeks transcendence from earthly predicaments to a more spiritual state that is closer to God. This transition from Polyphemus to Galatea can be viewed as a hierarchy of the soul from the secular to the spiritual. While the earthly Polyphemus desires physical love, the divine Galatea seeks spiritual bliss. As humanists, Chigi’s guests would aspire to conquer the beauty of Galatea; but alas, their mortal bodies cause them to remain grounded with Polyphemus. Through the use of pagan figures as agents of Neo-Platonic philosophy, the patron’s reflections of love were manifested in a way that inventively engaged the elite audience of Renaissance Rome.


By examining the Sebastiano’s Polyphemus through the mindset of a Renaissance humanist, whose primary interest is the dignity of man, the viewer is able to empathise with the tormented Cyclops. Rather than a grotesque and fanciful figure, Polyphemus is presented more as a man who, despite being seated, implies forceful movement as every straining muscle confirms his agitation over Galatea’s rejection. His face is shadowed blurring the brutality of his features which makes him ominous and which suggest the depth of his emotion.[3] Sebastiano invites the beholder to sympathise with the plight of Polyphemus and to anticipate his dreadful retribution through the murder of Galatea’s lover, Acis. Thus, both Polyphemus and the viewer gaze longingly at the unattainable Galatea who does not return the glance but rather looks upwards towards the heavens.

A further dimension of the concept of divine love in Neo-Platonism can be considered when examining the figure of Galatea, the embodiment of ideal beauty. Although the fresco Triumph of Galatea was intended to be the complementary work to Sebastiano’s Polyphemus, Raphael’s powerful representation of the nymph gained admiration independently amongst the humanists as a hallmark for the aesthetics of ideal beauty. By deliberately choosing a moment in the narrative which precedes the tragic murder of her lover, Raphael is able to depict Galatea as poise. Despite the torrent of motion around her, Galatea maintains a stance of triumph emphasised by her easy grasp of the reins of the shell-chariot; despite her control of the situation, her demeanour is imbued with grazie that suggests a more submissive femininity. The Renaissance belief in selecting and reconfiguring the best aspects of nature in order to depict beauty is emphasised in Raphael’s letter to Castiglione in which he comments on his creation of the figure Galatea: “To paint a figure truly beautiful, I should see many beautiful forms, with the further provision that you yourself be present to choose the most beautiful. But good judges and beautiful women being rare, I avail myself of certain ideas which comes to my mind” (1519).[4]  Such views of beauty reflect Neo-Platonic philosophy in which divine love is unattainable in the secular world.

The contrast between the secular and spiritual forms of  love is also reflected in the details of marine life portrayed in Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea. The tritons, mythical creatures who are part man and beast, surround Galatea and overtake the other nymphs in lusty passion. Meanwhile the putti figure in the foreground directs the viewer’s attention to the dolphin pulling the chariot. Considered ‘lord of the sea,’ the dolphin is shown in the act of killing the octopus. Renaissance culture created a moral distinction between the dolphin, a symbol of virtue, and the octopus, a possessive creature of desire.[5] The contrast between these two sea creatures provides an emblematic amplification of the theme of an object of desire’s rejection of amorous advances by the suitor. While the muscular strength of the mythical Tritons allow them to overtake the delicate sea nymphs, the world of the sea demonstrates virtuous love destroying lust. [6] Such complexity in the iconography of the fresco subtly reflects Chigi’s intelligent patronage of a humanist image.

While the frescoes depicting the myth of Galatea and Polyphemus convey the notion of Neo-Platonic love within a pagan context, the ceiling of the loggia painted by Peruzzi utilises astrology to represent the destined splendour of Chigi. During the sixteenth century, astrology was a popular activity among the elite as a form of investigation into an individual’s character. Natal charts were often employed by important figures such as the pope and cardinals to determine their personalities; significantly, Chigi commissioned his own natal chart to be depicted on the ceiling, subtly symbolizing his own magnificence. Although born under the sign of Leo in 1466, the astrology on the ceiling is that of the Virgo. According to the ancient astrologer Manilius, if born under the influence of Virgo, “The child will cultivate a garden budding with bright flowers and slopes green with glass...His heart is set upon elegance, fashion, and the art of adornment, upon gracious living and the pleasure of the hour.”[7] Since the predictions under Virgo coincided better with the facts of Chigis life,  the patron chose to represent himself born under the sign of Virgo in order to convey the persona that was in accordance his elegant lifestyle[8] as well as justifying such extravagance as a part of fate. In addition to providing commentary on Chigi’s character, the depicted horoscope also functioned as a form of entertainment.[9] The frescoes of the stars encouraged impromptu readings by talented guests at Chigis lavish banquets. Parallel to the function of the whole of the loggia, Chigi’s natal chart is an imaginative conjecture intended to entertain and impress guests.

In Peruzzi’s astrological rendition, rather than representing the sky as a cluster of stars, the constellations were personified as mythological figures from classical antiquity. The two main constellations, created in 1512, represent reinterpreted myths with allegoric connotations of triumph. Nymph Callisto depicts the female deity as a maiden driving a chariot pulled by oxen which refers to the constellation’s name of Chariot. [10] Similar to Galatea, Callisto is holds the reins of the chariot effortlessly as her divine being provides easy control over the bestial oxen. In the Myth of Perseus and the Gorgon, the figures of stone watch in anticipation as Perseus prepares to decapitate Medusa. Although the original myth states that Perseus cannot look directly at Medusa, in this depiction Perseus clearly gazes at the monster before beheading her suggesting a heroic figure that is even more powerful than the traditional myth and consequently emphasising Chigi’s authority. While the winged female floating above is usually identified as Fame although, she could also be Virgo trumpeting Chigi’s fame especially since Virgo was often shown as a winged maiden dressed in a long white gown. [11] Despite the ambiguous identity of the white maiden, her role is clearly to direct the viewer’s attention to Chigi’s coat of arms in the centre of the ceiling. The coat of arms contains a quiver of arrows with the motto “two for one”, indicating Chigi’s famous generosity in repaying favour and notorious redoubling of severity against enemies.[12] Through the constellations of Callisto and Perseus, once again the triumph and magnificence of Chigi is conveyed in a manner that stimulates conversation amongst guests while instilling respect for the Sienese banker.

By examining the complex iconographic meaning of the fresco decorations of the Loggia of Galatea, the pagan past and the humanist present are blended in a way which conveys Agostino Chigi’s status as a magnificent patron and spiritual humanist. Within the context of the suburban villa, the idealised landscapes were allowed to be imbued with pagan and Neo-Platonic themes as exemplified in Sebastiano’s Polyphemus and Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea. When looking above at the astrological sky by Peruzzi, the patron’s birth chart is subsumed under the allegorised figures of Nymph Callisto and Myth of Perseus and the Gorgon, all of which further convey Chigi’s magnificent status. Despite his role as treasurer to the Vatican the abundance of mythic narratives in the frescoes suggests that Chigi identified himself more with an ancient Pagan than with a Roman Christian,. Although only separated by a river to the nerve centre of Rome, the Caput Mundi, the Loggia of Galatea provided a place to manifest the humanist spirit revealing another side to the soul of the Renaissance patron, his own Spiritus Mundi.

© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2014-2018

Ahlstrom Appraisals | Personal Property Appraisals and Art Consultations | Serving Atlanta & Southeast | Fine Art, Antiques & Vintage

[1]  Hulse, C. The Rule of Art Literature and Painting in the Renaissance, London, 1990, 97.

[2]  Feghelm, D. I, Raphael, New York, 2004, 234.

[3] Ibid., 234.

[4] Ibid., 84.

[5]   Kinkead, D. An Iconographic Note on Raphaels Galatea, Journal of the Warburg and Courtland Institutes, 33, 1970, 315.

[6]   Ibid., 315.

[7]   Quinlan-McGrath, M. “The Astrological Vault of the Villa Farnesina Agostino Chigi’s Rising Sign” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 47, 1984, 105.

[8]   Ibid., 105.

[9]   Lippincott, K. “Two astrological Ceilings Reconsidered: The Sala di Galatea in the Villa Farnesina and the Sala del Mappamondo at Caprarola,” Journal at the Warburg and Courtland Institutes, 53, 1990, 196.

[10]   Rowland, I. Render Unto Caesar the Things Which are Casears: Humanism and the Arts in the Patronage of Agostino Chigi, Renaissance Quarterly, 39, 1986, 676.

[11]   Quinlan-McGrath, M. “The Astrological Vault of the Villa Farnesina Agostino Chigi’s Rising Sign” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 47, 1984, 98.

[12]   Rowland, I. Render Unto Caesar the Things Which are Casears: Humanism and the Arts in the Patronage of Agostino Chigi, Renaissance Quarterly, 39, 1986, 676.