Workshop of Raphael, The Story of Psyche, 1518-19, Villa Farnesina, Rome.
I had no idea this rom-com would involve so many episodes! But it is a great story, with some lovely paintings associated with it. And even if Apuleius didn’t tell it exactly as I am – well, my version seems to match the paintings… This week we move from Mantua to Rome – having stopped off in between somewhat out of the way in Stuart England. Cupid and Psyche are re-united, and both are awake, so now all they have to do is to get everyone else on their side. But before they do that, let’s put this cycle in context.
Raphael’s frescoes were designed for a garden loggia in what is now called the Villa Farnesina, built by the Sienese artist and architect Baldassare Peruzzi for banker Agostino Chigi, also from Siena, between 1506 and 1510. It is, like the Palazzo Te which houses Giulio Romano’s Psyche Cycle, a suburban villa, i.e. outside the city walls. It seems very close to the centre of Rome these days, but even now you pass through one of the gates in the city walls on your way there. It is in the Trastevere, the part of Rome which is, as its name suggests, ‘beyond the Tiber’. The easiest way to get there is over the charming pedestrian Ponte Sisto, built for Pope Sixtus IV (who, as well as the Sistine Bridge, was also responsible for the Sistine Chapel), to facilitate the movement of pilgrims through Rome during the Jubilee Year of 1475. Sixtus’s nephew, Julius II, collaborated with Agostino Chigi to have two roads constructed, one from either end of the bridge, but both heading, more or less, towards the Vatican – thus enabling the pilgrims to get there even more quickly. It also freed up plots of land which people could build on. In other words, it was a property scam. One of the lots on the Trastevere side was taken by Chigi himself, out in the countryside, by the river, a perfect place to get away from the city and have fun – and he really did. The stories of excess consumption, and conspicuous display, are legion. But back to the art.
Nowadays you enter though the back door, in the middle of a rational, calm and orderly façade. No sense of the heavy stonework, or rustication, associated with the defensive palaces of the city. But you should have entered here, through the garden, and into the garden loggia – those big, reflective glass windows wouldn’t have been there in the five central arches. The River Tiber (‘Il Tevere’) is on our left, and at the back left corner of the Villa there was another loggia, but that was closed in during the 17th Century. We are going to enter through the central door, head to the right-hand end of the loggia and look back.
This is the view you would have, with the frescoes designed by Raphael and executed by his workshop covering the ceiling. They should have carried on down the walls, but stopped at the bottom of the vaulting. Not even the lunettes are part of the original scheme. Work seems to have broken off when they had to move the scaffolding from the ceiling to the walls in 1519, probably because Raphael was busy – and then ill: he died the following year. It does, however, include the pendentives – the triangular elements hanging down as part of the vaulting. If you look at the end wall, the central pendentive shows Venus pointing out Cupid to Psyche, a painting which I included in ‘Psyche I’ (Picture Of The Day 43).
In context, you can see that Venus could so easily be pointing at any beautiful woman arriving in the loggia from the garden. There are two theories about the reason why this story was chosen to decorate the loggia… one is that it celebrates Chigi’s recent marriage, in which case, it would complement the beauty of his young wife, who must have been, like Psyche, more beautiful than Venus. The other theory is that, as a suburban villa, it was a place to get away – and entertain your mistress, which is precisely what Federico II was supposed to have done in Mantua. As it happens, Chigi’s marriage, which took place in 1519, was to his mistress, and the Pope legitimised their four children… so both versions are true, although the decoration was started before their marriage. As Giulio Romano was a member of Raphael’s workshop while it was being painted, I wonder if he suggested the subject to Federico II, Marquis of Mantua, for the Palazzo Te? It’s an intriguing thought… Another intriguing coincidence: Pope Julius II, who commissioned and prayed underneath Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, would have dined under these frescoes. Indeed, his friendship with Chigi was so great that the latter was granted the right to use the Pope’s family coat of arms, which is in the middle of the ceiling. In Mantua, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V visited in 1530, he chose the Sala di Psiche as the room for a slap-up banquet. And promoted Federico from Marquis to Duke. What is it about this story that made it so attractive to the two most powerful men in Europe?
The conception of Raphael’s frescoes is delightful, even if the walls were never finished, meaning that we don’t see most of the story that we’ve heard so far. As a loggia, it would have been open to the garden – and Raphael continued this idea with the conceit that we are still in the open air, but covered by pergola hung with two tapestries. Their edges are scalloped from the tension of the ties with which they are attached, and in the gaps between the tapestries and the pergola we can see the sky. In the pendentives and the vaulting above the lunettes it is only sky, which is nevertheless inhabited by episodes from the story and by amoretti carrying symbols of the Olympian gods. The garlands themselves, wrapped around the frame of the pergola, were painted by Giovanni Martine da Udine and contain over 170 different species of fruits and flowers, beautifully observed, and occasionally obscene. The pendentive with Venus and Cupid is to the left of this photograph, and we saw the two at the top right last week (POTD 53) – they show Psyche returning with water from the Styx (top right) and Venus, surprised at receiving it (top, right of centre). I’m going to look at the four along the bottom first, and then the two at the top left. Notice how Cupid is pointing down in the bottom left pendentive: Psyche has entered the loggia, it seems, and he is pointing her out to three women.
The three women are all naked (what was the Pope to think?) and although nudity is usually associated with Venus they can’t all be her. They are her companions, the Three Graces, and are seen alongside her in paintings such as Botticelli’s Primavera. Basically, Cupid is working on his mother by trying to get everyone else on his side. Earlier Psyche had unsuccessfully tried to get the help of Juno (there’s a Giulio Romano painting of that in the Palazzo Te, which I didn’t manage to include), and she had also sought the help of Ceres. It was Ceres who suggested that she should go and ask Venus about Cupid, as it happens – not without a little malice, I suspect. As Cupid is talking to the Graces, one of them looks earnestly down at Psyche, while the other two are enchanted by Cupid. However all three look as if he’s in for a rough ride – they know what mum’s like, after all. In the next pendentive we see Ceres, with cereal in her hair, and Juno, with a peacock at her feet (see POTD 32). Venus is on the left – typically naked. Whatever they have said or done to Psyche in the past, they now plead on her behalf, but the Graces were right: Venus sneers and looks unconvinced. In all of the pendentives Raphael’s design is superb: he uses the triangular format to full advantage, with wings, drapery or legs extending to the extremities. It’s a real pity he didn’t get to do more of the painting. Scholars argue about which bits he did, or if he did any at all, with some grudgingly conceding his participation in a few bits of the Graces… although I’ve never been convinced.
Finally, Venus gets a summons from the big boss, Jupiter, and flies on her chariot to see him. Each of the gods was supposed to have had ‘mythical’ creatures pulling their chariots: Juno had peacocks, and Venus had doves (or sometimes, swans), for example. I know that neither peacocks nor doves are mythical, but their use as beasts of burden is. I love the way that Raphael has given Venus a team of four in hand, each pair with their own yoke. Jupiter sits comfortably on his eagle – although the poor squashed bird doesn’t seem too happy about it – and holds his thunderbolt like a sceptre, filling the top right corner of the pendentive. He has the demeanour of the father of a spoilt girl – he knows she’s behaved terribly but he really can’t be cross with her – and she behaves accordingly. We’re two sentences before she gets to ‘it’s not fair!’ I think… But why is she there?
Well, because Juno and Ceres had a word with Jupiter, presumably. But also, definitely, because Cupid did. He has come hot-foot from finding Psyche in a sleep-like death on the road out of the Underworld. He has woken her, declared his love, and has now come to tell Jupiter all about it so he can get him on side. If Jupiter was behaving like an indulgent dad with Venus (and some genealogies suggest he was her father, although her foam-born origin says otherwise), he is doing the same – but more so – with Cupid. The Eagle has been banished to the top right of the fresco, and takes the thunderbolt in its beak, while Jupiter grabs Cupid’s face, and pulls it close to his, trying to look as angry as possible. He’s a very naughty boy. But maybe a little closer than a grandson should be. Which might be a sly nod to some of the rumours about Julius II. Whatever, Cupid got his way, and Jupiter sent Mercury, messenger of the gods, to fetch Psyche and bring her to Olympus. He leads the way, looking back at her superhuman beauty, while she crosses her arms with modesty and wide-eyed innocence.
This fresco should precede the last one, really. It is at the far end of the loggia, opposite Venus and Cupid pointing to… whichever dinner guest was deemed the most beautiful. It represents Mercury swooping down among the gathered assembly to scoop up an unsuspecting maiden and take her up to meet the immortal gods. I love his total abandon, cloak flying out behind, with a look of direct engagement in his eyes: you – yes you! – are the most beautiful person here! His arms are thrown out in a gesture of triumph, almost, as if to say ‘ta-dah!!! I’m here!’ His right hand holds a trumpet to herald his arrival, and his left leads out attention to an oversized courgette in the garland above, a fig hung over one end, and another, split, fig in close relationship to it at the other. I’ll let you look up a detail yourselves, because I couldn’t possibly. What would the Pope say?