Since arriving in Rome in 2010, I’ve diligently made my way through the cities dozens of museums and galleries, hundreds of churches and countless palazzi to quench my thirst for art and culture. I have every guidebook revealing Rome’s Secret Places, keep meticulous lists of noteworthy attractions and yet, despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to exhaust all the treasures packed into the Eternal City. Some sights are difficult to visit because they’re only open once a month (or once a year), others require a concerted effort because they’re located on the other side of town, while others are difficult to visit simply because you don’t even know you can.
Palazzo Farnese is this latter type of hidden gem. The 16th century palazzo, which currently serves as the seat of the French Embassy, is one of the best examples of High Renaissance architecture in the city. And it’s one that you can admire from both the outside and the inside, a fact unbeknownst to most passersby ambling through the nearby market in Campo de Fiori. A visit is a rare occasion to step inside one of the most beautiful embassies in the world and marvel at priceless works by Michelangelo, Sangallo the Younger, Raffaello and others while learning about the influential Farnese family who built and lived in the property for centuries.
Palazzo Farnese was originally built in 1517 and later expanded when Alessandro Farnese, a cardinal living a princely lifestyle, became Pope Paul III in 1534. The palace has notable architectural features including Sangallo’s atrium at the entrance with neat rows of columns, an inner courtyard and a little secret garden in the back. It also has important fresco cycles by Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci including “The Loves of the Gods” and the “Sala d’Ercole” or Hercules Room.
Like most sumptuous estates erected over the centuries, Palazzo Farnese was built to express the eminence of this powerful noble family who also owned Villa Farnese in Caprarola and a wealth of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures (now housed within the Archeological Museum of Naples and the Museo di Capodimonte). Today, the building is owned by the government of Italy though it has been leased to the government of France to use as the French Embassy, an accord undertaken by Mussolini’s Fascist government in 1936 for a duration of 99 years (and a symbolic payment of 1 euro per month).
Before covid, 45 minute tours of Palazzo Farnese were offered in English on Wednesdays at 5pm (tours in Italian and French are offered during other dates and times). Visits are currently suspended but in the meantime, you can enjoy a virtual tour of the French Embassy here.