Sunday, September 18, 2011


Castles  and Capers   in Borgia  Country

Loggia  and fountain  of Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola

Borgia, Farnese, Orsini… these  are just  a few of the powerful  families  who  held sway in  Etruria , an area north of Rome   that  the Italians  call Tuscia Viterbese . 

Borgia-Farnese  castle, Nepi 
Thanks  to  their   connections,  powerful   papal nephews  were able  to acquire  lands and create  magnificent  palazzi  and  gardens  in this now quiet area north of Rome. 

Nepotism allowed them to commission  splendid  estates and art work for  their private enjoyment and to dazzle  visitors. 

As  modern  TV series show,  many of the papal  family members   were not  always   up to religious  standards. 
Their lifestyles were often  more  outlandish and   exciting  than anything  a script  writer  could invent today.     

waterfall  near Borgia Castle  at Nepi 
Farnese  coat of arms, Nepi 

 Nepi - Borgia fortress

Lucrezia  Borgia,  daughter of Pope Alexander  VI, Rodrigo Borgia,  was often visitor  in Nepi where the  towers, massive walls and  underground areas still  ooze  history even when a modern day gastronomy festival is  happening.

One of the papal nephews  of  the Farnese  family  was  responsible  for  the magnificent  Palazzo Farnese, in Caprarola. Along  with the Palazzo Farnese in Rome –the present  French Embassy –  it epitomizes    Renaissance  architecture and art.

upper gardens  of  Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola

upper gardens and Casina dei Piaceri

  Caprarola’s Palazzo Farnese,  designed  by Architect   Vignola, can be considered  the original  pentagon  for  it has  5 sides,   a circular  central courtyard  and  perfectly  square or rectangular  rooms.       And what rooms!

design  by Justin Bradshaw  
There are  frescoed  walls including  the  map room dedicated  to explorers. The  gilded ceilings  and multi-colored terracotta tile floors are  perfectly  maintained mosaics . The south-facing  rooms were used in winter,while  those on the northern side, were lived in  during the hot summers.
glazed terracotta  tiles of the loggia, Caprarola

 This hillside  town  named after  goats (capra=goat)   is  a perfect   place to   relax  in style, just as it was for  powerful men  of the past, from the   Farnese  popes and  cardinals to  Prince Charles  and  Italian presidents  in pre-Berlusconi  days.

view towards Rome from Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola

The views from the loggia of Palazzo Farnese stretch  all the way to Rome (35 kms )  while   Mount Soratte’s  majestic   outline  looms  in the distance. 

fresco  by Zuccari , Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola

The Zuccari  brothers and their crew of  decorators  did not  have to worry about  expenses   thus  the Palazzo , its  gardens , fountains  and the   Casina  dei Piaceri  show   papal nepotism  on a grand scale .   

Along the lakeside road  traveled by  artists, architects and stone masons  who   worked  with the wealthy families  of  Viterbo,  Vetralla  and  Caprarola  we find a simple  fountain  of Santa Lucia, emblazoned with Farnese  symbols.   
Santa Lucia, Lake DiVico , between Vetralla and Caprarola

Capers,  considered  an aphrodisiac, still  grow  today  on  the south facing  walls   and were    used  for  medicinal purposes, to help digestion and hangovers. 

Opening the hydraulic system for   giochi d'acqua
Interestingly ,   the word caper,   also means a  joyful leap  or  a  high- spirited escapade . Note  the  water games installed  to surprise  visitors with sprinkler systems that are still perfectly  functional today.

Another  “season  of capers”   happened  in the early 1900s when an   eccentric   Boston lady  and her daughters   lived at the Palazzo and their lifestyle  was immortalized  in   Gabriele D’Annunzio’s   “Le Vergini delle Rocce”.  
For more about  the palace and the underground multimedia  area  check  out Palazzo Farnese .

For more stories about  the palazzi and gardens of the area  purchase your signed  copy of "Etruria-travel, history and itineraries in central Italy".    



  1. Just a note, the foundations were built in the form of a pentagon by Sangallo, then work stopped for several years when it was re-started by Pope Paul 3rd's grandson (not nephew) another Alessandro Farnese times had changed and a fortress was no longer required so the wonderful palace we have today was built instead of a castle. It is a wonderful place well worth a visit. Christina

  2. Thanks for your insight on Caprarola, Chrstina. I know its one of the historical gardens you visit with your Garden Design course.
    In Italian the word for grandson and nephew are the same-nipote-thus the confusion.

  3. I love Palazzo Farnese! It's such a majestic building. The gardens are not bad either. We liked them so much we had our wedding photos done there! (with the reception at the wonderful agriturismo vazianello, between Caprarola and Ronciglione).

  4. You wrote that Gabriele D'Annunzio drew inspiration from the life of a Bostonian lady (Florence Baldwin) and her three daughters for "Le vergini delle rocce".
    I have often heard this story repeated by many but, despite all my efforts, I couldn't find a written evidence to substanstiate the rumor. What's more, D'Annunzio decided to issue his novel in 1896, three years after it had been conceived in Naples. At that time, the nice ladies were still far from making Caprarola their home, which happened in the early 1900's.
    Are there some more details that I don't know about this story?
    Thank you

  5. Dear Paolo, I have written about this in both my books "Travels to Tuscany & N. Lazio" (2004) and "Etruria travel,history and itineraries in central Italy" (2011) .Give me a chance to check the footnotes & bibliographies in both and I'll get back to you.

  6. Hi. First of all, thanks for all the information you share. My english is not that good, but I would like to ask you how can I get to the Borgia Castle? I know where Nepi is, but once I get Nepi, may I get just walking by the town or do I have to take some bus?
    Thank you very much again