Cosmos & dead Butterflies:
Frescoes of the Villa Medici in Rome

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© By Sheila 

Medici. Ever since I was little, I was fascinated by this family, that not only ruled with unique strategic cunning, but also commissioned some of the most important works of the Renaissance. Further more, art was an important tool for them, cleverly used to maintain power. The influence of the Medici has manifested beauty that almost scares, for example in one of their most prestigious buildings, the Villa Medici in Rome. A visit was therefore obligatory.

Like most of the historical objects I write about on taleslikeart.com, I prefer to focus on one or two exciting aspects instead of trying to capture a building like the villa on Pincian Hill in its entirety. It would be impossible anyway. Now when I started writing about this place, which I remember as a mixture of paradise and power, that was particularly difficult for me. The peacock alone, parading through the villa’s Renaissance gardens, reminiscent of the Medici’s exotic collector’s preference, would be worth a whole article. (Incidentally, there’s a video of it on Instagram in my Instagram Story Highlights). 

The charming little studio of Ferdinando de' Medici
Frescoes displaying exotic fruits and animals by Jacopo Zucchi.

Same applies to the charming little studio of Ferdinando de’ Medici, decorated with fairytale frescoes by Jacopo Zucchi (you can find an introduction to this also on Instagram). But no. For me, the most impressive example of the fusion of art and politics are the ceilings of the three splendid rooms, in which Ferdinando de’ Medici once lived. In a sense, they are a cloud of calculated messages, hovering over visitors, still not decoded by historians.

Wealth and sensuality still define the atmosphere of these rooms, even though the villa now houses the French Academy in Rome. The splendor of the decorations by Zucchi, one of Ferdinando’s favorite artists, has largely survived. As so often with works of art commissioned by the Medici, their beauty dominates the first impression, while behind them complicated (political) messages wait for the slain visitors. In the case of the ceilings of the premises, they are embedded in a complicated program of mythology and cosmological allegories. 

The frescoes display mythological creatures and cosmological allegories.
The frescoes display mythological creatures and cosmological allegories.

One possibility of their content could be the representation of the birth chart of Ferdinando de’ Medici, which would have been consistent with the fashion of the time. The frescoes include gods such as Jupiter and Venus, lions associated with the zodiac sign Leo, under which Ferdinando was born, and the goddess Minerva, a symbol of Roman power. Tradition tells that the birth chart of Duke Ferdinando predicted a royal fate. His father Cosimo I. therefore hid it from his fifth -born son, to prevent acts of violence. In fact, Ferdinando’s four brothers died, with Ferdinando possibly having killed his older brother to become ruler.

Home of true Power: the Villa Medici in Rome.
Home of true Power: the Villa Medici in Rome.

Worth mentioning is also the ceiling of the “room of Jupiter”. A successor to Ferdinando, Grand Duke Cosimo III, had originally burned most of Jacopo Zucchi’s extremely sensual paintings here. Recently, the ceiling was redesigned by Claudio Parmiggiani. His modern, silvery works reveal forms of butterflies on closer inspection. And indeed, they are the imprints of dead butterflies, that Parmiggiani immortalized on the surfaces. This room is characterized now by a cool and timeless impression. Through the reflection of light they seem to live, these dead butterflies in a palace of power.

Claudio Parmiggiani
Claudio Parmiggiani chose to decorate the ceilings of this room with the imprints of dead butterflies.

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