Carbognano, the Castle of Giulia Farnese

Card Author:

Ersilia Rocchi


Piazza Castello, 1


XV/XVI Secolo
The Castle was the home of Giulia Farnese, also known as “Giulia the beautiful” – the sister of Pope Paul III. In the early sixteenth century, Giulia took residence in Carbognano and spent there the last twenty years of her life. Under her watch, the ancient medieval stronghold was renovated and turned into a Renaissance mansion featuring some facilities that were very modern at the time, such as a bathroom with hot and cold running water. Giulia personally commissioned a series of frescoes that can still be admired in the room.

Carbognano, The Castle of Giulia Farnese.


The building appears as a quadrangular donjon, placed in a mighty irregular quadrilateral where all sides, including the donjon, present a row of corbels that support a covered passage area with merlons and loopholes; the presence of straight merlons denotes the belonging of the castle to the Guelph party as the Farnese dynasty was always faithful to the papal court.
Over the centuries, the castle of Carbognano has undergone some interventions, however, even today it maintains the characteristics of the original structure: an architecture that proposes the typical elements of the fifteenth-century buildings, but with the inclusion of frames for doors and windows inspired by the classical style, very much in vogue during the Renaissance.
Perhaps the architectural project of the castle reflected the taste of the same client who, in previous times, together with her husband Orsino, had wanted the realization of the second floor of the castle of Bastianello with architectural elements that were later taken up for the residence of Carbognano. In both cases, these are powerful dwellings, conceived as private residences, but built with structures that are close to the military architecture very much in vogue in the last decades of the fifteenth century, not so much for purely aesthetic reasons, as for needs arising from historical events that occurred in Italy in this period, such as the presence of foreign armies well organized as that led by Charles VIII in 1494.
From the square below the castle, this appears with a facade of representation having two orders of windows arranged in an irregular manner, of which the three upper ones have the same structure: rectangular shape with peperino frame, having on the lintel the name of the client engraved with Roman epigraphic letters: IULIA FARNESIA or IULIA DE FARNESIO.
The side is connected to the eighteenth-century church through an architectural structure having in the lower order a barrel vault, under which is the passage way that connects the building to the lower part of the village. Passed the arch, we have a view of the north-east side characterized at the end by two towers of different base and height that protrude into the architectural structure: the north one, circular, and the east one square are arranged in such a way as to constitute almost elements of closure of the side itself. The circular tower to the north is externally presented with a structure disposed on two floors distinguished by a simple molding torus: the upper part has two windows with a square frame, while in the lower area is the already mentioned arch. Even along this curtain wall, there are windows arranged on two floors, the central one of the upper order has a double module as it serves as an opening of the great hall of representation. In the area below, there was a small garden of which today there is almost nothing left.

The south-eastern side develops along the internal road of the district; it too presents a double order of openings, probably dating back to different periods given their uneven structure. The two windows placed near the square turret repeat the module of those wanted by Giulia, accompanied also by the marble shield with the six lilies, surrounded by a crown of fruits and flowers.
In the final side is the entrance of the palace; the access is also possible through the ramp that from the square below leads directly to the upper area where the wall structure identical to that of the palace connects the latter to the current Town Hall and allows to enter the small square in front through the archway. Along this side is built the arched door, framed by a peperino ashlar structure, on which stands the coat of arms of the Farnese family, also in peperino. Beyond this, you reach the inside of a narrow courtyard, extremely decentralized compared to the entire structure; in front of the main door another travertine framed vault leads to a covered atrium having on the right side a staircase that allows you to reach the main floor. Going up the steps, one comes to an antechamber with three doors: the one opposite the entrance is off-centre with respect to the wall and is currently used to access the interior of the piano nobile. It is probable that originally it was used as a door of entry to the halls that open along the right side as it is more finished: its frame has a rich molding with lilies, family emblem and the writing IULIA FARNESIA.
The internal structure of the palace and the disposition of the environments reproduce the typical scheme of those houses constituted by a central body, usually destined to the representation room, having double doors that introduce inside the various rooms.


The constant repetition of the lily, the heraldic sign of the Farnese family, and of the family shields placed in the central point of each room allow us to attribute the commissioning of the paintings to Giulia Farnese. The decoration is not present in all the rooms of the palace, but there are four frescoed areas: the room of the hunters, the reception hall, the room of the unicorn and the bathroom or “stove”.


The hall of the hunters is the first room that is encountered after the external part enriched by the travertine frame; it is likely, given its location, that it was originally used as a waiting room and then having functions of representation.

The room presents a cover with a vault with lunettes and peperino hanging capitals where the executors used natural architectural scores to insert different ornamental motifs.

The decoration of the vault consists of two rounds, surrounded by Farnese lilies, events internally the representations of animals, one of which is difficult to understand, while the other is a unicorn, the most recurrent animal within the entire pictorial cycle. The twelve lunettes, placed two along the short sides and four in the long ones, were instead used to insert those choreographic motifs known as “grotesques” which are at the moment in a bad state of preservation.

The element that characterizes this room is certainly the iconographic repertoire of the fascia that runs under the lunettes: it is a continuous series of iconographies depicting hunting scenes made in monochrome. In spite of the disappearance of the various images, it is still possible to see real hunting parties taking place within a wood, hinted at simply by slender trees.


The reception hall, 11 m by 6.5 m, was built according to the rules common at the time, which can also be found in the treatise on architecture written by Francesco di Giorgio Martini in the second half of the fifteenth century. He theorized that the length of the hall should be two times its width; in fact he indicated: “The salons or the teclini must be two squares long”.

The environment retains the same architectural structure of the room of hunters, but sixteen are the lunettes that make up the vault: three along the short sides and five in the long ones.

The general setting of the decoration is based on a “grotesque” system that fills segments and lunettes on a light background and sails on a red background: a figure acts as a central element within the scene, while ornamental motifs, taken from the animal or vegetable world, are depicted on the sides. The most recurrent motifs inside the lunettes are the candelabra and numerous wading birds depicted in the act of feeding on the fruits of cornucopias or in the act of competing with serpents and monstrous forces. The most visible figure is certainly that of the unicorn, emblematic animal of the Farnese family.

One of the intentions of the commissioner was certainly to celebrate the greatness of her lineage; in fact, the decoration presents the coats of arms of the various members representing the families linked to her.

At the center of the ceiling stands the shield surrounded by a garland of fruits and flowers; it is the coat of arms of the same client as it is composed of six blue lilies on a yellow-gold field. Next to the Farnese coat of arms there are two other shields composed and framed in order to pay homage to their parents: Pierluigi Farnese and Giovannella Caetani.  Other coats of arms of different shapes were represented inside four lunettes; their image appears in a central position, surrounded by a series of subjects taken from the animal world. At the center of the south-east wall is placed the coat of arms of Cardinal Farnese, his brother. In the lunette above the double module window we notice the coat of arms wanted to remember the matrimonial union between his daughter Laura Orsini and Nicolo della Rovere.

The splay above the large window is decorated with one of the typical elements of Farnese heraldry: a unicorn that leans its front paws on a fountain with a rectangular basin and a niche where the Farnese coat of arms is clearly visible, surrounded by a garland. The fountain in question is very reminiscent of the one in front of the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione.


The room of the unicorn, so defined for the repetition of this iconographic motif, is accessible through two openings: one located in the hall of the hunters and the other in the representation hall.

The structure of the whole turns out to be identical to those already met in the previous rooms: the vault was reserved to the representation of the principal scene, while in the various lunettes (two in the short sides and four in the long ones) were inserted different narrative sequences alternated to family coats of arms.

The room can be considered the most important and interesting environment of the whole decoration for the presence of figures of emblematic value that refer to Christian themes. The scenes are composed of different subjects taken from the animal world in which the predominant is certainly the usual image of the unicorn and the virgin, flanked by a series of natural beings with multiple symbolic meanings. This practice was already widespread in medieval times and will be even more so in the sixteenth century with the spread of the work of Orapollo, Hieroglyphica, published in 1505. Hieroglyphics, the language of ancient Egyptians, were interpreted as if they were a sort of ideography in which through figures were expressed concepts.

The image of the unicorn associated with the virgin, which is the most recurring iconographic motif in the room, was used first of all as a figuration of the virtues of chastity and purity, a concept also expressed by the presence of the fire kept lit by young girls dressed in the fashion of the ancients to remember the priestesses of the temple of Vesta; they were devoted to the most rigorous chastity and, if they broke this vow, they could also be buried alive.

Another visible motif is that of the Phoenix, a mythical bird of Egyptian origin used in medieval times as a symbol of Christ. In the lunettes in which the animal appears, the girls are seated in the act of treading on a turtle, an image that was used many times in art as a symbol of evil because its name derives etymologically from Tartarus, Hell.

On the short sides of the room there is a couple of unicorns, without the maiden, placed at the sides of a tree whose roots originate from the head of a mask. In Christian culture, the tree alludes to the function of central pivot of the world, with precise reference to the role played by Christ, while the unicorns act as guardians. Associated with the same themes is the image of the cornucopia that appears on the same sides. The horn of plenty is overflowing with natural products, such as ears of corn, white and black grapes, pomegranates, cherries that in Christian iconography are adopted as symbols of Peace.

In the vault, two garlands define the perimeter within which are visible two animals, a unicorn and a greyhound, inserted against a landscape not well defined. In pagan iconography, the unicorn was frequently depicted in the instant in which they managed to capture it with the help of their dogs; in medieval times, the hunter became the figuration of the Archangel Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, while the dogs impersonated Mercy, Justice, Peace and Truth, that is, the virtues that followed the coming of the Savior.

The celebratory intent is also evident in this environment where various family coats of arms appear: Giulia’s own shield placed at the center of the ceiling, while the lunettes host the Della Rovere-Orsini, Farnese-Caetani heraldic signs and the cardinal’s shield of her brother Alessandro Farnese.

We do not know the names of the artists who worked in the room, but it is probable that the realization of the work was not entrusted to a single author, since a careful stylistic analysis shows that at least three different artists were involved in the decoration: in general they were executors working in the local area, the names of which are still unknown.


One of the most interesting aspects of the piano nobile is the one existing inside the tower of the north side: it is a room with a circular base of reduced dimensions (about 2,5 meters of diameter), having a dome covering with a small window open in the direction diametrically opposed to the entrance door.

No document attests which use was made of it at the origin, but the architectural structure of the room makes suppose that it was used as a bathroom, even if at the moment are not more visible the accessories used for the water supply because the room has undergone several interventions during the centuries that have modified its original aspect.


R. CECCARELLI, O. TARTARINI, Carbognano, ieri, oggi, domani, Civita Castellana1940

L. CHARBONNEAU LASSAY, La mysteriuse émblématique de Jesus Christ: le bestiaire de Christ, Bruges 1940

C. CORRADINI, La caccia nell’arte, I, Firenze 1993

M. DALL’ACQUA, Il mistero svelato, in Viterbo delle delizie. La camera delle belle castellanne, cortigiane e dominatrici, a cura di F.M. Ricci, Milano 1989

G.B.DI CROLLALANZA, Dizionario storico-blasonico delle famiglie nobili e notabili italiane estinte e fiorentine, I, Bologna 1965

F. DI GIORGIO MARTINI, Trattato di architettura ingegnaria e arte militare (1479-1492), a cura di C. Maltese, II, Milano 1967

C. FORNARI, Giulia Farnese: una donna schiava della propria bellezza, Parma 1995

J. HALL, Dizionario dei soggetti e dei simboli nell’arte, Milano, 1983

A.LA BELLA, R. MECAROLO, La Venere Papale, Valentano 1995

M.LEVI D’ANCONA, The garden of the renaissance. Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting, Firenze 1977

R. LUZI, Un giglio farnesiano per la vergine con liocorno, in “Faul”, 7, 1990

L. MORINI, Bestiari medievali, Torino 1996

V. RIVA, Gli anni del mistero, in Viterbo delle Delizie, 1989

D. ROMEI – P. ROSINI, Regesto dei documenti di Giulia Farnese, 2012,

L. SHEPARD, La leggenda dell’unicorno, Firenze 1984

R. VAN MARLE, Iconographie de l’art profane, I, La Haye 1931