Raphael Paints the Triumph of Galatea

Villa Farnesina is an artistically and architecturally influential Renaissance villa in Via della Lungara, in the central district of Trastevere in Rome.

The villa was built for Agostino Chigi, a rich Sienese banker and the treasurer of Pope Julius II. Between 1506–1510, the Sienese artist and pupil of Bramante, Baldassarre Peruzzi, aided by Giuliano da Sangallo, designed and erected the villa. The novelty of the villa design can be discerned from its differences from that of a typical urban palazzo (palace). Renaissance palaces were decorated versions of defensive castles: rectangular blocks with rusticated ground floors and enclosing a courtyard. This villa, meant to be a summer pavilion, was airy and the rear wings open to a garden towards the river. Initially, the entrance loggia was open; luckily for the frescoes therein, it now is enclosed.

Chigi also commissioned the fresco decoration of the loggias, by artists such as Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giulio Romano, and Il Sodoma. The themes were inspired by the Stanze of the poet Angelo Poliziano, a key member of the circle of Lorenzo de Medici. Best known are Raphael's frescoes in the Loggia depicting the classical and secular myths of Love and Psyche, and The Triumph of Galatea. This, one of his few purely secular paintings, shows a near-naked nymph on a shell-shaped chariot amid frolicking servants and is reminiscent of Botticelli's Venus. Additional trompe-l'œil frescoes were contributed by Peruzzi himself.

The villa became the property of the Farnese family in 1577 (hence the name of Farnesina), and later belonged to the Bourbon of Naples and in 1861 to the Spanish Ambassador in Rome. Today, owned by the Italian State, it hosts the Accademia dei Lincei, a long-standing and renowned Roman academy of sciences, and the Roman Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe (print room or Department for Drawings and Prints). Some claim that the Farnese once contemplated linking their two palaces across each other on the Tiber with a private bridge.

The Farnesina was built for the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, one of the richest men of that age. The Farnese family later acquired and renamed the villa, smaller than the more ostentatious palazzo at the other side of the Tiber. The fresco is a mythological scene of a series embellishing the open gallery of the building, a series never completed which was inspired to the "Stanze per la giostra" of the poet Angelo Poliziano. In Greek mythology, the beautiful Nereid Galatea had fallen in love with the peasant shepherd Acis. Her consort, one-eyed giant, Polyphemus, after chancing upon the two lovers together, lobbed an enormous pillar and killed Acis.

Raphael did not paint any of the main events of the story. He chose the scene of the nymph's apotheosis (Stanze, I, 118-119). Galatea appears surrounded by other sea creatures whose forms are somewhat inspired by Michelangelo, whereas the bright colors and decoration are supposed to be inspired by ancient Roman painting. At the left, a Triton (partly man, partly fish) abducts a sea nymph; behind them, another Triton uses a shell as a trumpet. Galatea rides a shell-chariot drawn by two dolphins.

While some have seen in the model for Galatea the image of the courtesan, Imperia, Agostino Chigi's lover, Rafael's near-contemporary, the artist and art biographer Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Raphael did not mean for Galatea to resemble any one human person, but to represent ideal beauty. Her gaze is directed upward to heaven, reflecting Platonic love.