The Palazzo Caetani was one of the great sixteenth century palazzi in Rome. Originally one of a group of palazzi belonging to the powerful Mattei family, it occupied an entire city block on the edge of Largo Argentina. This block is known as the Isola Mattei, or Mattei Island.
The Mattei began as rich merchants and over time evolved into important art collectors. They then began acquiring property on the Isola Mattei in 1502. The Mattei built Palazzo Caetani in 1564. They sold the palazzo in 1682 and it was sold once again in 1776 to the Caetani family who were, in contrast to the Mattei, great intellectuals.
Although you can’t visit the Palazzo Caetani you can still admire the building exterior on Via delle Botteghe Oscure, 32. If the building door is opened when you pass by, the porter just might let you admire the lovely interior courtyard.
The Palazzo Caetani has three floors. The gorgeous piano nobile, where our virtual tour will take place, is the location of the Brazilian Embassy to the Holy See. It’s filled with exquisite tapestries, furniture and frescoes. The other two floors are occupied by private apartments and offices, including the Camillo Caetani Foundation which promotes cultural initiatives and the Roffredo Caetani Foundation, which upkeeps Caetani properties such as the Sermoneta Castle and the fabulous Gardens of Ninfa.
Now for our virtual tour of the Palazzo Caetani piano nobile!
We start by entering the apartment of the Brazilian Embassy to the Holy See,
and head into a large entrance hall with a fabulous ceiling, chandeliers, console tables and mirrors.
Next we head into the guest bedroom off the hallway where many illustrious guests stayed, including Caravaggio. Giacomo Leopardi was another guest. He came to live at the Palazzo Caetani in 1822 to escape his oppressive father. When guests stayed in the palazzo it wasn’t for a weekend or a few days, but often for months or a year.
None of Caravaggio’s paintings remain in the palazzo, but in 1602 he painted The Taking of Christ while here. This painting is the subject of Jonathan Harr’s fascinating book, The Lost Painting that recounts the rediscovery of the painting in Ireland after centuries of its disappearance.
Caravaggio also painted Supper at Emmaus (in London’s National Gallery) and Saint John the Baptist – Youth with a Ram (Rome’s Paninoteca) while he was the guest of his close friend and patron Ciriaco Mattei.
Next we move into the exquisite and ornate Grand Salotto filled with beautiful furniture, an ornate ceiling and landscape-themed frescoes by Paul Bril. Decoration of the large living room began in 1598, under the direction of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. This room was used primarily for cardinal audiences.
On the lower part of the ceiling frieze you see a band of fanciful frescoes featuring cupids playing with musical instruments and animals. The paintings are in Taddeo Zuccari’s style, and quite possibly painted by his brother Federico.
The upper part of the frieze was painted in the early 1600’s by Paul Bril and depicts the Antona, Giove, Rocca Sinibalda and Belmonte castles and grounds.
The ceiling is sumptuous and ornate and features two youths in relief holding up the Mattei family cardinal crest.
The corner frescoes maintain the continuity of the room’s band of frescoes. Notice how they provide a sense of depth to the paintings.
Almost every room has a beautiful fireplace. Above the fireplace in the Grand Salon is an oval painting depicting l’Aurora.
Also notable are the two exquisite console tables in the Grand Salon, both with tabletops designed using mosaics from Villa Adriana.
The room’s central table has a sculpted bronze top with the Caetani name engraved upon it. This tabletop was sculpted by Gelasio Caetani, the Italian ambassador to Washington from 1922-1927.
The Grand Salon leads right into the Tapestry Room. The tapestries were executed by the Flemish painter Judocus de Vos and depict various aspects of Alexander the Great’s life. Back then tapestries were extremely costly to make and required dozens of hours of work to complete just a small area. With the advent of oil paintings, much faster and less expensive to execute, tapestries were largely put out of business.
The ceiling was decorated by Taddeo Zuccari and depicts the marriage of Alexander the Great and Rosanna.
This large tapestry, full of rich reds and oranges, depicts a detailed dance scene.
Don’t miss the Tapestry Room’s 1500’s table, which has a gorgeous tabletop intricately decorated with marble, mother of pearl and stone.
Now we move from the Tapestry Room into the Sala Diana, decorated over four years from 1776 to 1780. This room’s ceiling features a large central fresco of Diana, painted by Antonio Cavalucci, and surrounded by four octagonal figures depicting the myth of Iconos. Francesco Caetani recognized Cavalucci’s talents early on and used him frequently as a painter.
Other Cavalluci paintings in this room include:
- Dom Francesco Caetani portrait (1738-1810)
- A portrait of Francesco Caetani’s first wife, Princess Teresa Corsini (1757-1799)
- Elena Albani portrait, first wife of Filippo Caetani, Francesco Caetani’s eldest son.
One of the loveliest rooms is the Sala da Pranzo with its large connected terrace full of fruit trees and plants.
The Chapel and Antechapel are small and ornate, decorated between 1590-1600.
The two chapels were completed while Gerolomo Mattei was cardinal with themes based on the cardinal’s name: San Gerolomo and San Matteo.
The most renowned of the chapel frescoes is Roncalli’s Vocazione di San Matteo due to its similarity to Caravaggio’s Vocazione di San Matteo in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi church. Many believe that Caravaggio’s Vocazione was inspired by the Palazzo Caetani’s Vocazione di San Matteo as it was painted first and by Caravaggio’s friend, Cristoforo Roncalli.
The Caetani crest, with its squiggles that represent waves, is featured in this beautiful frieze.
Other paintings in the chapels include one of San Sebastiano, one of Sant’Ambrogio and one of San Gregorio the Great. Also in the Antechapel is a marble bust of Michelangelo Caetani.
As we leave the palazzo we pass once again through the beautiful entrance hallway,
and head down the stairs towards the palazzo entrance.
Now it’s time to walk through the rest of the Isola Mattei. To the left of the Palazzo Caetani we head down Via Caetani until we reach the Mattei di Giove Palazzo on our right. This palazzo is architect Carlo Maderno’s masterpiece. Carlo Maderno, the father of Italian baroque architecture, also designed the facades of Rome’s Santa Susanna church, St. Peter’s Basilica and Sant’Andrea della Valle.
The Center for American Studies (Centro Studi Americani) is inside the Mattei di Giove Palazzo. It houses a 70,000 volume library created in Rome just before the Second World War, thanks to Harry Nelson Gay’s generous donation of books on American history and literature. The Center for American Studies serves as a library for its members and also organizes events and conferences. If you visit the Center be sure you don’t miss the Mattei di Giove Palazzo’s entrance and spectacular courtyard.
This intricate stone entrance detail was taken from the cover of a sarcophagus.
As you head up the stairwell be sure to look up so you don’t miss the beautiful ceiling detail.
The Giacomo Mattei Palazzo is in Piazza Mattei, further down Via Caetani and slightly to the right. It was designed by architect Nanni di Baccio Bigio and has a white marble doorway with the Mattei coat of arms above it. Although Taddeo Zuccari frescoed the palazzo no trace of the frescoes remain.
One of Rome’s most beautiful fountains, commissioned by the Mattei family, is in Piazza Mattei: the Turtle Fountain. Florentine sculptor Taddeo Landini began the fountain’s construction in 1570. Bernini added the bronze turtles in 1658.
The Palazzo Mattei di Paganica, Via Paganica 3/4, built in 1541 for Ludovico Mattei by Giovanni Lippi sits atop the remains of the Teatro di Balbo. Later on in 1640, architect Bartolomeo Breccioli enlarged the palazzo up towards the Via delle Botteghe Oscure. When the Mattei di Paganica branch of the Mattei family died out in 1700, the palazzo passed to the Mattei di Giove. In 1928 they sold the Palazzo Mattei di Paganica to the Treccani Encyclopedia company who still owns it.