In 1556 Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520–89), patron of Bembo and Vasari, commissioned Giacomo Vignola to build a villa at Caprarola, 55 kilometres (35 miles) north of Rome; the building was erected on the foundations of an earlier villa begun by Antonio Sangallo the Younger. The villa was finished in 1583, and is widely considered to be the finest in Italy. Villa Farnese is built on the scale of a palace, and so is sometimes called Palazzo Farnese; it is sometimes confused with the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, which was built by Sangallo for an earlier Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III).
Villa Farnese stands theatrically above terraces joined by enormous horseshoe staircases. The house has five floors; above the basement separate floors were built for clerics, noblemen, knights, and servants. The apartments are decorated with frescoes by the brothers Federico and Taddeo Zuccaro and Antonio Tempesta.
The decision to retain the pentagonal shape of the original foundations created a difficulty for the design of the garden. By 1578 a walled summer garden had been laid out squarely in front of one face and a walled winter garden squarely in front of its neighbour; this design left an awkward triangle between the two gardens. Each of the two gardens was about 70 metres (80 yards) square, and divided into four parterre squares, and they were linked to the principal rooms on the first floor (piano nobile) of the house by bridges. The winter garden had a grotto and a sheltered walk for inclement weather; the summer garden, which is now lined with camellias (and alive with birdsong), was planted with fruit trees, and contained a fish pond with a gilded fountain.
The best feature of the garden lies through a woodland some 365 metres (400 yards) beyond and above the summer garden. There is an ornamental pavilion (the Casino Villino) of a quality matched only by the pair at villa Lante, and behind it is a giardino segreto (finally completed in 1620) that is commonly judged to be the world’s finest; Vasari memorably declared it to have been born rather than built. The garden is approached by a walled ramp, down the centre of which runs a sculpted cascade (catena d’acqua) similar to the one at Villa Lante; at the top of the ramp two river gods lounge against a large fountain. A curved stairway climbs around the fountain to the parterre adjoining the casino. The garden of the casino is enclosed by stone canephori (female caryatides with baskets on their heads) on a low wall, beyond which stand stately cypresses. The ground level is mostly on the level of the floor of the house, and the sense of interpenetration of house and garden is enhanced by the carpeting of the garden with pebble mosaics. The fountains now in the garden are the survivors of a much larger number of fountains adorned with statues that once stood in this superb garden.