The celestial vault of Alessandro Farnese by Margherita Fiorello
Ars Magia. Ars Theurgia Ars Thaumaturgia

The celestial vault of Alessandro Farnese by Margherita Fiorello

The celestial vault of Alessandro Farnese


 by Margherita Fiorello


Haec, Auguste, tamen, quae vertice sidera pulsat, par domus est caelo sed minor est domino.

Augustus, this Dome whose vault touches the stars and is so similar to the sky, nevertheless is inferior to his Lord
(Martial, Ephigrams VIII, 36)



When I wrote my thesis about “manifestations of luxury in Renaissance Italian buildings” some years ago, a subject very uncommon in my Faculty, I could not know that some years later I would write again about under a very different point of view, the astrological one.

I have been always believed that “destiny carries the willing man; the man who is unwilling it drags” so I was not surprised at all when many years after – with someone I could never imagine- I arrived in a small town near Rome, in the summer residence of the Farnese family, an important Italian family of Renaissance.



In 1504 Alessandro Farnese senior, an aristocrat coming from central Italy and a descendant from the ancient Caetani family, bought the whole area of Caprarola, a small town near Rome, that its strategical position and the healthy climate made a perfect place both for summer residence and headquarters for the land Farnese owned in the near area.

The Palace had been started on a pentagonal plan by an expert military engineer, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, on a hilltop near Lake Vico:  works started on 1520 and were interrupted around 1534 when Alessandro Farnese became Pope with the name of Paul III; after his death his grandson Alessandro junior designed another famous architect, Jacopo Vignola, to complete the villa. The new architect transformed the original plan and turned the fortress in a luxury palace, with the help of the most famous artists of his time,  like Zuccari brothers, Giovanni Antonio Vanosino, Raffaellino da Reggio.


farnese palace




The end of 1400 and the beginning of the following century was a very important moment for astrology and the invention of the printing press made possible the diffusion of astrological works by both contemporary and classical astrologers like Manilius (“rediscovered” in 1416 by Poggio Bracciolini in a Swiss convent), Hyginus and Firmicus.


Paul III had many personal reasons to trust this Art because one of the most important Italian astrologers, Luca Gaurico, had foreseen his election many years before, when Alessandro was just a noble from a small town, of restless temperament and uncertain faith (on the other side he was very learned) who succeeded in becoming a cardinal more for the beauty of his sister Giulia the Beautiful, fondly loved by the Pope Alexander VI, than because his religious ardour.


Alessandro was elected when he was already an old man because his electors wished a transition Pope, but they were wrong and Paul III was one of the most important Popes in the Renaissance: he was the only Pope who understood the potential danger for the Catholic Church coming from Lutheran Reform and started the age of Catholic Reform – the Counter Reform-, calling the Council of Trent.


He was one the biggest Renaissance patrons: started a wonderful collection of gems and classical sculptures (called after him Farnese collection), and enriched Rome with many buildings; a prominent Palace for himself and his family near the Tiber banks in front of St. Peter basilica, commissioned Michelangelo a new design for Capitoline Hill and forced the artist to complete the mural of Last Judgement in Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo in order to show his friendship and respect modeled painted him as St. Peter.


 last judgement


As soon as he was elected on 15 October 1534 called Gaurico in Rome and the man became his advisor and astrologer during all the 15 years of his Pontificate.

When Farnese has been a Pope since just two months, Gaurico adviced him to appoint his grandson, a 14 years old boy, as a Cardinal, an event both Gaurico and Jerome Cardan remarked in their collection of nativities.

In Alessandro jr’s birthchart, Saturn, ruler of the Ascendant is in the first house strong in the sign of his domicile, opposite to Mars, in his fall in the seventh house: both Saturn and Mars are in a square with a Libra Sun and Venus in the ninth house, the house of God and religious affairs.

The square between Venus and Saturn is very strong because it’s a mixed mutual reception: Venus in the sign of Saturn exaltation is applying to Saturn in Capricorn, the sign Venus rules by triplicity. Moreover it’s a right square from the tenth to the first house so it has a very positive meaning for the native; and the sextile between the Virgo Moon and Mercury on the MC, gives him a quick and sharp mind.

Part of Fortune on MC trines Mars, his ruler, and gives him richness and success and the same Jupiter on MC together with the Part of Fortune, sextile with Saturn, ruler of the Ascendant.




Alessandro junior was the eldest son of Paul III’s beloved eldest son and his duty was carrying on his family, but the Pope’s astrologer could read in his birthchart a different destiny: and if we direct Jupiter to the MC, the house of honours and achievements, we could easily understand Gaurico’s opinion.


Gaurico himself in his Tractatus Astrologicus plays with the word “cardinal” , which has the double meaning of the “cardinal axis” and “Prince of the Church” and explains how he directed Jupiter to the MC obtaining a difference of a little more than 14 degrees.


Gaurico lists a position of 23°30’ Scorpio for Jupiter and 9°17’ Scorpio for MC: right ascensions for Jupiter and MC are 231°06’ and 216°54’, so the difference is 231°06’ – 216°54’= 14°12’, that is 14 years, 2 months and a couple of weeks (1 degree = 1 year). If we add our result to the birth date we arrive exactly at the late December 1534, on the very day of the Cardinal appointment.


This story was so widespread that the other great Italian astrologer, Jerome Cardan, far from the Pope’s court and always ready to contradict his colleague Gaurico, published for Alessandro the same birthchart and repeated the story of the direction of Jupiter to MC, adding a detailed comparison between Alessandro’s nativity and his father’s and grandfather’s ones.


Alessandro’s father, Pierluigi Farnese, was in fact well known too in life and death because when Alessandro was 27, he was murdered and hang to the window of his house before being thrown in a ravine, because of his cruel and dissolute life.


According Cardan, Alessandro’s birthchart was a perfect example of what Ptolemy states in Tetrabiblos about parents of a native: in fact in his birth chart, the Sun (ruler of the Father in a day chart) is squaring both Saturn on the Ascendant and a very weak Mars on the Descendant.


Should Saturn himself not be in consonance with the Sun, but configurated with it by the quartile or opposition, and if, when thus circumstanced, both he and the Sun should be posited in cadent houses, it is then indicated that the father is liable to infirmities but, if in angles or succedent houses, the father will live only a short life, and suffer from various bodily injuries and diseases. The shortness of his life is particularly intimated by the position of the Sun and Saturn in the first two angles, viz. the ascendant and the mid-heaven, or in their succedent houses; and his affliction by diseases and injuries, when they may be posited in the two other angles, the western and the lower heaven, or in the houses succedent thereto. And, if Mars be aspected to the Sun in the way before-mentioned, the father will die suddenly”. (Tetrabiblos, book III, cap. 5)


It this is not enough, the murder of Pierluigi was so impressive that Francesco Giuntini in his second edition of Speculum astrologiae rectified Alessandro chart in order to get the Sun setting on the Descendant and Mars in the 4th house, conjunct with the Part of the Father (Ascendant + Saturn – Sun).


Since when he was a young boy Pierluigi had shown the bad temperament who made him sadly famous and hurt very much his father who poured all his love on his grandson. When Gaurico in his reading of Alessandro’s birthchart foresaw a religious career for him it was very easy for Paul III thinking his grandson Alessandro as his heir and the new Pope after him.


And this new vocation was an easy choice for Alessandro too, because when he was older made him very rich and gave him an important position in Papal diplomacy. As his grandfather, he was a great patron of arts and artists and among the rest bought Agostino Chigi’s Villa (where we could find the other most  famous astrological vault of Renaissance, maybe it is not just a coincidence) and completed the Farnese Palace in Caprarola.


At the death of Paul III, when works were resumed, the famous architect Jacopo Vignola turned the military fortress in a wonderful representation of celestial order building inside the pentagonal walls of the fortress an unusual round porch –the circle inside the pentagon- according his peculiar architectural system based on Pythagoras’ musical harmony, the same on which Ptolemy based his planetary theory.

Pythagoras in fact believed that the Divine Tetraktys, a triangular figure based on the first ten numbers put in four rows, was the ratio of the whole Universe, and this theory was so well known during Renaissance that a diagram of the birth of musical consonance can be found in the famous Raphael’s School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura in Vatican Palace.




In order to highlight the idea of Caprarola as a symbol of the Universe, Vignola built a long straight road departing from the entrance of the Villa and crossing all the town, an axis mundi, the world axis around all the Universe turns around.


farnese palace 2


On the first floor, opened on the porch, Alessandro commissioned two great halls, the Hall of Farnese Deeds and the Hall of Maps, the former with its twelve mythic Farnese ancestors a mirror of latter with its painted twelve zodiacal signs.


This room, the first one of twelve (again this number) on this floor, like the first stop of an initiatic path iit’s the one he filled with all of his hopes and expectations. The vault is a wonderful celestial map of constellations of the northern and southern hemisphere, and the walls are covered with the whole set of zodiacal signs and the maps of the lands and continents.


 farnese palace 3


Against a bright blue background are shown the 48 Ptolemaic constellations, the stars painted according their magnitude, the line of ecliptic (with the zodiacal signs from Gemini to Taurus from left to right) , the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the axis of Poles (another image for axis mundi) with the Farnese lily on the Winter Pole (the date he was appointed Cardinal).

Anyway there are several discrepancies in respect to traditional representations of the sky map that could be easily linked with Cardinal Alessandro’s events of life. The artist, Giovanni Vanosino, gave a special interpretation of his source, Hyginus’s Poeticon Astronomicon, in order to adapt myth to his patron’s hopes and desires.


farnese palace 4



The most evident divergence is the presence of Jupiter with his Eagle in the top-left corner while throwing his thunderbolts against Phaeton (in the bottom-right corner), who is falling into the river Eridanus.


Jupiter is a planet and not one of the forty-eight constellations, and if so prominently featured should be very important and meaningful for Alessandro- in fact it was one of his own imprese, chosen by his grandfather because God himself who gave him the power to the Pope, and with his thunderbolts he, God on Earth, could destroy the sin of heresy and pride (as Phaeton was destroyed for his own sins).


On the opposite side of the fresco, the River Eridanus; generally this constellation is shown empty and the choice to include Phaeton is very unusual: obviously it could be an artistic desire to fill a gap in the vault, but it could be read again to stress the power and the wisdom of Jupiter: according Hyginus, in fact,  Phaeton stole the Chariot of the Sun but he could not control it and the horses went nearer and nearer the Earth threatening to burn it, so Jupiter stopped him with a thunderbolt avoiding that the Earth could be destroyed, the poor boy falling in the river Eridanus.


Both Ovid and Manilius told Phaeton’s story as linked with the stars of Scorpio (in fact in the vault, Phaeton is depicted near the Scorpio’s fresco) and the birth of the Milky Way: stolen the Chariot to his father, the boy started to walk the road of Heavens – that is the ecliptic- while the different constellations full of monstrous animals passing along his way, but when arrived to the Scorpio he was so startled that he lost the control, sending the Chariot out of its path.

Now all the horrors of the Heav’ns he spies,
And monstrous shadows of prodigious size,
That, deck’d with stars, lye scatter’d o’er the skies.
There is a place above, where Scorpio bent
In tail and arms surrounds a vast extent;
In a wide circuit of the Heav’ns he shines,
And fills the space of two coelestial signs.
Soon as the youth beheld him vex’d with heat
Brandish his sting, and in his poison sweat,
Half dead with sudden fear he dropt the reins
And, flying out through all the plains above,
Ran uncontroul’d where-e’re their fury drove;
Rush’d on the stars, and through a pathless way
Of unknown regions hurry’d on the day.
And now above, and now below they flew,
And near the Earth the burning chariot drew…………
Jove call’d to witness ev’ry Pow’r above,
And ev’n the God, whose son the chariot drove,
That what he acts he is compell’d to do,
Or universal ruin must ensue.
Strait he ascends the high aetherial throne,
From whence he us’d to dart his thunder down,
From whence his show’rs and storms he us’d to pour,
But now cou’d meet with neither storm nor show’r.
Then, aiming at the youth, with lifted hand,
Full at his head he hurl’d the forky brand,
In dreadful thund’rings. Thus th’ almighty sire
Suppress’d the raging of the fires with fire.

At once from life and from the chariot driv’n,
Th’ ambitious boy fell thunder-struck from Heav’n.
The horses started with a sudden bound,
And flung the reins and chariot to the ground:
The studded harness from their necks they broke,
Here fell a wheel, and here a silver spoke,
Here were the beam and axle torn away;
And, scatter’d o’er the Earth, the shining fragments lay.
The breathless Phaeton, with flaming hair,
Shot from the chariot, like a falling star,
That in a summer’s ev’ning from the top
Of Heav’n drops down, or seems at least to drop;
‘Till on the Po his blasted corps was hurl’d,
Far from his country, in the western world.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 2)

At Phaeton’s feet Vanosino painted a great ball of light, Achenar, the most brilliant star of Eridanus, Jupiterian in nature (the other stars of Eridanus are of Saturn’s nature).


 farnese palace 5


In the bottom-left we see Argo Navis, a southern constellation, with the Farnese lily and a symbol for the Church Boat, safe under the strong Farnese’s hand.

In the top-right the Charioteer with the Goat, Jupiter’s nurse, but again a reference both to Alessandro’s rising sign and the name of the town, because Caprarola in Italian is “the place of the goats.”


In the central part of the vault are painted the rest of the constellations, inside the northern ones, and on the sides, the southern ones split into two crescent shapes.


 farnese palace 6


On the upper part of the walls is depicted the whole set of the myths of the creation of the twelve zodiacal signs according Hyginus’s book, a very old copy was in fact found in the library of Alessandro’s secretary who coordinated the making of the  painting.


On each side of the room we could find three signs: paintings can be easily connected with their myth but there is something disturbing in their order (not all of them are disposed in the traditional sequence) and the central one of every side is bigger and highlighted with a frame.


The main entrance from the porch in the northern side of the room is under the sign of the Capricorn, and the visitor entering faces Virgo, Libra and Scorpio, then going on in a clockwise direction, Pisces, Aries and Taurus in the western wall (with a door to the palace apartments), Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius in the northern wall and Leo, Gemini, Cancer in the eastern one.


So if one would walk alongside the complete Zodiac frescoes, should walk a part of the western side, cross the whole room, change direction, then walk alongside the southern wall, cross the room again, walk the northern wall and cross again to reach Pisces.


Frescoes in the walls shows signs in this order:


PISCES-ARIES- TAURUS:  (Western wall)

Pisces: Venus and her son turning themselves into Fishes in order to escape Typhon;

Aries: Phrixus saved by the Ram and Helle with Neptune;

Taurus: Europa and Jupiter disguised under the form of the Bull;


LEO-GEMINI-CANCER: (Eastern wall)

Leo: Hercules killing the Nemean Lion;

Gemini: Neptune presenting the reins of his horses as a gift to the Twins;

Cancer: Hercules with the Hydra;



Virgo: Astrea rising to the sky with the Spike in her hand (the star Spica);

Libra: An imperial Eagle carries the Balance heavenwards while Virgo and Scorpio are receding at the sides of the fresco.

Libra was a constellation added by Julius Caesar with the reform of Calendar, cutting Scorpio’s claws. It was very important for Romans and according Manilius Rome herself (with a Libra Moon) and her Empire were under Libra protection.

Italy belongs to the Balance, her
rightful sign: beneath it Rome, and her sovereignty of
the world were founded, [a] Rome, which controls the
issue of events, exalting and depressing nations
placed in the scales.

(Astronomica, book 4, 773-775).

Scorpio: Diana and Orion, and the Scorpio sent by Jupiter;



Sagittarius: Some centaurs engaged in combat with male figures;

Capricorn: A male goat pouring water and she-goat suckling an infant;

Aquarius: Ganymede who is pouring water from a vase and people in despair (Aquarius is linked with Deluge too).

The mixed order of the signs makes impossible the whole vault being a  painted horoscope (like Agostino Chigi’s horoscope in Villa Farnesina in Rome), still it is almost impossible there is a mistake in painting because works like these were planned with great care, consulting books, astrologers and experts.

Maybe the artist decided to give special emphasis to certain signs putting them in a central position because they had a special importance for the Cardinal.

In fact Capricorn and Libra, on the longer sides of the room, are very important in Alessandro’s birth chart:

Capricorn is his rising sign, with its ruler Saturn dignified in the first house;

Libra is on the cusp of his ninth house, the God house, strictly connected to his hopes, so near to become true during the years this room was frescoed.

Signs on the shorter side could be linked with Farnese family:

Aries was a recurring sign in Farnese group, a warrior family well signified by Mars, the sign ruler. Paul III had the Part of Fortune in this sign, and Aries was rising in the birth-charts of Pierluigi and Ottavio, Alessandro’s father and brother;

Gemini could be referred to the special link, like in the story of Castor and Pollux, between Cardinal Alessandro and his brother, the latter taking the place of the former in the order of succession and in their family duties.



Another important astrological symbol to consider is the Eagle featured many times in the room, together with Jupiter, between the constellations of the vault and again in Libra’s fresco.

If not enough, Farnese Eagle is depicted in Cardinal Gambara’s Villa, not very distant from Caprarola. Built in 1573 by Vignola himself, the Villa consists in a small lodge with wonderful gardens around: the vault of the lodge is decorated with pictures of Villa Este in Tivoli, Villa Gambara in Bagnaia and Villa Farnese in Caprarola surmounted with the constellations linked to these three important families, Hercules and Draco for Este, Hercules and Hydra for Gambara (in Italian Gambara sounds like “gambero”, Cancer) and obviously Jupiter and the Eagle for Farnese.

The Eagle, the most powerful among all the birds, was the most sacred bird to Jupiter: it carried God’s thunderbolts and shared a divine nature with him, so in Rome it was a symbol for the Empire. Hyginus wrote that Jupiter put the Eagle in the sky near Aquarius, as a reward for carrying him his beloved Ganymede.

The main star of the this constellation is Altair, the Eagle heart, one of the brightest stars in the sky, of the nature of Jupiter and Mars.

According Manilius (book V, 486-503):

It rises on the left of the youth who pours, whom once it carried off from the earth with wings out spread it hovers above its prey. This bird brings back the thunderbolts which Jupiter has flung and fights in the service of heaven; its appearance marks the twelfth degree of the river pouring Waterman. He that is born on earth in the hour of its rising will grow up bent on spoil and plunder won even with bloodshed; he will draw no line between peace and war, between citizen and foe, and when he is short of men to kill, he will engage in butchery of beast He is a law unto himself, and rushes violently wherever his fancy takes him; in his eyes to show contempt for everything merits praise. Yet should perchance his aggressiveness be enlisted in a righteous cause, depravity will turn into virtue, and he will succeed in bringing wars to a conclusion, and enriching his country with glorious triumphs. And, since the Eagle does not wield, but supplies weapons, seeing that it brings back and restores to Jupiter the fires and bolts he has hurled, in time of war such a man will be the aide of a king or some mighty general, and his strength will render them important service.“

Manilius referred these stars to Aquarius, but differently from the quality of this sign, he gives them a very violent nature which is common for stars of fixed signs: let’s think to the opposition of the two martian stars Aldebaran and Antares between Taurus and Scorpio and Sirius for Leo (Al-Sufi called this star “the red one”).

Moreover, paranatellonta of fixed signs are connected too with Jupiter’s thunderbolts, the Charioteer for Taurus or the stars of Ara for Scorpio and Aquila for Aquarius.

Firmicus (whose unknown source is the same as Manilius) gives a more positive meaning of Eagle’s stars, saying that these stars make heroes and Teucer talks about religious chiefs. Francesco Giuntini, in the part of the Speculum dedicated to fixed stars, notes that at least two Renaissance Popes had Eagle stars rising at their birth.

Ptolemy puts Eagle between Sagittarius and Capricorn, and the violent nature of these stars could be explained by the fact that the last five degrees of Sagittarius are Mars’ terms.

And we should not forget a later source, Engel’s Astrolabium Planum, a collection of the stars rising, culminating or setting with 360 degrees of Zodiac, mostly according with positions listed in Ptolemy’s Almagest, even if mixed with several different influences, not yet completely explained.

In the book, published in 1488, Engels listed the meaning of stars stating he took it from Pietro Abano, an Italian astrologer born in 1250. Recently an Italian researcher, Professor Graziella Federici Vescovini had found in a German library the lost copy of Abano’s work: there are some slight differences and Engels added the three facies at the beginning of every sign, but mostly of it comes really from Abano.

In Engels’ book every degree has his pictorial representation and the first ones of Capricorn, where Alessandro Farnese had his Ascendant are crowded with the image of the Eagle, so it is possible that the Cardinal choose his device because of the influence of this constellation in his chart, who could make of him a brave warrior, an hero and even a Pope.


farnese palace 7


This could be just a guess because in this birth chart Altair is not so very near the Ascendant (it is in the falling 12th house) and maybe Farnese Eagle could be linked with the sign of Scorpio culminating at the MC, with Jupiter near the cusp.

Traditionally in fact Scorpio was depicted with the Eagle because of Ezechiel’s vision of the Angel, Lion, Bull and Eagle and surely he would prefer using this image, which was an insegna for his grandfather too, more than a terrestrial scorpion.

Whatever is the case, we could easily understand Alessandro chose the Eagle device as a talisman for his hopes and  a symbol of power.

Unfortunately his fate was different and he could not realize his dreams, so he is still remembered as the “Great Cardinal”, the Cardinal who never became a Pope. Old and tired he spent his last years in Caprarola where died on the 28th March 1589, when in his birthchart the directed Sun arrived to the Descendant and natal Saturn at was squaring directed Ascendant.

written by Margherita Fiorello in 2007 and published in the journal of CIDA- Centro Italiano Discipline Astrologiche- Linguaggio Astrale Vol. 147, Autumn 2007.


Modern works:

Kristen Lippincott – Two astrological ceilings reconsidered: the sala di Galatea in the Villa Farnesina and the sala del Mappamondo at Caprarola, in Journal of Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 1990, Vol.50

Mary Quinlan-McGrath – Caprarola Sala della Cosmografia in Renaissance Quarterly, 1997 Vol. 50, N.4

Loren Partrigde – The Room of Maps at Caprarola 1573-75, in The Art Bullettin 1995 Vol.77 n.3

Loren Partridge – The Farnese circular courtyard at Caprarola: God, geopolits genealogy and gender, in The Art Bulletin 2001 Vol. 83 n. 2

Margherita Fiorello and Anton Grigoryev- Il ritorno degli antichi dei planetari nell’arte rinascimentale: Agostino Chigi e la Villa Farnesina . Selected as finalist at astrological Competition/Congress “New talents” – Centro Italiano Discipline Astrologiche year 2006 – published in Linguaggio Astrale Vol. 145 winter 2006

Ancient works:

Johannes Engels – The Medieval Symbols Of Faces And Degrees, translated and edited by Anton Grigoryev, Faust 2006

Hyginus- Fabulario delle Stelle, Sellerio Editore, 1996

Manilius- Astronomica, edited by Simonetta Feraboli, Fondazione Valla, Mondatori Editore

Claudius Ptolemaeus– Le previsioni astrologiche, edited by Simonetta Feraboli, Fondazione Valla, Mondadori Editore, 1985

A  great help came from Anton Grigoryev-  now I don’t know where is the boy I was sure to know.



Original material on the website

Written by Margherita Fiorello, CIDA certified member, year 2012

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