Agostino Chigi (1466–1520) – a financial genius, an enthusiast of lavish lifestyle and art

Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Chigi Chapel, posthumous monument to Agostino Chigi (fragment)

Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Chigi Chapel, posthumous monument to Agostino Chigi (fragment)

He was born in Siena in a merchant and banking family, nobilitated due to its fortune during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus IV. Agostino’s father, Mariano made his fortune on trading grain and on banking transactions and these interests were continued by his son, who created a trading network between Tuscany, the Republic of Venice and the sultanate. He also possessed monopoly on the lease of alum mines (a resource necessary for the production of textiles in tanning and medicine) and salt, as well as on the sale of these resources, which allowed him to rapidly and effectively multiply his wealth. At the beginning of the XVI century this active magnus mercator Christianus (great Christian merchant) as he was called by the Sultan of Constantinople, decided to settle down in Rome and here, with close ties to the papal court, continue his mercantile interests.

Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Chigi Chapel, posthumous monument to Agostino Chigi (fragment)
The Chigi della Rovere coat of arms
Basilica Santa Maria del Popolo, Chigi Chapel, posthumous monument to Agostino Chigi
The Residence of Agostino Chigi – Villa Farnesina, Sala delle Nozze
Church of Santa Maria della Pace, Chigi Chapel, painting decorations by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio)
Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Chigi Chapel, posthumous monument to Agostino Chigi (medallion with the image of Agostino)
Farnesina, Loggia di Psiche
Farnesina, Sala del Fregio, the residence of Agostino Chigi
Farnesina, Sala delle prospettive
Santa Maria della Pace, Chigi Chapel, foundation of Agostino Chigi
Santa Maria della Pace, Chigi family chapel, top – frescos by Raphael
Basilica Sana Maria del Popolo – Chigi Chapel – the final resting place of Agostino Chigi

He was born in Siena in a merchant and banking family, nobilitated due to its fortune during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus IV. Agostino’s father, Mariano made his fortune on trading grain and on banking transactions and these interests were continued by his son, who created a trading network between Tuscany, the Republic of Venice and the sultanate. He also possessed monopoly on the lease of alum mines (a resource necessary for the production of textiles in tanning and medicine) and salt, as well as on the sale of these resources, which allowed him to rapidly and effectively multiply his wealth. At the beginning of the XVI century this active magnus mercator Christianus (great Christian merchant) as he was called by the Sultan of Constantinople, decided to settle down in Rome and here, with close ties to the papal court, continue his mercantile interests.

Agostino financed the undertakings of consecutive popes: Alexander VI, Julius II and Leo X. Without him neither Cesare Borgia nor Pope Julius II would have been able to carry out their military escapades. The latter, also would not have been able to commission works of art to Michelangelo (Michelangelo Buonarroti) or Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio). Leo X from the Medici family would not have assumed the papal throne and would not have organized his own lavish enthronement. Chigi was an indispensable figure for other rulers of Italy as well and not only for them. In a word, this financial genius, whom all the significant players of Europe wanted to entrust with their money or from whom they wanted to borrow it, even if it was necessary to pledge the papal tiara in exchange (Leo X), was, which we can openly say, the most important man in Rome and on the Apennine Peninsula, in the first two decades of the XVI century.

       

In exchange for his financial services Agostino Chigi received profitable positions in the State of the Church, as well as goods of immaterial nature – and so he was admitted into the della Rovere family (from which Pope Julius II came) and could include into his coat of arms an oak tree and a motif of six mountains. Il Magnifico, meaning the Magnificent One, since that was what this banker and patron of art was called by his contemporaries, was one of the richest men of his epoch, while at the same time being its typical representative – an ambitious man, who sought applause, which was best accomplished by surrounding himself with titled figures and exceptional artists in chambers of such beauty and so lavishly decorated, that they had to raise both admiration and jealousy. Far from the tenement house at via dei Banchi, where he lived and conducted his trade and banking interests, he created, on the shores of the Tiber his own private oasis – a symbol of sophistication, taste and a certain philosophy of life. This was the villa Farnesina – built and decorated by the greatest artists, being a combination of a city palace and a rural residence. The theatrical stagings put on there were famous but nothing could equal the banquets organized within. During one of such banquets organized to celebrate the baptism of his second son Lorenzo, silver tableware was thrown out the window in order to show the nonchalance with which daily goods were treated and the boundless wealth of the owner of the house (after the celebration ended the dishes were fished out of the river); during another, guests were treated to specialties of the region from which they came, on silver and gold tableware decorated with their family coats of arms; during still another Agostino hosted Pope Leo X in a grand hall filled with tapestries, which after drawing away the curtains turned out to be…. just a stable. Today we would say, that this was unsophisticated ostentation, but this is exactly what this epoch looked like. Modesty was not in favor, wealth was flaunted without any embarrassment, while joint feasts of courtesans and cardinals shocked no one.

Only the private life of Agostino left something to be desired. In 1508, after the death of his first wife (Margherita Saracini) he got involved with the very young Imperia Cognati, who after giving birth to his daughter, became a renowned courtesan of the then male elites (known as Divine Imperia). The banker took care of the young woman until here suicide in 1512. He also became the executor of her will, the guardian of her surviving daughter and the organizer of her rich funeral, as well as the funder of a representative tombstone.

     

A year before this event, Agostino brought (or as some claim abducted) another youthful beauty from Venice to Rome, a daughter of a carpenter – Francesca Ordeaschi, which was perhaps the direct cause of Imperia’s suicide. Despite the fact that Francesca regularly bore him children, he did not marry her until seven years after. This did not deter him, from simultaneously, counting upon a nobilitating relationship with the Gonzaga family (in the person of Margherita Gonzaga), but this project, despite the efforts of high-ranking persons came to nothing. It was at that time that Agostino (perhaps) at the insistence of the pope organized a wedding of truly royal proportions with the mother of his children. The wedding celebrations were greater in splendor and lavishness than anything Rome had ever seen before. The ceremony which took place in Agostino’s villa, was attended by Pope Leo X, twelve cardinals, four bishops, the representatives of the Polish king, and other less noteworthy guests. A year after the event, Agostino died, leaving a huge fortune and five children (the last was born after his death) borne by Francesca. A few months later, she also, most likely poisoned, died.

Agostino planned the site of his posthumous glory with similar grandeur with which he lived. A chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo was destined for him, in which two pyramids placed opposite each other were to commemorate him and his brother, Sigismondo. The funeral celebrations organized in this church were a true post mortem triumph, being attended by cardinals and 37 bishops, while the renowned guests were brought to church by 86 carriages.

In his testament, special attention was paid to the villa Farnesina which he built himself. He bequeathed it to his sons (Alessandro Giovanni and Lorenzo Leone), under the condition that it would never be sold or leased. In this way he most likely wanted to leave his mark upon the land, counting on the fact, that this exceptional building would forever honor his name. However, this is not what happened – the greatly prosperous Chigi bank, went bankrupt in 1528, the only remaining son Lorenzo squandered all the wealth, the villa slowly deteriorated, and 59 years after the death of Agostino it was sold to the grandson of Pope Paul III, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and it was with his family name (Farnese) that it was connected for centuries, even though it remained intact almost in the exact from since the times of Agostino Chigi. The Chigi name was once again covered in glory over a century later thanks to another member of the family – Pope Alexander VII. He took over Agostino’s coat of arms and its elements (oak tree and six mountains) are some of the most often encountered decorative motifs in Rome, showing the rank of the family and the love of art by which it was characterized.

Another legacy of the Siennese banker, who created a veritable trade empire in Rome, is the very unspectacular Arch of the Banks (Arco dei Banchi) at via del Banco di Santo Spirito 46-47, which allowed people to rapidly reach the  thriving at that time area of business transactions, which functioned here (lawyer offices, currency exchange), then to the Bridge of the Holy Angel (Ponte Sant’Angelo) and on to the residence of the pope.

Agostino Chigi Foundations:

  • Chapel and painting decorations of the Chigi family chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Pace (Raphael)
  • Posthumous chapel and its painting and sculpture decorations (Raphael) in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo
  • A cycle of frescos in villa Farnesina completed by such artists as: Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giulio Romano, Sodoma, Giovanni da Udine, Gianfrancesco Penni, Lorenzetto, Bernardino da Viterbo, Girolamo Genga.