Palazzo Spada – also known as Galleria Spada – is one of Rome’s best kept secrets. Named after Cardinal Bernardino Spada, the collection housed at Palazzo Spada is a must see for any lover of art in Rome. But there’s more than art to it!
The building itself is gorgeous, with beautifully decorated rooms. Furthermore, it’s here that you will find Borromini’s perspective corridor – quite literally a corridor facing the internal courtyard that was built in such a way that the statue placed at its very end looks much bigger than it actually is.
Curious to find out more about this interesting palace in Rome? Continue reading, as I will share what you need to know about it, including some practical information that will help you plan your visit.
Why Visit Palazzo Spada?
You may not have heard of Palazzo Spada. It’s not one of the main attractions of Rome that tourists would know about, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit – definitely not. Located in Piazza di Capoferro in the Regola district of the city, close to Palazzo Farnese, this charming palace hosts an enormous art collection at its Galleria Spada. However, it’s not just the art museum that you should come for; the mid-16th-century building itself is beautiful, but moreover features an interesting architectural design.
The History Of Palazzo Spada
Palazzo Spada was built for Cardinal Girolamo Recanati Capodiferro (1501-59). He was part of the court of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who was to become the future Pope Paul III in 1534. Capodiferro himself had an interesting life. He was appointed to numerous positions in his time, including nuncio (the Papal ambassador) to the Kingdom of Portugal, and then France. He helped prepare the Papal States against possible attacks by the Ottoman Empire. He was also made the Bishop of Nice, among other things.
In short, Girolamo Recanati Capodiferro was a powerful, well-connected man. You can see why he had his own palace.
For that, he enlisted the help of architect Bartolomeo Baronino, who came from a family of architects. The sizeable stucco at Palazzo Spada is an eye-catching structure, with detailed flowers and fruit carved into its facade. Another of his works included helping to restore Palazzo Farnese for then Pope Paul III. Sadly, not much is known about him – perhaps due to his untimely death. He was murdered in 1554 and given the honor of being laid to rest in the Pantheon.
When the palace’s first owner, Capodiferro, died, Cardinal Bernadino Spada took over its ownership in 1631. He wanted a spacious garden, but the original house took up most of the land. To make way for the garden, another architect – Francesco Borromini – was hired in 1635 to both create the garden and make the house seem larger.
A self-taught scholar, Borromini was also a student of Michelangelo, and worked alongside other well-known artists of his day, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Far from being traditional, Borromini had an interesting approach to building, and was particularly known for using architectural illusion. He mixed classical forms with novel geometric designs, for an eclectic and distinctive style of architecture.
Since his death (also untimely; he committed suicide in 1667), Borromini has been referred to as a “tortured genius”. Due to his eclectic style, his works weren’t influential on a wide scale, but they did have a lasting impact on his contemporaries and were more importantly rediscovered in the 19th century, to the point that he is now praised for inventiveness.
One of his most famous works that remains in Rome is the Palazzo Spada. Inside the palace, the architect’s fascinating intellect is revealed.
I’ll end the history with a fun fact. The Palazzo Spada was one of the filming locations for the 2013 Oscar-winning film, The Great Beauty (La Grand Bellezza in Italian). Director Paolo Sorrentino used Borromini’s Forced Perspective Gallery (more on that below) as the set for one of the scenes.
What To See At Palazzo Spada
Borromini’s Forced Perspective Gallery
One of the best examples of Borromini’s geometrically inspired design is the so-called Forced Perspective Gallery. Here, in a covered courtyard, Borromini used columns that both rise increasingly off the ground and shrink in size to create an optical illusion that elongates the space.
Cardinal Spada wanted to make everything seem larger, so it appeared as if Borromini was the perfect architect for the job. This illusion makes this courtyard appear as if it is 37 meters (121 feet) long, when really, it’s only eight meters (26 feet) long!
In order to create this design, the architect also enlisted the help of Giovanni Maria da Bitonto, an Augustinian priest who was renowned for his mathematical knowledge. With Bitonto making the necessary calculations, Borromini made several changes to what a “normal” gallery would have been like.
The dimensions of the passages changed, for one thing. Beginning at the entrance, the passageway measured six meters high (19 feet) and three meters wide (around 10 feet), but by the end they ended up just two meters (9.5 feet) by one meter wide (three feet). The floor was also sloped upwards, and the columns get gradually smaller at the end of the passage.
There’s a statue at the end of the arcade: the Roman god of war, Mars. Though standing at only 31 inches tall, the forced perspective makes the statue appear much, much larger and more impressive as a result.
Most important works of art at the Galleria Spada
Aside from the incredible architecture, there is a lot of artwork to admire at the Galleria Spada. The Spada family were wealthy, and were keen art collectors, and so here you’ll be able to find masterpieces from an array of 16th and 17th-century artists. The Galleria Spada is located on the second storey of the palace, and contains the following works (among others).
Titian, Portrait of a Violinist, 1515
This circa 1515 painting has been attributed to Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titian. Mixing both High Renaissance and Mannerist techniques, Titian makes use of chiaroscuro (attention to light and dark) to create a brooding work of art.
The musician is thought to be Andrea Vesalius, but it’s uncertain whether or not Titian was the real artist behind the piece; that’s because much of the artist’s work from this period was undocumented and unknown. The date is questionable, too. Some believe it to be 1515, and therefore one of his earlier works. Others believe it to be more similar to one of his “dark” paintings in the 1550s.
Jan Brughel the Elder, Landscapes with Windmills, 1607
Painted around 1607 in what is known as Brughel’s “mature” period, this is a landscape painting unlike the artist’s earlier depictions of universal landscapes. This painting showcases flat land broken up by rural motifs, such as cottages and windmills, and features changing light that highlights the peasant figures and their cows in the foreground.
Similar to landscapes by Reubens, the images of carts cutting across the diagonal line of the painting, provide an impression of distance and depth. One thing to note here is that the horizon is placed quite high in the painting, which distinguishes that painting as Flemish rather than Dutch.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child, 1610-13
Often thought of as one of the most exemplary painters of the Baroque period, Artemisia Gentileschi started painting professional works at the age of 15. This was particularly notable in a period when women had few opportunities in the art world; she was the first woman to become a member of Florence’s Accademia di Arte del Disegno. Her paintings often featured mythical women, or female characters from the Bible.
This particular painting is thought to be from the artist’s earlier days, painted when she was around 20 years old. The painting shows an intimate scene between Madonna and child as the mother breastfeeds the child. It’s been well preserved and features a richness of color and considerable detail still intact.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Saint Cecilia Playing a Lute, 1620
Another painting by Gentileschi, though this one depicts Saint Cecilia, it is actually considered to be a self-portrait by the artist. It depicts the female saint in a golden gown and white chemise, wistfully playing the lute; there’s an organ in the background.
The painting was incredibly only made visible in 1988 after it was cleaned. This confirmed the portrait to be of Saint Cecilia. Another interesting facet of the painting is that in 1759, the painting was under the inventory of the school of Titian; it was then ascribed to Caravaggio, then to Carascelli, before it was finally suggested that it was the work of female artist Artemisia Gentileschi.
The painting found its way to the Spada collection in the 17th century, though it was originally found in the Biffi collection. It is thought that the painting exchanged hands as a means of settling debts.
Nicolò Tornioli, The Astronomers, 1645
Italian artist Nicolò Tornioli was directly employed by Cardinal Spada in the 1640s, so it’s no surprise that this 1645 painting can be found in the Galleria Spada (one of the artist’s many works preserved here). Drenched in mystery, the figures that take up the frame in the artwork are called “astronomers,” perhaps in part because they are looking up, but who or what they are is actually unknown. The painting is also full of scientific instruments and natural phenomena.
Because these sorts of people were relatively unknown in their time, the subject of the painting has long been the source of conjecture.
Room I of the Galleria Spada is also called “Room of the Popes” – and for good reason. Here are dozens of portraits of Popes and cardinals, along with 50 inscriptions telling the lives of specific pontiffs, as commissioned by Cardinal Bernadino Spada.
Among the Papal portraiture, there are also paintings by Giuseppe Chiari depicting mythical scenes from the works of ancient Roman poet Ovid, among other artists.
Not only that, but the room itself is visually striking. The ceiling is completely covered by a turquoise canvas, and has been split up into numerous small compartments, named the “camerini da verno” which translates to “winter cabins” in English. The decorations date back to 1777.
Things To See Near Galleria Spada
As the Galleria Spada is located in the center of Rome, it is easy to combine a visit there with a trip to many other historical sites. Close by you’ll find the Piazza Navona – a good spot for lunch with its many bars and cafes. There’s also the Pantheon situated in the Pigna district a short walk from the Palazzo Spada. The Vatican Museums and the Colosseum are in easy reach.
But closest of all is the Palazzo Farnese and the Campo dei Fiori. For shopping (and strolling), the famous Via Giulia is just a stone’s throw from the palace. Another option for a nice walk is simply along the river Tiber, making sure to stop off at the Castel Sant’Angelo, which is particularly attractive at sunset.
Practical Info About visiting Palazzo Spada
Galleria Spada opening hours
You can visit the Palazzo Spada between 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, every day except for Tuesday. The last entry is at 7 p.m. It’s free to visit on the first Sunday of every month.
Palazzo Spada tickets
Palazzo Spada tickets cost €5 for adults when bought at the door. For EU citizens aged 18 to 25, it costs €2. EU citizens aged 18 and under and seniors over 65 years of age can enter the museum free.
Tickets bought online cost €9 and are available on Tiqets here.
How much time should I spend there?
The gallery itself is only made up of a handful of rooms, and is fairly small, so you will not need to spend more than an hour perusing its artworks. Art fans, however, will want to linger over the pieces here.
Do I need to get a guided tour?
While you don’t need to get a guided tour of Palazzo Spada, if you want more insight from a knowledgeable guide, then it’s something you might want to consider. There are actually guided tours available in both English and Italian. Booking a tour prior to your visit is necessary, however – you will have to enquire directly with the gallery for that. Make sure to send an email to [email protected]
How to get there
Located close to Palazzo Farnese, and Campo dei Fiori, the Palazzo Spada is relatively easy to get to. The Galleria Spada is located towards the back of the palace. When you visit, enter the building and pass through the courtyard until you see the signs for the Galleria Spada; you’ll find the entrance on your left-hand side.
The nearest transport option is the bus. You can get 46, 66 or 62. The nearest tram stop is Arenula/Min. Giustizia. The address is Piazza Capo di Ferro, 3.