He typified a new group in Rome: rich merchants or bankers, usually of non-Roman origin, whose wealth put the old Roman nobility in the shade, and whose generosity to artists and writers was exceeded only by that of popes and cardinals. Born in Siena, he had imbibed financial subtlety with his daily food. By the age of forty-three he was chief Italian moneylender to republics and kingdoms, Christian or infidel. He financed trade with a dozen countries including Turkey, and by lease from Julius II acquired a monopoly in alum and salt.78 In 1511 he gave Julius an additional reason for war on Ferrara—Duke Alfonso had dared to sell salt at a lower price than Agostino could afford to take.79 His firm had branch houses in every major Italian town, and in Constantinople, Alexandria, Cairo, Lyons, London, Amsterdam. A hundred vessels sailed under his flag; twenty thousand men were in his pay; a half-dozen sovereigns sent him gifts; his best horse was from the Sultan; when he visited Venice (to which he had lent 125,000 ducats), he was seated next to the doge.80 Asked by Leo X to estimate his wealth, he answered, perhaps for reasons of tax, that it was impossible; however, his annual income was reckoned to be 70,000 ducats ($875,000). His silver plate and jewelry equaled in quantity that of all the Roman nobility combined. His bedstead was carved in ivory and encrusted with gold and precious stones. The fixtures of his bathroom were of solid silver.81 He had a dozen palaces and villas, of which the most ornate was the Villa Chigi, on the west bank of the Tiber. Designed by Baldassare Peruzzi, adorned with paintings by Peruzzi, Raphael, Sodoma, Giulio Romano, and Sebastiano del Piombo, it was hailed by the Romans, on its completion in 1512, as the lordliest palace in Rome.
The Chigi banquets had almost the reputation that those of Lucullus had gained in Caesar’s time. In the stables that Raphael had just completed, and before they were occupied by handsomer beasts than men, Agostino entertained Pope Leo and fourteen cardinals, in 1518, with a repast that proudly cost him 2000 ducats ($25,000?). At that distinguished function eleven massive silver plates were stolen, presumably by servants in the retinue of the guests. Chigi forbade any search, and expressed courteous astonishment that so little had been stolen.82 When the feast was over, the silk carpet, the tapestries, and the fine furniture were removed, and a hundred horses filled the stalls.
A few months later the banker gave another dinner, this time in the loggia of the villa, projecting out over the river. After each course all the silver used in serving it was thrown into the Tiber before the eyes of the guests, to assure them that no plate would be used twice. After the banquet Chigi’s servants drew up the silver from the net that had secretly been lowered into the stream beneath the windows of the loggia.83 At a dinner given in the main hall of the villa on August 28, 1519, each guest—including Pope Leo and twelve cardinals—was served on silver or gold plate faultlessly engraved with his own motto, crest, and coat of arms, and was fed with special fish, game, vegetables, fruits, delicacies, and wines freshly imported for the occasion from his own country or locality.
Chigi tried to atone for this plebeian display of wealth by an openhanded support of literature and art. He financed the editing of Pindar by the scholar Cornelio Benigno of Viterbo, and set up in his own home a press for its printing; and the Greek type cut for that press excelled in beauty that which Aldus Manutius had used in publishing the Odes two years before. This was the first Greek text printed in Rome (1515). A year later the same press issued a correct edition of Theocritus. Though himself a man of modest education, Agostino prided himself on his friendship with Bembo, Giovio, even Aretino; in this last case the Roman adage, pecunia non olet—“money does not smell”—included a transitive verb. Next to money and his mistress, Chigi loved all the forms of beauty that art had fashioned. He rivaled Leo in commissions to artists, and led him a merry pace in the pagan interpretation of the Renaissance. He collected into his palaces and villas such quantities of art as would have furnished a museum. He seems to have thought of his villa as not merely his home, but as a public gallery of art, to which the public might occasionally be admitted.
In that villa, at the aforementioned dinner on August 28, 1519, Leo himself officiating, Chigi at last married the faithful mistress with whom he had lived for the preceding eight years. Eight months later he died, within a few days of the death of Raphael. His estate, valued at 800,000 ducats ($10,000,000?) was divided chiefly among his children. Lorenzo, the oldest son, led a life of dissipation, and was adjudged insane in 1553. The Villa Chigi was sold to the second Cardinal Alessandro Farnese for a small sum about 1580, and from that time bore the name of Farnesina.