Palazzo della Cancelleria, which was built between 1489–1513 for Cardinal Raffaele Riario, Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, is regarded as the earliest Renaissance palace in Rome. The name of the architect remains unknown.
Raffaele Riario, a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471-84) was appointed a cardinal in 1477 at the tender age of seventeen. It is said that Palazzo della Cancelleria was partly funded from the profits of a single night’s gambling, when Cardinal Riario won the princely sum of 60,000 scudi while playing dice with Franceschetto Cybo, the illegitimate son of Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484-92).
The long inscription on the facade reads: RAPHAEL · RIARIVS · SAVONENSIS · SANCTI · GEORGII · DIACONVS · CARDINALIS · SANCTAE · ROMANAE · ECCLESSIAE · CAMERARIVS · A · SYXTO · IIII · PONTIFICE · MAXIMO · HONORIBVS · AC · FORTVNIS · HONESTATVS · TEMPLVM · DIVO · LAVRENTIO · MARTYRI · DICATVM · ET · AEDIS · A · FVNDAMENTIS · SVA · IMPENSA · FECIT · MCCCCLXXXXV · ALEXANDRO · VI · P · M ·. (Raffaele Riario of Savona, Cardinal Deacon of San Giorgio, Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, lavished with offices and riches by Pope Sixtus the Fourth, at his own expense erected from its foundations the basilica dedicated to St Lawrence and the palace, during the reign of Pope Alexander the Sixth, in the year 1495.)
The piano nobile is distinguished by its greater height, richer carving and a profusion of roses (Raffaele Riario's coat of arms comprises a single rose), proclaiming the cardinal’s rank, power and prestige.
An inscription on the small balcony, on the south side of the palazzo, proudly proclaims: HOC OPVS SIC PERPETVI. (This work will stay forever.)
The palazzo's beautiful courtyard has a double loggia. The granite columns come from the ancient Theatre of Pompey, which once stood nearby.
In 1516 Cardinal Riario was involved in a plot to murder Pope Leo X (r. 1513-1521) and was imprisoned in Castel Sant' Angelo. Although he was eventually acquitted, he was ordered to hand over his palace to the Vatican. The pope duly installed the offices of the Apostolic Chancellery (Cancelleria Apostolica), hence its name.
The palace thus became the home of the second most powerful cleric in Rome, the Vice-Chancellor. Palazzo della Cancelleria is still the property of the Vatican, enjoying extra-territorial status.