Villa Torlonia, the most recent of the villas belonging to Rome’s nobility, still retains a particular fascination due to the originality of its English-style garden (one of the few examples in the city), and to the unexpectedly large number of buildings and garden furniture in the grounds.
The history of the Villa
When Giovanni Torlonia inherited the title of Marchese in 1797, to confirm his new status he purchased Villa Colonna (formerly Villa Pamphilj) on Via Nomentana and commissioned Giuseppe Valadier to renovate the property to raise it to the standard of the other villas belonging to noble families in Rome.
Between 1802 and 1806 Valadier turned the main building into an elegant palace, transformed the small Casino Abbati into a very gracious palazzina (today the Casino dei Principi), and built the Stables and an imposing entrance (demolished when the Via Nomentana was widened). He also laid out the park with symmetrical, perpendicular avenues around the palace, and the view to the north from the building in line with one of the entrances to the Villa from Via Nomentana. Numerous works of Classical art, many of which were sculptural, were purchased to furnish the Villa.
Following the death of Giovanni, in 1832 his son Alessandro commissioned the painter and architect Giovan Battisti Caretti to enhance and increase the size of the property. In addition to enlarging the size of the buildings, Caretti constructed several features in the park to suit the eclectic taste of the Prince: these were the False Ruins, the Temple of Saturn, the Tribuna con Fontana, an Amphitheatre, the Coffee-house, and the Chapel of Sant’Alessandro (the last three no longer exist).
To plan and carry out the works inside the Villa, Alessandro employed two other architects: Quintiliano Raimondi for the Theatre and Orangery (today more commonly known as the Lemon-house), and Giuseppe Jappelli, who was in charge of the entire south section of the Villa. This area was completely transformed with winding avenues, small lakes, exotic plants and decorated with buildings and outdoor furniture of unusual taste: the Swiss Hut (later transformed into the Casina delle Civette), the Conservatory, the Tower and Moorish Grotto, and the Tournament Field. The huge self-celebratory project culminated in 1842 with the erection of two pink granite Obelisks that commemorated Alessandro’s parents, Giovanni and Anna Maria Torlonia.
Yet despite the work and effort expended, Villa Torlonia was only on a few occasions the setting for magnificent social events for high-ranking foreign and Roman nobles that Alessandro had hoped for.
In an attempt to relaunch the splendour of the family name, his heir, another Giovanni, built the Medieval House, another enclosure wall, the Red House, and the Watchman’s House at the entrance on Via Spallanzani, and he radically transformed the Swiss Hut to turn it into the current Casina delle Civette. The new buildings were for the most part designed to be lived in.
In 1919 a large underground Jewish cemetery was discovered in the north-west area of the grounds.
In 1925 the Villa was bestowed upon Mussolini as a residence, where he remained until 1943. The presence of the Duce did not bring substantial modifications: he lived in the Palace and used the Medieval House and the Lemon-house to show films and hold parties and cultural meetings. And a tennis court was set up on the Tournament Field.
Nor did the Park undergo changes, with the exception of the creation of vegetable gardens during the war at the instigation of Mussolini’s wife. In June 1944 the entire property was occupied by the Allied High Command which remained there until 1947.
The Villa was bought by the Municipality of Rome in 1977 and a year later it was opened to the public. A series of restoration projects was initiated in the 1990s in both the park and buildings: first the Casina delle Civette, then the Casino dei Principi, the southern section of the park, the Red House, and more recently the Lemon-house, Medieval House, Casino Nobile, Old Stables, and the north section of the park.
Once the upcoming restoration of the Theatre and Moorish Conservatory have been completed, Villa Torlonia will have been returned to its original splendour.