Villas of the Papal Nobility

Date of Submission: 01/06/2006
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
MInistry of Cultural Heritage and Activities
State, Province or Region:

Region: Lazio - Provinces: Rome and Viterbo

Ref.: 351
Cultural landscapes


Lazio's countryside features quite a number of stately homes, or suburban villas, built from the second half of the 16th century onwards for the higher clergy and by members of the aristocracy connected to the papal court in Rome.

These suburban villas developed mainly in two areas: in the region's northern area, around Viterbo and in the South-Eastern area, on the Colli Tuscolani, an area that was already much appreciated by the Ancient Romans - namely by Lucullus and by Cicero - on account of its mild climate and strategic location not far from Rome. Because they were relatively close together  and also because in all the projects the natural environment was clearly part of the original conception, these villas came to form a high level residential system that deeply influenced the development of the whole countryside.

Architects of great renown were called  upon; among them Baldassarre Peruzzi, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Martino Longhi the Elder, Flaminio Ponzio, Carlo Fontana, Giovanni Vasanzio, Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, Giacomo Del Duca, Girolamo Rainaldi, Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Francesco Borromini, Luigi Vanvitelli. No less important are the authors of the decorations; and it is not surprising since these villas were commissioned by pontiffs and by the more influential figures of the Roman society who were accustomed to summoning artists such as Taddeo and Federico Zuccari, Cesare Nebbia, Paolo Guidotti Borghese, Domenichino, Raffaellino da Reggio, Agostino Tassi, Cavalier d'Arpino, Pietro da Cortona, Cherubino Alberti, Domenico and Tommaso Passignano, Carlo Maratta, Antonio Tempesta, Ciro Ferri, Taddeus Kuntz, Giuseppe and Domenico Valeriani,  Ignazio Heldman, Pier Leone Grezzi and Giovanni Paolo Pannini.

A close relationship with nature is ever present in the decorations: cascades of flowers, themes centred on the countryside, reflections on the passage of time and of the seasons, airy architectural fancies framing spectacular views, loggias transformed into trompe l'oeil arcades with decorations recalling Antiquity and the Bible.

Main common feature of these villas is the great importance accorded to the vast parklands surrounding the buildings, where formal, "artificial", gardens are perfectly integrated into the natural landscape. Many of the estates were farms where the original farmhouses progressively changed to satisfy new requirements associated to social life and entertainment. Large-scale terracing then made room for formal Italian gardens; engineering works were carried out to supply water for fountains and water works; extravagant nymphaea were built and the villas now offer a vast range of this typical element. The very particular relationship with the environment is certainly the most spectacular aspect: each villa's design was conceived taking into account the surrounding landscape: existing oak or cypress groves were left intact and incorporated into the garden's layout; water falls were emphasized through excavations and earth-moving; sloping sites were exploited to achieve intricate jeux d'eau.

The following private and state-owned estates are included in this residential system: in the Province of Viterbo - Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola, Villa Lante at Bagnaia, Bomarzo's "Monsters' Grove" and Palazzo Giustiniani at Bassano Romano; in the Province of Rome - Villa Mondragone and Villa Taverna Parisi at Monteporzio Catone, the villas Falconieri, Tuscolana, Aldobrandini, Lancellotti, Sora and Torlonia at Frascati, Villa Grazioli and Villa Muti at Grottaferrata and Palazzo Chigi at Ariccia.

PALAZZO FARNESE at Caprarola (VT) - Palazzo Farnese  was begun in 1559; the initial project by Baldassare Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane, was later taken up by Vignola who adjusted it to fit the Farnese's rising  political standing and fortune. The massive pentagonal fortress thus became an elegant palazzo with a fine circular courtyard and, in the interior, remarkable paintings, based on an historical and mythological celebration of the Farnese family, commissioned to renowned artists such as Taddeo and Federico Zuccari, Antonio Tempesta, Raffaellino da Reggio. The formal garden is structured on various levels and organized around a succession of fountains representing classical themes.

VILLA LANTE at Bagnaia (VT) - Villa Lante was designed by Vignola in 1568 and completed by Maderno at the beginning of the 17th century. Several rooms of the two elegant buildings  feature frescoes by outstanding artists (A.Tempesta, A.Tassi, Cavalier d'Arpino). The formal Italian garden's layout follows the prospective axis of the sculptures decorating a succession of fountains. A vast park extends beyond the  fenced-in formal garden.

MONSTERS' GROVE at Bomarzo (VT) - This suggestive monumental complex, unique in its kind,  was created by order of Vicino Orisni on the slopes of a natural amphitheatre with a series of terraces descending to the valley floor. It is characterized by its larger-than-life fantastic sculptures - monstrous animals, grotesque giants, distorted  architectures - that reveal a peculiar imagination and a taste for horrors that is typical of Roman Mannerism. Several inscriptions accompany visitors on a startling, thought-provoking, esoteric journey.

PALAZZO GIUSTINIANI at Bassano Romano (VT) - The villa originally belonged to the Anguillara; it was purchased  in 1595 by Giuseppe Giustiniani, a banker from Genova who had been introduced to the papal court by his brother in law, cardinal Orazio Giustiniani.. The villa's present structure dates back to the beginning of the 17th century when Vincenzo Giustiniani had it restored, adorned with outstanding ancient statues and used it as a his suburban residence and administrative seat of the vast Bassano estate. The more important artists and architects of the day were involved, including Maderno who supervised the works and Antonio Tempesta, Francesco Albani, Bernardo Castello, Domenichino and  Paolo Guidotti Borghese who frescoed the palazzo's vaulted ceilings and walls. 

VILLA MONDRAGONE at Monteporzio Catone (RM) - The villa was built using the structure of the Roman Villa dei Quintili by order of Marco Sittico Altemps, nephew of pope Pius IV Medici. Works were begun by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and completed at the end of the 16th century by Martino Longhi the Elder. The more ancient nucleus maintains the distinctive features of a Renaissance palace-fortress; in the 17th century, Scipione Borghese summoned Carlo Maderno, Giovanni Fontana and Vasanzio who transformed it into a magnificent complex, adding new wings and fountains in the formal gardens. The "Giardino della girandola" or "whirl garden" deserves particular mention: it is a totally separate area with a monumental nymphaeum, designed to favour rest and meditation.    

VILLA TAVERNA PARISI at Monteporzio Catone (RM) - The villa's original nucleus was erected at the beginning of the 16th century; in 1730-36 Girolamo Rainaldi added two lateral wings and so obtained two courtyards. A nymphaeum was erected on the hills behind the villa and connected to the upper formal garden by an imposing double staircase; the secret garden on the Eastern side was adorned with an octagonal fountain. Noteworthy are the second floor's  terrace and balustrade  and the decorations of the rooms on the first floor, featuring themes taken from antiquity, social life, hunting and landscapes, painted by renowned artists including Giuseppe and Domenico Valeriani and Ignazio Heldman.

VILLA FALCONIERI at Frascati (RM) - The original villa, Villa Rufina, was the first villa built on the Monti Tuscolani; it was enlarged in the 17th century, at the time of Orazio Falconieri, by Francesco Borromini., who transformed the simple country house into a impressive villa  with a central edifice and two lateral wings overhanging the surrounding park. Later, also the park was restructured and enriched with formal Italian gardens on different levels, staircases, fountains and, on the edge of the forest, a particularly suggestive lake lined with cypress trees, created  at the beginning of the 18th century. The villa's internal decorations are also noteworthy with frescoes by  Ciro Ferri, Giacinto Calandrucci, Francesco Grimaldi,  Pier Leone Ghezzi.

VILLA TUSCOLANA at Frascati (RM) - This villa was known as "La Ruffinella" from the name of its first owner, Alessandro Rufini. The original nucleus, built in 1578, was restructured by Luigi Vanvitelli in 1742 by order of the Jesuits who owned the villa at that time; two stories and a belvedere loggia were added to the 16th-century edifice which was also flanked by a new, long wing. In the 19th century, with Lucien Bonaparte, the vast park was completely redesigned: a Mount Parnassus was raised in those years and all the gardens were decorated with ancient statues and archaeological findings taken from the excavations conducted in the park itself.

VILLA ALDOBRANDINI at Frascati (RM) - This villa stands apart from all the other ones built in the same period; it was begun in 1602 by Giacomo Della Porta, by order of Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII, and completed around 1621 by Carlo Maderno and Giovanni Fontana. These same architects also built the succession of monumental fountains extending from the hill behind the villa to the grandiose "theatre of waters" below. The villa was conceived as a stage set, focal point of a superb formal garden structured according to a complex design of fountains, basins and pools where aesthetic aspects merge with symbols and allegories. Of great interest also the hydraulic devices, in particular the hydraulic organ, now kept in the Sala del Parnaso, and several frescoes by outstanding artists including Domenichino and Domenico Passignano. 

VILLA LANCELLOTTI at Frascati (RM) - Built in the 16th century, this villa was restructured at the beginning of the 17th century and a formal Italian garden, ending in a nymphaeum, created in front of it. The present structure dates back to the 18th century when  Elisabetta Borghese Aldobrandini and Filippo Massimo Lancellotti, carried out a complete renovation. The internal decorations are also noteworthy, in particular the older paintings by Ciro Ferri and, among the more recent ones a series of landscapes, depicting  the family's estates.

VILLA SORA at Frascati (RM) - The original nucleus was erected around 1570 for Giulio Moroni, nephew of the cardinal Giovanni Moroni. When, in 1600, the villa was sold to Giacomo Boncompagni, illegitimate son of pope Gregory XIII, it was enlarged and richly decorated. Particularly noteworthy are the paintings in the Sala delle Conferenze ascribed to the school of Cavalier d'Arpino.

VILLA TORLONIA at Frascati (RM) - The complex, created for Scipione Borghese, nephew of pope Paul V, was begun in 1607. The villa was part of a vast park with terraces, balustrades and fountains whose construction involved Flaminio Ponzio, Giovanni Fontana and Carlo Maderno. The villa itself was heavily damaged during World War II but the gardens remained unmarked and maintain their exceptional variety of plants and the fine architectural structures, arranged along the central axis, leading to a particularly  large and impressive theatre of waters.

VILLA GRAZIOLI at Grottaferrata (RM) - The villa was erected towards the end of the 16th century and then enlarged and restructured, up to the first half of the 18th century, by subsequent owners, Cardinal Peretti-Montalto, the Savelli family and the Odescalhi family. It features a number of outstanding paintings illustrating mythological themes and themes taken from the Old Testament, in particular the gallery decorated by Giovanni Paolo Pannini.

VILLA ARRIGONI-MUTI at Grottaferrata (RM) - The villa was begun in 1595 by order of Cardinal Pompeo Arrigoni who also commissioned the decorations of first-floor rooms, focussed on the Old Testament, to artists from Tuscany, including  Ludovico Cardi, known as il Cigoli, and Passignano. The frescoes in the villa's left wing were painted later by Giovanni Lanfranco. The park is structured on various levels and shows an interesting historical stratification of landscape gardening from the formal Italian garden to an English garden created around 1850.

PALAZZO CHIGI at Ariccia (RM) - The present palazzo is a 16th-century re-visitation of a late-15th-century edifice built by Carlo Fontana and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was in charge of Ariccia's urban renovation. The structure recalls both the castles typical of the Ile de France and those typical of the Campagna Romana. The surrounding 28 hectares of parkland are the last fragment of the nemus aricinum dedicated to the goddess Diana which, in the 17th century, the Chigi family endowed with fountains, pools and an aviary built by Bernardino Savelli. Several works of art are still kept inside the palazzo, including works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Antonio Tempesta and Liborio Coccetti.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The villas are substantially well preserved, both as regards the edifices and the formal gardens. Damages caused to some of the villas during World War II have been repaired following methodologies fully respectful of the original techniques and materials.

Today, the formal gardens are the outcome of a succession of modifications conducted over a period of 400 years. The original structures have, in part, been maintained and subsequent enlargements and alterations, dictated by changes in taste, still form an harmonious ensemble.

Comparison with other similar properties

Lazio's ‘Ville Pontificie', or Villas of the papal nobility, form a system of suburban stately homes situated in a privileged environment; they are homogeneous as regards destination, typology and formal characteristics.. As such they are comparable to the Ville Palladiane in Veneto, to the Ville Medicee in area around Florence and to the Ville Vesuviane in the Gulf of Naples.

However, the Ville Pontificie show a greater variety compared to the Ville Palladiane and Medicee; they were also built over a longer period of time and were destined mainly to social activities rather than farming. The Ville Pontificie have in common with the spectacular Ville Vesuviane a very particular relationship with the surrounding landscape, always taken into account as the all-important backdrop.