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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of Villa Torlonia in Rome

What is Villa Torlonia?

Villa Torlonia is an expansive villa in Rome that was rebuilt and redesigned by the Torlonia family, featuring a variety of architectural styles, pleasant gardens, and a great collection of art and sculpture.

Villa Torlonia

Villa Torlonia History

At the turn of the 19th century, Rome was a conquered state. Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France (in the manner of the ancients), and proceeded to loot priceless treasures from the city in an effort to create a new Rome in Paris. Around the same time, Prince Giovanni Torlonia, a banker and son of a French cloth merchant, commissioned Napoleon’s favourite architect in Rome, Giuseppe Valadier, to renovate what was then just a modest villa. Valadier transformed the main building into an elegant neoclassical palace, known today as the Casino Nobile, designing it with large Ionic columns and a pediment (the triangular part above the columns) decorated in high relief, similar to the kind you might find on an ancient Greek temple.

Following Giovanni’s death, his son, Alessandro, commissioned painter and architect Giovanni Battista Caretti to further develop the villa to suit his rather eclectic tastes. Caretti installed the False Ruins, the Temple of Saturn with its narrow Doric columns, an amphitheatre, and a coffee-house (drinking coffee after dinner was in vogue in the late 18th century, and the wealthy built special garden pavilions for this very purpose). Sadly neither of the last two structures survive today, however, you can still enjoy the works carried out by architects Quintiliano Raimondi, who built the Theatre, and Giuseppe Jappelli, who designed the vast English-style garden with its winding avenues, diverse range of vegetation, and unusual outdoor furniture. To complete this enormous overhaul Alessandro also installed two pink granite obelisks that commemorate the lives of his parents, Giovanni (located in front of the main façade) and Anna Maria (in front of the rear façade).

The most surprising structure you’ll encounter within the grounds is probably the Casina delle Civette (or ‘House of the Owls’), a small Art Nouveau complex of two buildings connected by a wooden gallery and underground passage. In the early 20th century, the ‘Swiss Cabin’ that had been commissioned by Alessandro Torlonia and designed in the style of a Swiss chalet, was rebuilt on the orders of Alessandro’s nephew, Giovanni the Younger, who resided there until his death in 1938. The elaborate villa, whose design is completely ornamental rather than practical (given the climate), features antique fragments, charming panelling, and stained glass works depicting stylised owls, which give the building its name. The symbol of the owl in fact features throughout the decoration of the house, since Prince Giovanni was infatuated with the motif.

In the early 20th century, the villa itself was given to Benito Mussolini, and he lived here with his family until 1943 (even constructing an air-raid bunker on its grounds). In 1977, the property was acquired by the state and opened to the public in the following year. Today, the Casino Nobile still boasts its original 19th-century decorations, glorious frescoes, and a great collection of art and sculpture from the 20th century.

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