Rome > The Palaces of the Nobility

The Palaces of the Nobility

The presence of the papacy in Rome has undoubtedly strongly influenced the city's history, affecting its urbanistic and monumental development as well. The patronage of popes and cardinals, supported by enormous financial resources coming from increasingly heavy taxes imposed on the Roman population, left copious examples of the luxury with which the noble families loved to surround themselves. Today it is still possible to visit some of these splendid palaces, fortunately open to the public, where it is not difficult to imagine the sumptuous life that once went on inside.

The imposing Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, seat of one of the most prestigious art collections comprising works by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Velasquez and Bernini, is still owned by the noble family, who live in a wing of the building which is not open to the public. Visiting the splendid rooms, decorated with the precious original furnishings, it will seem as if you have taken a leap two or three centuries back in time, because everything has remained as it was. The history of the building, which in the 16th century was owned by the Aldobrandini, is closely tied to the vicissitudes of the family whose name it bears today. Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, pope from 1644 with the name of Innocent X, had built for himself and his family the splendid palace of Piazza Navona, today the Brazilian Embassy and thus difficult to visit. In accordance with tradition, his nephew Camillo was appointed nephew cardinal, or rather, as it was said at that time, “master cardinal”, because he combined so many offices that he was, in practice, the true governor of the Church State. Camillo, however, fell in love with Olimpia Aldobrandini, whom he married after abandoning the purple, arousing great indignation in his pope uncle and his mother Olimpia Maidalchini. When things cooled down, the young couple, who got married in secret outside of Rome, decided to come live in the Palazzo Aldobrandini, which was enlarged and made more beautiful, suitable for holding the original nucleus of the art collection that can still be admired today.

Continuously embellished down through the centuries, the palace aroused the amazement and embarrassment of Kaiser Wilhelm Il of Germany who, participating at a reception there in 1882, felt the need to excuse himself for not being able to return such hospitality.

From the Piazza del Collegio Romano we can take a pleasant walk to Piazza della Minerva, going along Via del Pié di Marmo with its characteristic shops. The unusual name derives from a large marble foot, which once belonged to an ancient colossal statue, which today stands at the start of Via di Santo Stefano del Cacco. Originally the foot stood along the street which still bears its name, but it had to be removed in 1878 because it obstructed the passage of the funeral procession of Victor Emmanuel Il on its way to the Pantheon.

Crossing Via del Corso, we arrive at Piazza Santi Apostoli, where we find the Palazzo Colonna, another side of a prestigious art collection, which still belongs to the noble family. The Colonna celebrated in 2000, with a sumptuous reception, the 900th anniversary of the birth of their dynasty. Bearing wit- ness to the magnificent life that has always gone on here, suffìce it to think of the custom regarding the festivity of the Holy Apostles, celebrated on 1 May. On this occasion, in the past, from the palace windows facing into the church of the Santi Apostoli, foods and delicacies used' to be thrown to the people, who would fight with each other to get their hands on the goodies, and then be hit by a shower of cold water. This all took place before the amused eyes of the nobles and clergy who watched the scene. An outstanding member of the family was Marcantonio Colonna, the winner in 1571 of the Battle of Lepanto, which put an end to the Turkish domination in the Mediterranean. The episode is commemorated in the frescoes adorning the rooms, and also in the sumptuous consoles which have figures of Turkish slaves in chains as their base. On the steps leading to the art gallery is preserved a cannon ball fired from the Janiculum, remaining embedded here, during the fighting between the French and Garibaldi's troops in the defence of the Roman Republic in 1849.

The magnificent art gallely, one of the most beautiful in Rome, was the setting for the famous final scene of the film Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

Descending from Via della Pilotta and turning right onto the Via del Tritone, we arrive at Piazza Barberini, where we can visit one of the most imposing buildings in Rome: Palazzo Barberini. The elegant dwelling was intended to show the position of prestige occupied by the family following the election to the papal throne of Urban VIII in 1623. The intention was achieved perfectly thanks to an exceptional triad of artists - Bernini, Borromini and Pietro da Cortona - who worked together, leaving one of the liveliest examples of the Baroque period. Bernini and Borromini, whose collaboration was rife with controversy and resentment, were responsible for the architectural part, which had been begun by Carlo Maderno. lndeed, it was Maderno who conceived an innovative plan, not closed with a courtyard in the centre, according to Renaissance tradition, but open, with parallel wings joined by a central volume. One of the palace's elements most worthy of note is the staircases: Bernini's on the left, wide and solemn, with a square plan; Borromini's on the right, smaller but picturesque, with a helicoidal shape. Pietro da Cortona painted the vault of the great hall, with the Triumph of the Divine Providence, rightly considered one of the peaks of Baroque painting. The extraordinary composition is a complex allegory intending to exalt the family of the reigning pontiff, expressed with a language full of movement, powerful chiaroscuro effects, fluid forms, and daring perspective and illusionist inventions.

The sumptuous palace, which today holds the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica, with paintings by Filippo Lippi, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio, was extremely fascinating for Gabriele D'Annunzio, who, for a certain period, lived on Via Quattro Fontane, across from the palace.

A pleasant walk along the Via Veneto leads to Villa Borghese, the most renowned villa (park) in Rome. At the end of the Viale del Museo Borghese, you can see the building that holds the Galleria Borghese. lt is amazing to note how many masterpieces are concentrated in just one place; this is thanks to the will of Cardinal Scipione Borghese who, in the early 17th century, used all means, whether right or wrong, to collect these priceless treasures. He didn't hesitate to have Raphael's beautiful “Descent from the Cross” stolen during the night from the church of San Francesco in Perugia, causing a citizens’ revolt; he used a trite excuse to confiscate 107 paintings from the famous painter Cavalier d'Arpino, and even had the painter Domenichino imprisoned, guilty of not wanting to turn over to him the splendid Diana the Huntress, painted for another client. His expert eye and uncommon flair for recognising new talent led the cardinal to surround himself with young artists who produced authentic masterpieces to decorate the rooms of the gallery. Among these, one who stands out is Gian Lorenzo Bernini who, at just twentythree years of age produced magnificent sculpture groups such as Apollo and Daphne, Aeneas Escaping the Fire of Troy, The Rape of Proserpine and David. Also by Bernini is the sculptural portrait of the master of the house, Scipione. Strangely, there are two of them, apparently identical, placed one beside the other.

This is due to the fact that, during the carving of the bust, the sculptor realised that the block of marble on which he was working was defective, and in one night's time, in order to avoid disappointing his great patron, he managed to produce a second version. In the early 1800s, Camillo Borghese, who had married Pauline, Napoleon Bonaparte's sister, had Antonio Canova do the famous portrait of his wife depicted as Venus Victrix. The sculpture is so beautiful and perfect that, in order to be able to admire it in its entirely, Canova thought up a mechanism that permitted the statue to rotate, to the amazement of the villa's guests.

And to think that this Was only the country house! In reality, the actual Palazzo Borghese, where the family lived, is on Via della Fontanella Borghese. Called the ”cembalo” (the harpsichord) due to its particular shape, the building unfortunately is not open to the public.