Large Aristocratic Villas

Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of Rome’s noble families chose the Esquiline for their large private residences; in the Middle Ages this area had been almost entirely reoccupied by the countryside, with the exception of some monasteries and religious buildings. They thus rediscovered the role of this area on the outskirts of the city as a buen retiro for the privileged classes, a role it had already played in the Roman Empire. Among the villas built in these years it is worth recalling that of Cardinal Felice Peretti, later Pope Sixtus V (1585 - 1590), the owner of a vast estate on the northwestern slopes of the hill covering a huge area between the Baths of Diocletian and Porta Tiburtina.

Pope Peretti, who was very fond of this part of the city, organized the construction of a complex new road network and of the Acqua Felice aqueduct, which supplied water to the Esquiline, Viminal and Quirinal hills. In the following century, Marquis Massimiliano Palombara, obsessed with alchemy (the mythical art of the transmutation of metals) and a frequent visitor to the esoteric circles of Queen Christina of Sweden who lived in Rome in the second half of the seventeenth century, built a wonderful villa in the area occupied centuries earlier by the Horti Lamiani. The villa rightfully became one of the most legendary places in Rome for the tales revolving around the Marquis’s alchemical laboratory. Its only surviving trace can be found in the northern corner of Piazza Vittorio where one of the entrance gates to the villa, known as the Magic Door or Alchemical Door, has been placed. The esoteric symbols engraved on the lintel, and the phrases in Hebrew and Latin, have been linked to the mythical search for the philosopher’s stone: the main character in a popular video game, Lara Croft, must attempt to open this door to obtain this magic object. The door, originally opening onto Via Felice, between today’s Via Carlo Alberto and Via San Vito, was moved in 1873 during work to renovate the city after Rome became the capital of Italy. The villas of the aristocracy were demolished over the space of a few years to make way for the Umbertine buildings that changed the appearance of the district, turning it into today’s working-class neighbourhood. An identical fate unites Villa Palombara with the other stately homes that stood in this area, including Villa Giustiniani, between Via Merulana, Via Labicana, Via Tasso and Piazza San Giovanni, Villa Altieri and Villa Astalli, between Via Felice and Via Labicana. The only villa to partially survive, perhaps because it was the last to be built in 1830, is Villa Wolkonsky, located south of the Via Labicana and now home to the British Embassy.