Magazine article The Spectator

Seaside Renaissance

Magazine article The Spectator

Seaside Renaissance

Article excerpt

Roderick Conway Morris on how Genoa's glorious Villa del Principe has been brought back to life

Palazzo Doria Pamphilj houses the most important private art collection in Rome. But the family possesses another treasure, the Villa del Principe in Genoa. The Doria side of the family moved to Rome in 1760, when they inherited the Pamphilj titles and estates, after which the Villa del Principe suffered a slow decline, punctuated by two major disasters. But after 16 years of work it has now been restored and reopened to the public.

Donna Gesine Principessa Doria Pamphilj, who stays there regularly with her husband Massimiliano Floridi and their three children, said when I visited the villa on the eve of the inauguration, 'The idea of restoring the villa, rediscovering its story and reviving the family's connections with Genoa goes back to my grandparents and parents. But we wanted to bring it alive again, not just make it into a museum.'

The Villa del Principe was built on the seashore at Fassolo outside Genoa's city walls in the 16th century by Andrea Doria, the most illustrious Christian admiral of the age. While battling the Ottomans and Barbary corsairs at sea, personally commanding his fleet into ripe old age, Doria brought peace to Genoa, ended the city's factional strife, reformed its Republican constitution and became the citystate's benign dictator, while remaining officially a private citizen with the honorary title of Pater Patriae (Father of the Nation).

The villa was an admiral's port house - his galley squadrons were parked at the end of the formal gardens when he was in residence - the epicentre of local political power and a palace worthy to receive visiting grandees, princes and emperors. The frescoes and stucco work were done by Perino del Vaga, one of Raphael's chief collaborators, who also laid out the magnificent terraced gardens.

The apartments were embellished with the finest silk hangings and tapestries - around 200 at the time of Doria's death in 1560 - with all the furnishings fit, in the words of a contemporary ambassador, 'not for a gentleman but a great king'. Doria's generosity as a patron of the arts was legendary and the example he set had an enormous influence on the Genoese nobility, who built palaces in the city emulating the villa and its lavish decorations.

But after Doria's descendants had taken themselves off to Rome, the villa's most valuable movable artworks were gradualqly transferred there. During the Genoese uprising against the Piemontese in 1849 the villa became a rebel refuge, subjected to sustained artillery bombardment and the scene of a bloody battle. In 1944 the Allies, mistakenly believing that the villa had become the German headquarters in the city, repeatedly bombed it, the house and gardens receiving 16 direct hits, while the actual Nazi HQ on the hill behind remained untouched.

'When the Fine Art Superintendancy put sandbags around the fountain with the statue of Neptune in front of the house, ' said Principessa Gesine, 'the villa's adminstrator pointed out that it made it look like a gun emplacement. And, sure enough, that was targeted and hit, too.'

Ironically, the RAF was to a large degree bombing its own. Three successive generations of Doria Pamphiljs took English Catholic brides during the 19th century, and the Principessa's mother, Orietta, married an Englishman. …

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