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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in June 2012.

- Frascati - part two: the Villas

In this page:
Villa Mondragone
Portale delle Armi and Villa Taverna (or Borghese or Parisi)
Villa Aldobrandini (or Belvedere)
Villa Torlonia (or Conti)
In the next page: Villa Lancellotti, Villa Falconieri, Villa Tuscolana and other villas.
In the previous page: Frascati, the town.

The villas of Frascati were all built in a relatively short time frame from 1550 to 1620, although some of them were modified later on.
In 1549 Alessandro Ruffini, a prelate of the papal court, built Villa La Rufina (aka Villa Falconieri) on the hill above Frascati. His example was followed by the most important Roman families: Altemps, Boncompagni (Gregory XIII), Montalto (Sixtus V), Aldobrandini (Clement VIII), Borghese (Paul V). Today some of the villas belong to the municipalities of Grottaferrata or Monte Porzio Catone, but in line with the traditional approach they are all discussed in this and the next page, with the exception of the papal villa at Castelgandolfo.

1620 engraving showing the villas of Frascati. The numbers indicate those covered in this page: 1) Villa Mondragone; 2) Villa Taverna; 3) Villa Aldobrandini; 4) Villa Torlonia. 5) is Frascati

The villas soon became an addition to the monuments of modern Rome and were portrayed in paintings and engravings. In general all the villas were facing Rome so that the guests could see the Roman countryside, the ruins of the aqueducts and the dome of S. Pietro in the distance.

Villa Mondragone

Alley of cypresses leading to Villa Mondragone

Villa Mondragone was built in 1573-77 by Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps and it was designed by Martino Longhi il Vecchio. Cardinal Altemps had been a supporter of the election of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni and he was on very friendly terms with the pope, who was often hosted at Villa Mondragone in a specially decorated apartment. The villa became known as Monte Dragone because of its location at the top of a hill and because it was decorated with many dragons, the heraldic symbols of Pope Gregory XIII.

Sala delle Cariatidi built at the time of Cardinal Altemps, whose name can be read on the lintel of a door

Cardinal Altemps built la Retirata (the Retreat), a separate small palace, for his son Roberto and his wife Cornelia Orsini (learn more about them in a page covering Palazzo Altemps). Cardinal Altemps acquired the fiefdoms of Monte Porzio Catone and Montecompatri which were situated near the villa to form what was called Status Tusculanus (Tusculum being the ancient name of Frascati).

(left) Entrance to the courtyard; (right) portico and loggia

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, was a leading actor of the Roman scene at the beginning of the XVIIth century. He started to build a villa (today known as Villa Torlonia) to the west of Frascati, but in 1613 he exchanged it for Villa Mondragone together with the fiefdoms of Monte Porzio and Montecompatri. Cardinal Borghese expanded the Status Tusculanus by buying Montefortino from the Colonna and other properties between Villa Mondragone and Rome.
Cardinal Borghese commissioned Giovanni Vasanzio, an architect who worked at many Borghese properties, the enlargement of the main building of Villa Mondragone. This was done by incorporating la Retirata.

Teatro delle Acque (Theatre of Waters)

Vasanzio designed a very large fountain resembling a Roman nymphaeum with niches housing ancient statues collected by Cardinal Borghese. However in comparison to similar fountains designed by Carlo Maderno and Giovanni Fontana at Villa Aldobrandini and at Villa Torlonia, that of Villa Mondragone is rather small and it does not include an artificial waterfall (because the villa was already at almost the top of the hill).

(left) Fontana dei Draghi; (right) detail of the portico in the main courtyard

Eagles and dragons were the heraldic symbols of the Borghese. At Villa Borghese in Rome they appear almost everywhere in the decoration of the main building and of the gardens. Eagles and dragons are of the same size, with perhaps the eagles being given more prominence than the dragons. At Villa Mondragone instead dragons were given priority to keep with the name of the villa.

(lef) Chapel - (right) Barco Borghese, a hunting enclosure built above a terrace supported by ancient Roman walls opposite Villa Mondragone

Maybe because the Borghese had many villas and their maintenance drained too many resources, they lost interest in Mondragone, they removed the works of art from it and in the second half of the XIXth century they sold it to the Jesuits. It is currently rented to the Tor Vergata University of Rome.

Cypresses leading to Villa Mondragone seen from Monte Porzio Catone. The image shows on the left the Astronomical Observatory of Rome and Villa Tuscolana, the white building at the top of the hill

Portale delle Armi and Villa Taverna

Portale delle Armi

This type of triumphal arch was designed by Girolamo Rainaldi for Cardinal Scipione Borghese. It was meant to be the overall entrance to the properties acquired by the cardinal. When a modern road was opened between Frascati and Monte Porzio the Borghese did not allow it to pass inside their property and eventually the imposing gate ended up by losing its purpose. Today it is a pedestrian passage to a real estate development.

Heraldic symbols of the Borghese

The current Italian word for coat of arms is stemma, but in the past it was arme. Because this term was confused with arma (weapon), it fell into disuse during the XXth century. Thus Portale delle Armi means portal of the heraldic symbols and not portal of the weapons.

Villa Taverna

Cardinal Borghese, after having acquired Villa Mondragone, exchanged another villa (today known as Villa Grazioli) with that of Cardinal Ferdinando Taverna which was located near Mondragone. Because this villa did not have a grand entrance he commissioned Portale delle Armi. Today it is usually referred to as Villa Parisi, because in 1896 it was sold to Saverio Parisi, a banker. The Borghese bought or built many villas, but to avoid confusion these are all named after previous or later owners.

(left) Gate on the alley from Portale delle Armi to Villa Taverna and Villa Mondragone; (right) another view of Villa Taverna

Villa Aldobrandini

Villa Aldobrandini seen from Frascati

In 1598 Pope Clement VIII donated a small state property on the hill above Frascati to his nephew Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, who almost immediately decided to build a stately mansion where his uncle could spend some days of rest as Pope Gregory XIII had done at Villa Mondragone. Giacomo della Porta was commissioned the design of the new building, the construction of which was preceded by the removal of all the obstacles which could prevent the cardinal's guests from enjoying the view over Rome.

View of Villa Aldobrandini (blue dot) from Castel Sant'Angelo; for the monuments in the foreground see a view from Castel Sant'Angelo

The villa became known as Villa Belvedere (nice view), a name insofar used for that inside the Vatican walls. The imposing building which was designed by della Porta at the top of a series of terraces is visible from Rome because of its isolation and it is a landmark for identifying Frascati among the other towns of the Alban Hills.

Villa Aldobrandini

Villa Aldobrandini does not have as much internal space as one would think judging by its large façade. This because it does not have wings surrounding an inner courtyard. It was constructed so that every room was "a room with a view" either towards Rome or towards a series of fountains behind the building.

Details of the garden behind the casino: (left) fountain of Polyphemus playing the pan flute; a water operated mechanism produced a sound, similar to what occurred in many fountains at Villa d'Este; (centre) entrance to an underground cave eventually leading to the top of the rear garden; it is similar to the windows and doors of Palazzo Zuccari and to one of the monsters of Bomarzo; (right) a mask hidden in fake rocks

After the death of della Porta in 1602, the completion of the casino and the design of the gardens and fountains were commissioned to Carlo Maderno and his uncle Giovanni Fontana, who had built Acqua Felice and other fountains for Pope Sixtus V.
We took coach, and went fifteen miles out of the city to Frascati, formerly Tusculum, a villa of Cardinal Aldobrandini, built for a country-house ; but surpassing, in my opinion, the most delicious places I ever beheld for its situation, elegance, plentiful water, groves, ascents, and prospects. Just behind the Palace (which is of excellent architecture) in the centre of the enclosure, rises a high hill, or mountain, all over clad with tall wood, and so formed by nature, as if it had been cut out by art, from the summit whereof falls a cascade, seeming rather a great river than a stream precipitating into a large theatre of water, representing an exact and perfect rainbow, when the sun shines out. Under this, is made an artificial grotto, wherein are curious rocks, hydraulic organs, and all sorts of singing birds, moving and chirping by force of the water, with several other pageants and surprising inventions, (..) with many other devices to wet the unwary spectators, so that one can hardly step without wetting to the skin. (..) The garden has excellent walks and shady groves, abundance of rare fruit, oranges, lemons, &c., and the godly prospect of Rome, above all description, so as I do not wonder that Cicero and others have celebrated this place with such encomiums. (John Evelyn in his 1645 Diary).

Rear façade and detail of the door towards the garden

The villa was inherited by Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini and at his death in 1638 by Olimpia Aldobrandini who in that same year, at the age of fifteen, married Paolo Borghese. The property of the villa however did not pass to the Borghese, because Paolo died in 1646 and Olimpia married Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of
Pope Innocent X. The fleurs-de-lys were one of the heraldic symbols of the Pamphilj and they can be seen in some additions made in the early XVIIIth century, including the detail of the railing at the entrance to the villa which you can see in the image used as background for this page.
In 1760, at the death of the last member of the Pamphilj family, the descendants of Paolo Borghese claimed the villa and other properties which had belonged to Olimpia Aldobrandini. In 1769 Villa Belvedere was assigned to a branch of the Borghese who changed their surname to Aldobrandini and who still own it.
Other views of Villa Belvedere can be seen in a page dedicated to the heraldic symbols of Pope Clement VIII.

Villa Torlonia

Access from the road leading to Frascati

In 1563 Annibal Caro, a poet who translated the Aeneid of Virgil into Italian and who gave advice to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese for the decoration of his palace/villa at Caprarola, bought a small property (near Frascati which belonged to Abbazia di Grottaferrata) where he built a small villa. Eventually in 1607 the property was bought by Cardinal Scipione Borghese who commissioned Carlo Maderno, Flaminio Ponzio and Giovanni Fontana the construction of a new large villa.

Teatro delle Acque, main fountain of Villa Torlonia

The most spectacular feature of the new villa was its Teatro delle Acque which was of an unprecedented width. In 1613 however Cardinal Borghese changed his mind and acquired Villa Mondragone from the Altemps to whom he ceded the villa he was about to complete. A few years later the Altemps sold the villa to Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, nephew of
Pope Gregory XV who completed its construction and embellished the gardens with ancient statues (the cardinal did the same at his Roman villa).

Teatro delle Acque

On September 8, 1943 the Italian government surrendered to the Allied forces. On that same day Frascati, Velletri and other towns of the Castelli Romani were heavily bombed. What many thought was the end of the war turned out to be its final more devastating phase during which Italy from Naples to Bologna became a battlefield.
The casino of the villa was lost with part of the gardens. Luckily Teatro delle Acque suffered only minor damage.

Heraldic symbols: (left) Altemps (a goat); (centre) Conti (a chequered eagle); (right) Sforza Cesarini and Conti (see a larger Cesarini coat of arms at Lanuvio)

Some of the fountains of Villa Torlonia show the heraldic symbols of the owners of the villa. The Conti, the family of Pope Innocent XIII, had the villa for a long period. It was then acquired by the Sforza Cesarini of Genzano and in 1841 by the Torlonia, as part of the dowry of Anna Sforza Cesarini. At the time the Torlonia were in the process of completing their villa along Via Nomentana. After WWII the gardens of Villa Torlonia were acquired by the City of Frascati and they were opened to the public.

Move to page one: Frascati - the town
Move to page three: Villa Lancellotti, Villa Falconieri and other villas
Next step in your tour of the Environs of Rome: Grottaferrata

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:

Tusculo antico oggi Frascati città
Dodici miglia lungi da Roma, camminando per la strada fuori della Porta s. Giovanni, fu quell'insigne città, fabbricata sull'eminente collina da Telegone figliuolo di Ulisse e di Circe per collocarvi la sua regia. Prese un tal nome forse da' Toscani, che l'ingrandirono, o da Greci, che ve lo imposero per la difficoltà del salirvi; e fu di tal maniera forte, che in essa ricoverossi Tarquinio Superbo ultimo Re discacciato, da' Romani; donde nacque poi la fierissima guerra tra' Latini, e i Romani, e non cessò fin a tanto, che quella città non rimanesse spianata fino al suolo con tutte le sue magnificenze. Non per questo fu dipoi abbandonata, anzi più gloriosa risorse per opera de' medesimi Romani, i quali la illustrarono con magnificenze più insigni, vedendosi in quell'angolo del colle verso tramontana le diroccate mura; ed il famoso Tusculo di M. Cicerone, in cui aveva aperta per suo trattenimento letterario una accademia, che fu la più fiorita di tutta l'Europa, concorrendovi tutti i maggiori letterati di Roma e del Mondo ancora: onde Tusculane si dissero quelle questioni e quesiti, che in un picciolo, ma prezioso volume si gode, formato in quelle delizie dal Principe della Romana eloquenza. In quell'altra parte del colle verso Oriente fu la famosa villa di Lucullo, e dove si vedano sparse a mucchi le pietre su il vecchio sepolcro de' Furj, e la regia di Tarquinio suddetto.
Mutò nome e sito quell'insigne città circa l'anno 1191. quando nuovamente distrutta da Romani per le insolenze usate colla Sede Apostolica da' suoi cittadini, i quali poi non sapendo dove ricoverarsi scesero nel basso incontro a Roma costruendo diverse casette e capanne di legno coperte di rami, di frondi, e frasche, dalle quali la nuova città prese il none rurale di Frascati. Dipoi riconosciuta la salubrità dell'aria, e l'amenità del sito, principiò la nobiltà Romana a farci le sue villeggiature: perciò vi furono erette de' magnifici casini, e maravigliose ville con deliziosissime fontane, e viali amenissimi, fra le quali tiene il primo luogo quella di Belvedere posta dinanzi alla porta di questa città, e quella di Mondragone eretta da Paolo V. Borghese; dipoi la Taverna, la Conti, la Rufina, la Boncompagni, la Odescalchi ed altre, che con più facilità riuscirà il vederle, che con brevità quì descriverle:

Latium was enlarged in the 1920s with territories from the neighbouring regions: the map on the left shows the current borders of Latium; the map on the right has links to pages covering towns of historical Latium: in order to see them you must hover and click on the dots.