When in 1761 Giuseppe Vasi published this etching Cardinal Alessandro Albani was still in the process of finalizing the decoration of the casino where he intended to arrange his spectacular collection of ancient statues, reliefs and vases. The whole villa was conceived as the container of this collection to the gathering of which Cardinal Albani devoted all his long life (1692-1779).
In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Fountain with ancient statues and Egyptian granite cup; 2) Lying statue between two sphinxes; 3) Porticoes with statues and granite columns (in the final arrangement of the collection, the portico housed statues of ancient Roman emperors). The small 1748 map by Giovanni Battista Nolli was drawn when Cardinal Albani had already bought the site of his villa (which belonged to the Accoramboni), but he had not yet redesigned it; the map shows 1) Villa Accoramboni Albani; 2) approximate location of Mausoleo di Lucilio Peto along Via Salaria; 3) Villa Borghese; 4) Porta Salara. 3) and 4) are shown as reference points to locate Villa Albani and are covered in other pages.
The view in June 2010
"ALEXANDER ALBANI VIR EMINENTISSIMUS INSTRUXIT ET ORNAVIT - ALEXANDER TORLONIA VIR PRINCEPS IN MELIUS RESTITUIT" the bronze letter inscription signals a major change which occurred to Villa Albani in 1866; the heirs of Cardinal Albani sold it to Prince Alessandro Torlonia; the heirs of the latter have adopted a not very liberal admittance policy; however the high walls which surround their estate can be circumvented by kindly requesting the help of one of their neighbours.
The casino is as it appears in the etching; according to Vasi it was conceived by Cardinal Albani himself; its detailed design is attributed to Carlo Marchionni; today it stands on a background of modern buildings, but an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (it opens in another window) shows it surrounded by the Roman countryside. This was true until the late XIXth century: The porticoes and their statues, the verdant terraces, the masses of tropical trees rising in clumps out of a foreground of flowered beds, stand out with a firm harmony against the rosy distance and the azure of the Sabine hills.
Francis Wey - Rome, its Churches, Monuments, Art, and Antiquities - 1903 English edition
(left) Alley leading to the central parterre; (right) granite column supporting the Albani heraldic symbols (three mountains and a star). The image used as background for this page shows them on windows of the casino
In 1740 President Charles de Brosses wrote a few lines on the cardinals who were about to enter the conclave which elected the successor of Pope Clement XII; the following is his portrait of Cardinal Alessandro Albani
: Nephew of Pope Clement XI, a man of spirit, a gentleman and very well introduced in the Roman society; he loves gambling, women, theatre, literature and fine arts, of which he is a great expert (Lettres familières écrites d'Italie en 1739 et 1740).
Cardinal Albani was often asked by the popes to undertake diplomatic missions, but he also developed relations with foreign powers for his own benefit; he reported what was going on at the Stuarts' Roman residence (Palazzo Muti Balestra) to King George I of England; he helped Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, to be recognized as the legitimate king of Sardinia; he always supported the Habsburgs' cause and was rewarded with being appointed Austrian ambassador to the Papal State.
Over-formal and too much like a tea-garden; but with beautiful stairs and splendid geometrical lines of immense box-hedge, intersected with high pedestals supporting little antique busts. You may wish to read more of Henry James's account of his visit to Villa Albani in 1873.
The gardens were the first part of Villa Albani to be designed; the Cardinal was advised on their layout by Giovanni Battista Nolli; their purpose was mainly to provide an appropriate setting for some pieces of the Cardinal's third collection of antiquities (which is usually referred to as Collezione Albani).
Gardens of Villa Albani with the Canopus to the left before 1870. The huge building in the background is most likely Villa Patrizi. Plate by Hercule Louis Catenacci from "Francis Wey - Rome, its Churches, Monuments, Art, and Antiquities - 1903 English edition"
Art historians have debated at length whether Villa Albani is in the mainstream of Italian villas originating from Villa d'Este or has too many French elements. Today they prefer to highlight a conceptual link with the villa of Emperor Hadrian, from which some of the finest pieces of the Albani collections came; the central parterre in front of the casino was limited at its opposite end by a semicircular portico which resembled that of the Canopus of Villa Adriana; the link however is not so much justified by visible similarities, but by the overall purpose of the two complexes, where people of great erudition would walk and engage in conversation and their minds would be continuously stimulated by the natural and artistic environment.
Details of the Casino
Here is a villa of exquisite design, planned by a profound antiquary. Here Cardinal Albani, having spent his life in collecting ancient sculpture, formed such porticoes and such saloons to receive it as an old Roman would have done: porticoes where the statues stood free upon the pavement between columns proportioned to their stature; saloons which were not stocked but embellished with families of allied statues, and seemed full without a crowd. Here Winckelmann grew into an antiquary under the cardinal's patronage and instruction; and here he projected his history of art, which brings this collection continually into view.
Forsyth's Italy i.e. Joseph Forsyth - Remarks on Antiquities, Arts, and Letters During an Excursion in Italy, in the Years 1802 and 1803.
The casino was mainly a museum in an XVIIIth century sense; its rooms and their decoration were designed in order to emphasize the value of the antiquities which were exhibited there; a similar approach was followed a few years later in the design of Museo Pio-Clementino which housed the collection of ancient statues owned by the popes.
Coffeehouse (rear part of Canopus)
Villa Albani had its grand fountain; two streams came down from the parterre to the rear part of Canopus; at their junction a statue portraying Amphitrite (Poseidon's wife) recumbent on a bull was the focal point of a series of cascades; the fountain was known as Fontana dei Sette Fiumi (Seven Rivers). This fountain was probably already lost when the Torlonia sold the southern part of Villa Albani, which was very intensively developed in the early XXth century. The statue of Amphitrite is now confined in what has become a rather derelict part of the villa.
Statue of Amphitrite and heads of tritons
Fragments of ancient sarcophagi decorating the Coffeehouse
Cardinal Albani was a collector of antiquities, but also a merchant of them; during his life he gathered three collections; the first one during the 1720s, soon after having being nominated cardinal by Pope Innocent XIII, the successor of Pope Clement XI. Due to financial difficulties many statues of this collection were sold to the King of Poland in 1728 and in doing so Cardinal Albani ignored laws issued by his uncle to prevent antiquities from being sold outside the Papal State.
(left/centre) Musei Capitolini: busts of Homer and Cicero from the second Albani Collection; (right) Louvre Museum in Paris: small statue of Euripides with a list of his tragedies. It was found in 1704 on the Esquiline Hill and it was part of the third Albani Collection
A second collection which included most of the ancient busts which are on display at Musei Capitolini was sold in 1734, but in this case the buyer was Pope Clement XII, who feared that otherwise also these works of art would have ended up abroad.
Cardinal Albani was assisted by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in the arrangement of his third collection; from 1759 to his death in 1768 Winckelmann spent most of his time at Villa Albani studying the collection; in 1764 he wrote History of Ancient Art, a text which became the Bible of Neoclassicism.
Musei Capitolini (statues from the second Albani Collection - IInd century AD): (left) Infant Hercules strangling the snake sent by Juno (perhaps a portrait of Caracalla); (centre/right) a child playing with a theatrical mask (a subject you can see in sarcophagi reliefs, e.g. at Porto. You may wish to see a statue of Ephesian Diana which belonged to Cardinal Albani
These statues of children were particularly praised in the XVIIIth century because they matched the fashion of the time for levity, grace and elegance. This was perhaps also due to restorations which "completed" them with all their missing or damaged parts. Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (1716-799) was a sculptor who specialized as restorer of ancient statues. He worked for both Cardinal Albani and the Capitoline Museums. In addition to restorations he made copies, casts and fakes of ancient statues.
Louvre Museum: (left) statues which were part of the main fountain; (right) statue portraying a prisoner
Fountains were an integral element of an Italian villa and Villa Albani was no exception; many of them were the result of assembling ancient statues and basins of precious stones, such as the one at the centre of the parterre which can be seen in the etching. Its four statues with many others were taken by the French and were moved to Paris.
The collection of sculptures is much reduced since the French invasion, when 294 of the finest specimens were carried off by Napoleon to Paris, where they were sold by Prince Albani upon their restoration in 1815, as he was unwilling to bear the expense of transport.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Walks in Rome - 1875
King Louis XVIII of France managed to buy some of them for the Louvre Museum, but the major part was sold to Ludwig I, King of Bavaria and are now in Munich.
Louvre Museum: relief portraying Dionysus (the bearded man) visiting Ikarios (from the Albani Collection and identical to that found at Ephesus)
(above) Mausoleum of Lucilius Paetus; (below) inscription framed by a very elegant moulding
In 1887 in Via Salaria, almost opposite the entrance to Villa Albani, chance excavations led to unearthing the mausoleum of Lucilius Paetus and his sister Lucilia Polla. They lived at the time of Emperor Augustus and their tomb is similar to Cecilia Metella and Sepolcro dei Plauzi.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Nobilissimo è il casino di questa villa, e quando sarà terminato sarà di sommo pregio, e lode al Cardinale Alessandro Albani, che lo ha eretto. Contiene questo gran numero di monumenti antichi, di statue, busti, bassirilievi, iscrizioni, colonne, e tante altre cose rare, e preziose, disposte con tanto buon ordine, che fa stupore a vederne solamente il numero; perciò taccio ogni altra cosa, affinchè il Lettore meglio le noti da per se.