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 who live in modern high buildings.
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 apartment blocks, 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"
I visited this villa on the twenty-second day of February, with a numerous party prepared to enjoy and not to criticize. The day was of rare beauty, and the air full of that dreamy softness so characteristic of an Italian spring. (..) The sunshine turned the spray of the fountains into a substance dazzling as itself. Many flowers were already in bloom, and the day was warm enough to make the shadows attractive to the eye, and the sound of flowing and falling water musical to the ear. All of the party would have frankly confessed, I think, that the charm of the garden outweighed that of the collection.
George Stillman Hillard - Six Months in Italy in ca 1847-1848
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 Tivoli 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.
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.
Joseph Forsyth - Remarks on Antiquities, Arts, and Letters in Italy in 1802-1803
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 papal collection of ancient statues.
Coffee House (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: (above) the myth of Hyppolytus and Phaedra; (below) the scene on the left depicts Ulysses and the Sirens; (see a fine sarcophagus from the Albani Collection at Musei Capitolini)
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. 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 (1716-1799) 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. Pius VI had engaged to purchase peace of the French; but the present Cardinal Albani persuaded him to retract, and thus brought their vengeance on all his family. The blow was indeed severe. The spoils of this villa became a magnificent supplement to those of the Vatican and Capitol. Two hundred and ninety-four pieces of ancient sculpture were sent hence to Paris, or lay in cases at Ripagrande ready to be shipped. Some have been fortunately ransomed; and the Prince, though reduced in means, is now courageously beginning to re-combine the wrecks of this celebrated collection. It was affecting to see the statues on their return to the villa. Some lay on the ground shattered by their passage to the river, others remained in their tremendous coffins, and a few were restored to their former pedestals. Forsyth Prince Torlonia has removed several of the best antiques to his museum in Via della Lungara. 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, Sepolcro dei Plauzi and Mausoleo di L. Munatius Plancus at Gaeta.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
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
Cardinal Albani was assisted by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) in the arrangement of his third collection; from 1759 to his death Winckelmann spent most of his time at Villa Albani analytically studying each piece of the collection; in 1762 he described the first findings of the excavations at Herculaneum; in 1764 he wrote History of Ancient Art, a text which became the Bible of Neoclassicism. You may wish to see his tomb at Trieste.
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 and a relief showing the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine which belonged to Cardinal Albani
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..
Collezione Torlonia: exhibits from the Albani Collection: (above) large vase with reliefs depicting the Labours of Hercules; (below-left) Hercules, Theseus and Pirithous; (below-right) a kitchen scene
Baedeker's - Central Italy - 1883
The Porta Settimiana marks the beginning of Via della Lungara. (..) On the left is the building which housed the Museo Torlonia. For years closed "for restoration" the interior has recently been converted into flats and the works put in store. (..) There are about 600 pieces of sculpture, some over-restored.
Blue Guide - Rome and environs - 1979.
In October 2020 a selection of about 90 pieces was temporarily on display at Palazzo Caffarelli.
Louvre Museum: relief portraying Dionysus (the bearded man) visiting Ikarios (from the Albani Collection and identical to that found at Ephesus)
Mausoleo di Lucilio Peto
(above) Mausoleum of Lucilius Paetus; (below) inscription framed by a very elegant moulding
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 (1716-1799) 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.
Pius VI had engaged to purchase peace of the French; but the present Cardinal Albani persuaded him to retract, and thus brought their vengeance on all his family. The blow was indeed severe. The spoils of this villa became a magnificent supplement to those of the Vatican and Capitol. Two hundred and ninety-four pieces of ancient sculpture were sent hence to Paris, or lay in cases at Ripagrande ready to be shipped. Some have been fortunately ransomed; and the Prince, though reduced in means, is now courageously beginning to re-combine the wrecks of this celebrated collection. It was affecting to see the statues on their return to the villa. Some lay on the ground shattered by their passage to the river, others remained in their tremendous coffins, and a few were restored to their former pedestals. Forsyth
Prince Torlonia has removed several of the best antiques to his museum in Via della Lungara.
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, Sepolcro dei Plauzi and Mausoleo di L. Munatius Plancus at Gaeta.
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.