Strong Green Presence (Bunker Now Included)
Down Via Nomentana, a hidden Arcadia-Rome’s secret Eden known as Villa Torlonia awaits. The best place to start your tour is with the Casino Nobile. A humbler version once existed, and was the centerpiece of a vineyard owned by the local Colonna family. The villa passed to Giovanni Torlonia who had inherited a fortune accrued from supplying the Papal armies during the French occupation. Offering loans to cash-strapped Roman aristocrats, Torlonia, also a banker, obtained some of their properties as collateral.
In the spirit of keeping up with the Farneses and Pamphiljis, Torlonia, with Valadier’s (the designer of Piazza del Popolo) help, aimed to restore ‘la vigna Colonna’ to its true princely glory.
With the freehandedness of a Renaissance ‘magnifico’, Giovanni’s heir, Alessandro, continued the tradition. A retinue of artists were hired, including Rinaldo Rinaldi and Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen. The “Egyptian Room” features a trompe d’oeil basalt and golden hieroglyphs framing Antony and Cleopatra; while opposite old father Nile dangles a sheaf of wheat- pet sphinx at his side. The villa’s nucleus, however, is the ballroom with its ubiquitous gods and demi-gods.
The brochure mentions Alessandro’s “taste for ostentation.” No surprise that such a setting would later appeal to Mussolini. From 1925-1942, the palace’s famous tenant paid 1 lira per year for rent. Dining beneath images of Alexander’s triumphs, perhaps Mussolini began dreaming up new conquests of his own?
The nightmarish downside to such hubris is the bomb-shelter beneath. Having ordered bombings in Ethiopia and over Barcelona, Mussolini knew about death from air assaults. The shelter’s walls are 4 meters thick and curved to absorb impact, and it has a side- room equipped to “eliminate gas residues.” The bunker is a reminder of how dictators- so cavalier in discarding the skins of others, are often obsessively attentive about saving their own. Such excessive precautions turned out to be of no avail: Mussolini was deposed before the structure was finished. His death finally came at close range and horizontally – from a partisan’s bullet. Included in the bunker itinerary is a 1st century Jewish cemetery. The juxtaposition is ironic, to put it mildly, given Mussolini’s infamous quote that “the Jews have no place on Italian soil.”
A short walk away, Casina delle Civette provides a refuge from the grandeur of the Villa. Tired of the pomp of his grandfather’s villa Nobile, Giovanni Torlonia jr. retreated to this Swiss cottage in his ‘increasingly sullen and solitary maturity.’ His eccentricity is evident from the décor: “owls were depicted on the bed knobs, tables and lamps…” Glass reproductions of swans, thrushes, swallows make the Casa resemble an ecologist’s temple. Who knows – had Mussolini chosen to lodge here, rather than under the shadow of Alexander, history might have taken a turn for the better?
Via Nomentana, 70
Entry Fee €7.50 -€9.50
Bunker Guided Tour €7 (reservation required – info: sotterraneidiroma.it)