by Roderick Conway Morris

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Palazzo Chigi and the Church of Santa Maria Assunta by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ariccia

A Palazzo in the Castelli Romani Unveils its Secrets

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 28 October 1995


Seven years ago, after lengthy negotiations, Prince Agostino Chigi agreed to sell his historic summer Palazzo at Ariccia, complete with its contents, to the local municipality for 7 billion lire ($4.4 million)

Ariccia is one of the Castelli Romani, the 13 little towns that dot the picturesque, volcanic Alban hills that rise abruptly from the plain just south of Rome. The area's lakes, vine-covered slopes and refreshing breezy climate made it a popular summer resort in ancient Roman times. During the Renaissance, popes and the Roman nobility favored the region again, building numerous villas and palaces - the most famous of which, Castel Gandolfo, is still the Pope's official summer residence.

Palazzo Chigi, which is close to Castel Gandolfo, occupies a spectacular position by a deep gorge overlooking the plain and the sea. The building takes up an entire side of Ariccia's spacious piazza, on the opposite side of which stands the great baroque sculptor-architect Bernini's homage to the Pantheon in Rome, the church of Santa Maria dell'Assunta. Behind the palazzo is a wild woodland park, which, with its ravines, grottoes and fountains, captured the imagination of many a romanticwriter and artist who passed this way when the old road to Naples and the south of Italy wound its way through Arricia.

What makes the public acquisition of the palace significant is not just the building's architectural aspects but the fact that, internally, it is an extraordinary time capsule, in which astonishingly little has changed since the Chigi, who originally came from Siena, bought the house in the mid 17th century and, with the help of Bernini and his team, transformed the old medieval and Renaissance castle into a grand baroque edifice.

Over the centuries, the Chigi gained a reputation for closely guarding the privacy of this retreat and when, for example, the German poet Goethe came here in 1878, he had to content himself with peering through 'a little lattice gate' into the park. This secretiveness was maintained into the most recent times and turns out to have been combined with a reluctance to alter almost anything from the times when, between 1655 and 1667, the Chigi Alexander VII sat on the papal throne (during whose reign the family bought the palace in 1661, attracted, among other things, by its proximity to Castel Gandolfo).

'Even the last Principessa was very possessive about the place and so virtually nobody was allowed in,' said the architect Francesco Petrucci, who is now in charge of the state-assisted 6 billion lire restoration program.Mr. Petrucci wrote a graduation thesis on Palazzo Chigi, and became an important contributor in the efforts to buy and preserve the building and its gardens.

'When I was studying the palazzo, I got to know the prince a little and did what I could to persuade him of the enormous value of leaving this legacy intact,'Mr. Petrucci said.'There is no question that he would have made more money by selling off the contents piece by piece, but he had the sensibility to understand what a unique case it represented as it was.'

Although repair and restoration will continue for at least a couple of years, for the first time both the park and parts of the house are now open on request to the public throughout the year (and the park without advance booking on Saturdays and Sundays from May to October next year).

Curiously an exception was once made when the palazzo's jealously guarded portals were opened for Luchino Visconti to shoot scenes for his masterpiece 'The Leopard' (1963). Visconti was obsessive about authenticity and had spotted interiors here that he could no longer find even in Sicily. 'The point is that the Visconti, too, were an ancient noble family and had a villa at Castel Gandolfo, so the two families knew each other,' Mr. Petrucci said.

Stepping inside the palazzo is like passing through a time warp. Some rooms have their original stamped leather wall coverings, a Spanish fashion in vogue in Italy in the 17th century (the stamps used to manufacture them have even been found stored in a lumber room). Perhaps the most charming room is the bright and airy summer dining room with its delicately frescoed walls and abundant trompe l'oeil bird life and rustic vistas.

The preserved-in-aspic coexistence of the pious and the sensually risqué in an aristocratic household whose members were constrained by their rank to behave with decorum in public but were free in certain cases to indulge their chosen peccadilloes in private is striking.

The paintings in the palazzo alone, many of which have never been catalogued, promise not only to bring to life the past personalities of the household, but also to clarify the styles and attributions of several leading artists.

It is now intended that Palazzo Chigi should become both a museum and a center of baroque studies, and a venue for lectures, conferences and concerts of music from the period.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023