In this page:
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: 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
Frascati, 28 September, 1787. I am very happy here, drawing, painting, water-colouring, pasting, the whole day long into the night. (..)
In the evening, the villas
are visited by moonlight, and even in dusk the most
striking subjects are drawn.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - translation by Charles Nisbeth
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 was built in 1573-1577 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 and he was on very friendly terms with him, 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 symbol 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
We went to another house and garden not far
distant, on the side of a hill called Mondragone, finished
by Cardinal Scipio Borghese, an ample and kingly edifice.
John Evelyn's Diary and Correspondence - 1645
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 east 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.
He 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)
It has a very long gallery, and at the end a theatre for pastimes, spacious courts, rare grots, vineyards, olive-grounds, groves, and solitudes. The air is so fresh and
sweet, as few parts of Italy exceed it; nor is it inferior to any palace in the city itself for statues, pictures, and furniture; but, it growing late, we could not take such particular notice of these things as they deserved. Evelyn
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).
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.
(left) 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 (previously at Villa Mellini on Monte Mario) and
Villa Tuscolana, the white building at the top of the hill
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.
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 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.
The villa became known as Villa Belvedere (fair 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.
We took coach, and went fifteen miles out of
the city to (..) 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. (..) The
garden has excellent walks and shady groves, abundance
of rare fruit, oranges, lemons, etc., 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. Evelyn
Villa Aldobrandini does not have as much internal space as one would think judging by its large fašade. This because it does not have wings surrounding an inner courtyard. It was designed 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
formed by nature, as if it had been cut out by art, from
the summit of the hill 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. (..) Evelyn
Among other things, there was in the gardens a statue of Pan with a pipe of reeds, and of a satyr with a trumpet; and each, by the action of water, was made to emit a sound similar to that of the instrument he carried. The peculiar situation of Frascati encouraged, and perhaps helped to form, a taste for these costly play-things in water, for which the cravings created by a hot climate offer the best apology. Placed on the lower spurs and terraces of a succession of hills, from which copious and rapid streams of water were constantly flowing, the hydraulic artist found here in the highest perfection the two great elements of his calling, an abundance of water and a sufficient head or projectile force. The element became in his hands the most docile of slaves.
George Stillman Hillard - Six Months in Italy in 1847-1848
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.
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. The stables of the villa house Museo Tuscolano, the archaeological museum of Frascati.
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 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.
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 (2)
We first went into the grounds of the Villa Conti, which lie near the inn. These are not among the most famous or the most extensive of those at Frascati, but in them nature has not been so elaborately dressed and decorated as in some others, and they therefore retain more of the charm of simplicity, and are also in good condition. There is a thick plantation of fine, old trees in the rear of the casino, which stand close together and form an impenetrable shield of foliage, upon which the fierce rays of an Italian summer sun beat in vain; and in the very heart of the grove is a mimic lake of pure water, not much bigger than a signet ring, gathered into a marble basin upon which, even at noon, a broad shadow is flng from the verdurous wall reared around it. There is nothing here very elaborate or costly; and yet all the needs and requirements of a summer retreat in a hot climate seem to be fully met. The trees were oaks, cypresses, and pines, the foliage of which is massive and dark; and the shadows they formed were so deep and solid that the eye seemed to be looking into the hollow of a cavern, or the aisle of a cathedral, rather than into a woodland alley. The luxury of such shadows and such fine sparkling water may well be imagined in those intolerable days of August, when the sky that bends over the Campagna is turned into a vault of glowing brass, and the sun, into a fiery dragon that eats up every green thing. Hillard
On September 8, 1943 the Italian government surrendered to the Allied forces. On that same day Frascati was heavily bombed. 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
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 who married Marino Torlonia. 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 or
Visit Museo Tuscolano inside the Aldobrandini stables.
Next step in your tour of the Environs of Rome: Grottaferrata