History and Heritage

The Villa Medici is situated on Pincio Hill. This hill does not belong to the seven major Roman hills, because it is outside the pomoerium, the sacred wall of antique Rome. However it does belong to the perimeter of the Aurelian walls built between 270 and 273 A.D. The Villa stands where the gardens of Lucius Lucinius Lucullus were. He was a Roman general and favourite of Sylla. Between 66 and 63 B.C. he built a major villa that covered the entire area between via Salaria Vetus and the current northern path of Pincio. As reported by Plutarch he welcomed Cicero and Pompeius.

Valerius Asiaticus was twice consul and the first man from Narbonnean Gaul to be admitted into the Senate of Rome. During the Claudio period he erected a large terrace garden, with a broad and semicirculal nymphaeum dominating the current domain of Trinità dei Monti. This chamber was topped by a temple dedicated to Fortune. Messalina, Claudio’s wife, coveted the domain and overwhelmed Valerius Asiaticus with calumnious charges. Under her influence, Claudio pushed Valerius Asiaticus to suicide. Several years later, Messalina, who became the ruler of the domain, died under the blows of soldiers sent by her own husband.

The villa of Lucullus remained imperial property until the time of Trajan, who apparently preferred the gardens of Sallust, on the eastern part of Pincio. During the third century A.D. the domain was occupied by the patrician family of the Achilii, who gave it away to the Pincii during the fourth century. Interestingly the current name of the hill comes from this very family, whose history is still little known.

Emperor Aurelius built a wall around Rome during the third century to protect it from Barbarian invasions. It still surrounds the Villa. Nevertheless the wall fell under the troops of Alaric that invaded Rome in 410 A.D through the Salarian gate, located on Pincio. Then Emperor Honorius (395-423 A.D.) built his palace in the gardens. Belisarius kept his camp there when he defended Rome against the Ostrogoth Vitigès in 537 A.D. At the fall of the Roman Empire, the place was abandoned because of its suburban location.

We only have little information about the history of the Pincio hill between the 6th and 16th century. When Cardinal Ricci of Montepulciano purchased it in 1564 it was a tiny building called Casina Crescenzi, bearing the name of its former owner, and some antique ruins such as the Temple of Fortune. Cardinal Ricci had a palace built by Florentine architect Nanni di Baccio Bigio, at the current location of the Villa Medici. When he died in 1574, the construction had not finished yet.

Ferdinando de’ Medici (1549-1609), cardinal at the age of 13, collector and sponsor, purchased it in 1576 and asked the Florentine architect Ammannati to build a palace worth the prestige of the Medici family. Devoted to Antiquity, like many of his contemporaries, Ferdinando conceived his Villa representing a museum. He added a gallery where he presented his collection of antique masterpieces. He inserted in the facade a series of antique bas-reliefs. Even the garden was designed in the same spirit of staging, like the botanic gardens of Pisa and Florence designed by his father several years before. Numerous rare species were gathered there, amongst antique statues. Further south, ruins of the Temple of Fortune were overlaid by a belvedere from where one’s sight could embrace the major part of the city and surrounding countryside.

Far from sight a small pavilion was built ordered by Ferdinando de’ Medici inside one of the old towers of the Aurelus wall. It had a sight on the Roman countryside and was composed of a main room and a smaller one with a narrow balcony. The recent restoration of those rooms have highlighted a beautiful decoration from the workshop of Jacopo Zucchi, painted in 1576-1577. It represented a grapevine populated by a multitude of birds. The lobby was decorated by Zucchi, student of Vasari who painted grotesques and views from the Villa at different times, as well as allegories and scenes from Esope’s fables. In 1587 Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici was called to Florence to replace Francois the First on the throne of Tuscany. He left the decoration of the Villa partly unfinished. The most precious statues and the comprehensive set of the collections were moved to Florence. The Lorraines, heirs of the Great Duchy of Tuscany sold the Villa in 1803.

Although he had left Rome in 1587 to succeed his brother Francesco I as Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando de Medici preserved the Villa, entrusting its maintenance to caretakers. By a legacy registered October 10, 1606, he bequeathed the “Villa on the Pincio” to his third son, Carlo de Medici, who was to become cardinal. During his Roman sojourns, Carlo occasionally resided at the Villa, especially during the summer months. Over the years, many reparations were undertaken such as that of the buttress, built in 1636 to fortify the lower part of the main façade.  During the seventeenth century numerous sources indicate that the Villa had suffered various forms of deterioration due to weather conditions. which eventually led to a vast program of restoration entrusted to Giacomo Antonio and Cosimo Francelli, collaborators of Bernini and Pietro da Cortona, especially concerning the ancient sculptures. When Carlo de Medici died in 1666, the presence of members of the Medici family in Rome  became even less frequent than in the preceding years.

The year 1700 marks the end of the presence in Rome of the grand dukes and prelates of the Florentine family. While the Pincio underwent transformation – the monumental staircase that would link the Trinity Church to the Spanish Square was being built – Villa Medici remained in a state of abandonment. Between 1731 and 1732, works of restoration were finally carried out, with the funds acquired from the sale of some ancient fragments, pieces of columns and bas-reliefs found in the Villa. The owner of the Villa, Giangastone de Medici, had no heirs: thus before dying, on July 1737, he named Françoise-Stéphane Duke of Lorraine, the new Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1757 the new owner began a five-year program of works at Villa Medici. However, his successor, Pierre-Leopold, who was promoter of  a more ambitious art policy in favour of Florence, moved all the antique collection of Villa Medici to the Uffizi Gallery. In 1787 he put the Villa up for sale for 80.000 écus.

Twelve years passed before the Villa was bequeathed to the state of France, to install its famous Academy. Until that time the Academy had been located at Palazzo Mancini, but it needed a more prestigious building to better represent French art abroad. The negotiations for the sale took place during a period of great tension between France and Tuscany due to the Napoleonic campaigns. The exchange contract was signed in Florence in May 1803.

After 1803, there was a radical change in the function of Villa Medici: from private «Palazzo», secondary residence of the Medici family, it became the seat of an Academy destined to lodge twenty-odd young French artists who were going to live and work there in a community of ideas and talents. The first two Directors of the French Academy at Villa Medici – Joseph Benoit Suvée and Guillaume Guillon-Lethière – implemented alterations to the structure in order to adapt the site of the Academy to its new task. It became necessary to design lodgings for the artists and install vast studios, particularly for sculptors and painters. Several rooms were then enlarged and furnished with ample windows which  still remind us of the nineteenth-century ateliers.

Many Directors left their mark on Villa Medici by planning new adaptations to the palace or realizing vast restoration projects. Thus, the Turkish room, one the most picturesque areas of the building, situated in a tower (not included in guided tour), is an unsual « boudoir » with neo-Moorish decorations overlooking Rome. It was  designed in 1833 by Director of the French Academy Horace Vernet, who had been inspired by a sojourn in Algiers at the time of the French conquest. More recently, between 1961 and 1967, Balthus, then at the head of the Academy, carried out a vast restoration campaign of the palace and its gardens, providing them with modern equipment.

Passionate « Maître d’oeuvre », Balthus participated “hands on” in all the phases of the construction. Where the historic décor had disappeared, Balthus proposed personal alternatives. He invented a décor that was a homage to the past and, at the same time,  radically contemporary: murals – large fields colored with subtle vibrations arising from the use of successive layers of lime – unified illumination, rythmically disposed by the long-limbed silhouette of the lamp standards which he himself had designed, hybrid furnishings blending  antiques with furniture of his own conception. The mysterious melancholic decor he created for Villa Medici has become, in turn, historic and is currently undergoing  an important  restoration campaign.