Celebrating a Centennial: Following in the Footsteps of the Academy

May 5, 2014
Villa Mirafiori
Casino di Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi once known as Villa Aurora
Villa Aurelia
Villa Chiaraviglio
Villino Bellacci
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In October 1894 the American School of Architecture opened its first foothold in eight rented rooms of the Palazzo Núñez-Torlonia near the Spanish Steps under the direction of the American architect and painter Austin W. Lord. At that time there were three fellows, one visiting student, and its library had only one volume. From these humble beginnings the Academy would rise to the top of the Eternal City to occupy an eleven-acre campus, which is now home to thirty Fellows and a library of over 150,000 volumes. What follows is a virtual tour of sites that have hosted the would-be American Academy before it settled in its current home.  

Built in 1660 by Giovanni Antonio De Rossi for the Marquis Francisco Núñez-Sánchez on a site flanked by Via dei Condotti and Via Bocca di Leone, the Palazzo Núñez-Torlonia was purchased by Napoleon’s brother, Prince Lucien Bonaparte, in 1806 and was also home to Napoleon’s mother Letizia Ramolino. Prince Marino Torlonia acquired the building in 1842 and commissioned Antonio Sarti to oversee its restoration and extension. The Torlonia family still lives here and it is rarely open to the public.

In July 1895, the program moved into the larger spaces of what was then known as the Villa Aurora on the Pincian Hill, now Casino di Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, becoming neighbors of their French predecessor. At this time the American School of Architecture had to cover costs by taking on the American School of Classical Studies and the British and American Archeological Society Library as subtenants. This palace was originally part of properties belonging to Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte in the 16th century, a diplomat and art collector. Cardinal del Monte was protector and patron of Galileo and Caravaggio and under his patronage Caravaggio painted his only known ceiling fresco here, depicting Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, a nod to the Cardinal’s alchemical curiosities. In 1621 Del Monte sold the casino and its extensive grounds to Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, nephew of Pope Gregory XV who commissioned Guercino to paint the ceiling fresco of Aurora for which it would come to be named. Located at Via Lombardia 46, the Casino Boncompagni-Ludovisi is open by private appointment only. Its famous collection of ancient statuary was purchased by the state in 1901 and is now on display at the Palazzo Altemps.

The high costs and limited spaces of the Villa Aurora prompted the Academy to relocate once again in 1904 to the Villa Mirafiori beyond the Porta Pia on the Via Nomentana. Built in a Neo-Renaissance style between 1874-1878, Villa Mirafiori was a Roman residence for Rosa Vercellana, long-time mistress and last-minute wife of King Victor Emmanuel II. The two entered into a morganatic marriage three months before the king’s death. The Academy purchased the Villa Mirafiori in 1906 and immediately began renovations. It was here where the American School of Architecture and the American School of Classical Studies agreed to consolidate, officially merging as the American Academy in Rome in 1912. Located at Via Nomentana 118, Villa Mirafiori, is now the home of Sapienza University’s Department of Philosophy.

Mrs. Clara Jessup Heyland’s bequest to the American Academy in 1909 of her Villa Aurelia property was not entirely straightforward as the will was initially contested by her younger brother and it represented an expensive prospect for the Academy, but this generous gift, and the appeal of its location on the Janiculum, would ultimately prompt the Academy’s third and final move in 1914. Clara Jessup Heyland had purchased this property from the Cassa dei Depositi e Prestiti at auction in 1881 and renamed it the Villa Aurelia. Cardinal Girolamo Farnese had initiated its construction in the 1650s at the highest point in Rome on land that had belonged to the Farnese family since the Farnese papacy of Pope Paul III. In 1841 it passed into the hands of Count Alessandro Savorelli of Forlì who entrusted its restoration to his father-in-law, Virginio Vespignani, and developed his candle factory here. Unfortunately Vespignani’s restorations would be short-lived as Garibaldi would make Savorelli’s villa the seat of his failed stand against the French in June 1849. Bombarded by French canons the then-Villa Savorelli lost its roof and south wall. While its lavish ceiling decorations are gone, the architectural character of the original 17th-century building at Largo di Porta San Pancrazio 1 remains, preserved by restorations that were undertaken first by Clara Jessup Heyland and then by the Academy in 1945-47 and 2000-2002.

When the bequest of the Villa Aurelia was at last finalized, J.P. Morgan bought adjacent land on which the McKim, Mead & White Academy Main Building was constructed between 1912-14. Indeed this generous benefactor acquired several other properties nearby on behalf of the Academy, including Villa Chiaraviglio and Villino Bellacci, a rare example of Arts and Crafts architecture in Rome that was built in 1907-8. As the Academy prepares to welcome AAR Fellows, Residents, Affiliated Fellows, Friends, Staff and Trustees for its 2014 Rome Reunion, this virtual walk through history invites an actual walk through Rome and celebrates the Academy’s journey to becoming the remarkable institution it is today.