Roderick Conway-Morris

Seaside renaissance

Roderick Conway Morris on how Genoa’s glorious Villa del Principe has been brought back to life

Seaside renaissance
Text settings

Roderick Conway Morris on how Genoa’s glorious Villa del Principe has been brought back to life

Palazzo Doria Pamphilj houses the most important private art collection in Rome. But the family possesses another treasure, the Villa del Principe in Genoa. The Doria side of the family moved to Rome in 1760, when they inherited the Pamphilj titles and estates, after which the Villa del Principe suffered a slow decline, punctuated by two major disasters. But after 16 years of work it has now been restored and reopened to the public.

Donna Gesine Principessa Doria Pamphilj, who stays there regularly with her husband Massimiliano Floridi and their three children, said when I visited the villa on the eve of the inauguration, ‘The idea of restoring the villa, rediscovering its story and reviving the family’s connections with Genoa goes back to my grandparents and parents. But we wanted to bring it alive again, not just make it into a museum.’

The Villa del Principe was built on the seashore at Fassolo outside Genoa’s city walls in the 16th century by Andrea Doria, the most illustrious Christian admiral of the age. While battling the Ottomans and Barbary corsairs at sea, personally commanding his fleet into ripe old age, Doria brought peace to Genoa, ended the city’s factional strife, reformed its Republican constitution and became the city-state’s benign dictator, while remaining officially a private citizen with the honorary title of Pater Patriae (Father of the Nation).

The villa was an admiral’s port house — his galley squadrons were parked at the end of the formal gardens when he was in residence — the epicentre of local political power and a palace worthy to receive visiting grandees, princes and emperors. The frescoes and stucco work were done by Perino del Vaga, one of Raphael’s chief collaborators, who also laid out the magnificent terraced gardens. The apartments were embellished with the finest silk hangings and tapestries — around 200 at the time of Doria’s death in 1560 — with all the furnishings fit, in the words of a contemporary ambassador, ‘not for a gentleman but a great king’. Doria’s generosity as a patron of the arts was legendary and the example he set had an enormous influence on the Genoese nobility, who built palaces in the city emulating the villa and its lavish decorations.

But after Doria’s descendants had taken themselves off to Rome, the villa’s most valuable movable artworks were gradually transferred there. During the Genoese uprising against the Piemontese in 1849 the villa became a rebel refuge, subjected to sustained artillery bombardment and the scene of a bloody battle. In 1944 the Allies, mistakenly believing that the villa had become the German headquarters in the city, repeatedly bombed it, the house and gardens receiving 16 direct hits, while the actual Nazi HQ on the hill behind remained untouched.

‘When the Fine Art Superintendancy put sandbags around the fountain with the statue of Neptune in front of the house,’ said Principessa Gesine, ‘the villa’s adminstrator pointed out that it made it look like a gun emplacement. And, sure enough, that was targeted and hit, too.’

Ironically, the RAF was to a large degree bombing its own. Three successive generations of Doria Pamphiljs took English Catholic brides during the 19th century, and the Principessa’s mother, Orietta, married an Englishman. Gesine, born in England in 1966, and her brother Jonathan were adopted by Orietta and her husband.

As important as conserving the building, said Principessa Gesine, was the desire to bring back as many works as possible that were originally at the villa, many of them specially commissioned for it, such as the cycle of huge tapestries of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, which was created for Andrea Doria’s great-nephew and heir, Giovanni Andrea I, who commanded the Holy League’s right wing in the battle. Another two magnificent tapestries, woven in Tournai in the Duchy of Burgundy in around 1460, narrating the adventures of Alexander the Great, have also returned. Paintings brought back include Sebastiano del Piombo’s splendid portrait of Andrea Doria in his admiral’s hat and another of him heroically nude, represented as Neptune, by Bronzino. Some of these works were previously on show at Palazzo Doria in Rome, but others were kept in store or in the family’s private apartments.

Considering the battering the building has taken, many of the frescoes by Perino del Vaga and other artists have survived remarkably well. Del Vaga was credited with the rediscovery of ancient stucco techniques, which involved mixing plaster with ground marble, and the stucco work throughout the villa has been painstakingly restored to impressive effect.

The Loggia of the Heroes, overlooking the sea, with its portrait frieze of Doria admirals and warriors stretching back to the 12th century, is the only large expanse of wall that was frescoed, the other frescoes being painted only on the ceiling vaults and the friezes immediately below them. The walls were almost entirely covered with tapestries and wall hangings.

The extensive terraced gardens to the rear of the villa were lost in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the Genoa–Turin railway was constructed and the Hotel Miramare built on the hill above. The gardens went through various remodellings over the centuries, according to the fashions of the times. In the 19th century Prince Filippo Andrea V’s wife Mary Talbot adjusted their formal Italian layout to create something more like an English park, but kept the fountain as the focal point. Part of the gardens was used as an outdoor cinema until as recently as 1997.

‘The gardens were in such a state of disrepair that we ended up with almost a blank page,’ said Principessa Gesine. ‘So we decided in the end to try as far as possible to recreate the original 16th-century layout, as being most appropriate to the villa’s architecture.’ Now artfully restored and replanted, the gardens constitute a charming green oasis on the edge of Genoa’s harbour.

The inauguration of the villa and gardens is also being marked by the first of a series of special exhibitions, Caravaggio and Flight: Landscape Painting in the Doria Pamphilj Villas (until 26 September). Caravaggio’s ‘Flight into Egypt’, which unusually for the artist has a substantial landscape view, is one of 80 landscapes painted in the 17th and 18th centuries — notably by Paolo Anesi, Gaspard Dughet, Jan Frans van Bloemen, Jan de Momper, Pieter Mulier and Herman van Swanevelt — that come from four country villas once owned by the Doria Pamphilj, another aspect of the family’s amazingly rich patrimony.