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Interactive Plan: Villa Mondragone
Interactive Plan: Villa Belvedere

Historical Documentation
James, “Roman Neighborhoods”

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Frascati Villas

Text by Tracy Ehrlich

Perched on a hillside twelve miles southeast of Rome, on the first fertile ridge of the volcanic Alban Hills, Frascati was the preeminent locus of early modern villeggiatura, or villa life, more popular than any other country site near Rome and more closely tied to the city by virtue of its papal patrons. In the Alban Hills ancient Romans had built villas and baronial lords had fortified fiefs. The town of Frascati stood on the lower slopes of Tusculum, where, in late Republican and early imperial times, senators and emperors had retired to enjoy villeggiatura. Early modern villa culture was shaped by the ancient Roman ideal of otium (learned leisure or restorative withdrawal) as an antidote to urban negotium (business). The dichotomy of city and country was a rhetorical commonplace inherited from antiquity. Nonetheless, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as in antiquity, the city and its countryside were engaged in a constant interchange of economic resources and political and social affairs. Early modern humanists and churchmen revived villa life all’antica (in the ancient mode) and embraced aristocratic ideals both classical and seigniorial, bringing the court life of Rome to the country. For almost a century, from the 1540s to the 1620s, the popes chose Frascati as their rural seat, seeking repose on its sylvan slopes yet carrying their political and diplomatic concerns with them. For their families, aspiring clans often quite new to Rome, the landscape of Frascati, with its myths and memories, was an idyllic sphere, offering restful delights for the body and spirit and fertile ground for the construction of noble identity.

The rebirth of Tusculum was part of the larger rebirth of antiquity now known as the Renaissance. Cicero and other notable Romans had first drawn attention to Tusculum as a desirable locale for restorative withdrawal, and they served as models for all those who followed. The notion of competitive comparison, or paragone, that informed Renaissance artistic theory and culture in general was central to villeggiatura. Humanists and churchmen built villas on ancient ruins and pursued the ancient ideal of learned leisure, hoping to acquire an aura of virtue and sophistication associated with eminent Romans who had sojourned at Frascati in antiquity. Although courtiers in the circle of Paul III Farnese (1534–49) built the first villas, the popes of the late sixteenth century made Frascati fashionable. Elected at the height of the Counter Reformation, Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-85) was a fervent advocate of Tridentine reform. He viewed country life as a necessary restorative but relied on the villas of cardinals rather than building his own. Much as Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) made her royal progresses among the estates of her subjects, Gregory XIII visited the Villa Lante at Bagnaia, the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, and Villa Farnese at Caprarola, although he far preferred the Mondragone near Frascati, owned at that time by Cardinal Altemps. These visits honored the cardinals who were chosen as hosts; more important, they allowed the Pope to maintain his modest demeanor while forcing cardinals to show their obeisance, often at significant expense. The Pope appropriated the Mondragone as if it were his own, enjoying simple country pleasures while simultaneously conducting official business. In the 1570s Frascati grew more densely populated than any other Roman hillside, including Tivoli, as cardinals and papal clients built new villas there. Only at Frascati did the Pope take up residence.

The pontificate of Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1592–1605) was a transitional period during which the restraint of the Counter Reformation gave way to the luxury of the Baroque era. The pope at first relied on the hospitality of Cardinal Altemps, but in 1598 he acquired an estate for his own family. The Belvedere was Frascati’s first papal villa. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth century was also a period of transition for Roman society, when a series of new families, the Aldobrandini and the Borghese among them, climbed from the ranks of the ecclesiastical nobility into the secular aristocracy. The Church had long offered riches and renown, but provincial clans of modest origins now used papal wealth and power to gain entrance to the Roman baronage. In a central paradox of the Baroque papacy, absolutism peaked in the early seventeenth century as the popes consolidated their princely and priestly authority; at the same time, the tendency of the popes to favor their own families led to the founding of new dynasties with power bases independent of the state. Among ambitious clans, the strategic use of patronage was as essential to social ascent as acquiring titled lands and securing noble alliances. At the Villa Belvedere, Clement VIII’s nephew, Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, developed a grandiose garden and water theater in which fountains and statuary carried an iconographic program that glorified both the papal monarchy and the family house. Despite the bombastic imagery, Clement VIII nonetheless rarely welcomed state visitors, preferring to enjoy the Belvedere with family members alone.The Borghese were the first to combine a papal residence outfitted for state functions with a country seat for a dynasty.

At the Mondragone, built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Pope Paul V’s nephew, architecture, landscape, and rituals of villeggiatura were used to forge a new identity as a Roman noble house. On a verdant hillside near Frascati, Scipione created a palatial residence for his uncle, Paul V (r. 1605–21), that displayed his papal authority—and the prestige the Borghese derived from it—in its architectural and garden forms. At the same time, the papal palace was juxtaposed to an expansive, rural landscape that expressed family power independent of state authority. During the Borghese pontificate the Villa Mondragone was a Vatican in the countryside, a ceremonial setting in which the pope exercised his spiritual and temporal powers. There Scipione served the representational needs of the Church as well as his family by amusing visiting ambassadors and prelates with banquets, poetry, music, and tours of his collection. At his country villa, as in his urban palaces, Scipione displayed his princely magnificence, using patronage to shed a modest, Sienese past in favor of a noble, Roman one.

Most important, after the pope’s death, the Villa Mondragone remained a dynastic seat, a great landed estate of farms and fiefs that brought the Borghese profits as well as seigniorial prestige. In the early modern period the social ambitions and aesthetic ideals of Roman patrons were realized not only in formal gardens but also in such properties as the Mondragone, where the landscape of the villa extended from the foundations of the residence to the distant reaches of the Campagna, encompassing the mixed cultivation of the hills and the grazing land of the plain. In contrast with the Villa d’Este at Tivoli or the Villa Belvedere at Frascati, the meaning of the Mondragone was to be understood not from traditional iconography, for there were neither narrative itineraries through gardens nor decorative fresco cycles, but from the significance of land and countryside within the value system of a hierarchical society hypersensitive to status and prestige. For almost three centuries the Borghese ruled their Tusculan lands as local lords. Long after their ties to the state were dissolved, the Borghese used their position in the countryside to sustain their aristocratic status in the city. Throughout the early modern period, the villas of Frascati played a central role in Roman social politics.

Click on the thumbnails below for a full view of the images.

Map showing the relationships between the Frascati villas

17th-century etching showing the Frascati villas

Reconstructed plan of Pliny's Tuscan villa, a source of inspiration for Renaissance villegiatura

French translation of Pliny's letter about his Tuscan villa

First Terrace of the Villa Lante in Bagnaia

17th-century etching of the Villa d'Este

18th-century etching of the Villa Caprarola

19th-century etching of the northern terrace of the Villa Mondragone

Front facade of the Villa Belvedere

Garden facade of the Villa Belvedere

17th-century etching of the water theater at the Villa Belvedere

Cascade at the Villa Belvedere

Detail of a 17th-century etching of the Frascati villas showing the relationship of the Villa Mondragone to its agricultural surroundings

Entrance portal of the Villa Mondragone

19th-century etching of the northern terrace of the Villa Mondragone

Early 20th-century view of the northern terrace of the Villa Mondragone

Water Theater at the Villa Mondragone

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