A rare treat this week thanks to Fritz Steiner of UT-Austin, who is here studying Raphael’s Villa Madama. I took him up on an invitation to visit the place, which is one of the toughest sites in Rome to see–the Villa is now owned by the Italian government, which uses it to host foreign dignitaries. So it’s taken Fritz a month to get in, and there were passports and security clearances involved, but we did get up Monte Mario on Tuesday and it was well worth the wait.
The Villa is one of Raphael’s rare architectural works–he came to building and landscape design late in his career and managed only a few buildings before his death in 1520 at the age of 37. Of these, only the Villa Madama and the Chigi chapel survive unscathed–and the Villa, begun in 1518, was left an incomplete fragment after Raphael’s death and the sack of Rome in 1527.
But–of course–what a fragment. What’s there is just under half of a planned complex that would have focused on a circular, internal courtyard, with an amphitheater extending up the hill and a huge complex of ramped and terraced gardens that would have spilled down toward the Tiber–roughly where Librera’s Fencing Academy building is today. The extant building is the ‘summer’ wing, and the interiors, finished by da Sangallo the younger with Giulio Romano and Baldessare Peruzzi fighting one another over the decorations, are sumptuous. It has been immaculately restored, perhaps in part because of a certain former Prime Minister’s fondness for remote but lavish villas (the cab driver, on the way up the hill: “you know bunga bunga?” Best not to think too much about this).
And there’s this amazing helical staircase–unclear whether this is Raphael or da Sangallo, but either way it’s an epic work of stereotomy, and an utterly immersive thing to walk up and down.
The gardens, though, are the real treat. They’re laid out as a long, long axis, clearly cut along the side of the hill, with occasional glimpses out to the west of the Flaminia quarter and Ponte Milvio. The siting had a political component, in that you’d be practically forced to pass by the Villa on your way to the Vatican from points north, but it’s also an ingenious use of siting and solar geometry. I won’t give away Fritz’ convincing explanation, but as and when he publishes it, the Villa should gain a reputation as an environmentally responsive design avant la lettre.