by Roderick Conway Morris

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Villa del Principe, Genoa
Villa del Principe

An Italian Villa of Treasures Opens Its Doors

By Roderick Conway Morris
GENOA, Italy 30 July 2010


Andrea Doria was born in 1466 in Liguria, in northwestern Italy, of a patrician family, but in somewhat reduced circumstances. He began his career in the ranks of the papal guard and he went on to serve as a soldier of fortune in Urbino and Naples. He was well into his forties when he took to the seas, yet he became the most famous admiral in Christendom, one of the wealthiest men in Italy and one of the most lavish patrons of the arts.

He captained his fleet of galleys - in the service of France, the Spanish emperor, the Papacy and the Republic of Genoa - well into old age (he died in 1560). But he left on land a fine monument to himself, further extended and embellished by his descendants: the Villa del Principe at Fassolo to the west of Genoa's ancient city walls.

During his lifetime the Villa del Principe (Doria acquired the title of prince along with the fiefdom of Melfi in 1531) was a haven of tranquillity. When in residence the admiral could gaze on his fleet riding at anchor at the end of the villa's formal gardens. But later the villa and gardens became a battleground, bombarded by artillery and overrun by Piemontese government troops fighting the Genoese uprising of 1849, then again heavily bombed by the Allies in 1944, who erroneously believed the villa housed the German high command.

Some work to rescue the building was carried out after World War II, but it was not until 1994 that a full restoration program was begun by Donna Gesine Principessa Doria Pamphilj, and her husband, Massimiliano Floridi, who, with their family, now spend part of their time in the villa.

The Doria and the Roman Pamphilj families were linked by marriage in the 17th century. After the direct Pamphilj line came to an end, in 1761, Giovanni Andrea IV Doria Landi was recognized as the legitimate heir to the titles and properties of the Pamphilj and moved to Rome.

The re-opening to the public of the Villa del Principe, to which a large number of the movable artworks once there have been brought back from the Roman Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, is being marked by a special exhibition 'Caravaggio and Flight: Landscape Painting from the Doria Pamphilj Villas,' featuring more than 80 landscapes from four country and seaside villas once belonging to the two dynasties.

Caravaggio's 'Flight into Egypt' was one of four paintings by the artist acquired by the Pamphilj in the 17th century, two of which they still own, the other two being at the Louvre and the Vatican. There are only three Caravaggios with significant landscape elements, the most extensive being in the 'Flight.'

Caravaggio himself fled to Genoa in 1605 to avoid imprisonment. More than one of his protectors in Rome had family connections with the Doria and Genoa, and it seems likely that he was accommodated at the Villa del Principe. Reportedly, while the artist was in the city, Giovanni Andrea I Doria (the great-nephew and heir of the admiral) offered Caravaggio the princely sum of 6,000 gold scudi to fresco one of the apartments, a commission he eventually turned down, possibly because he had only painted one previous fresco (in Rome).

It is interesting that the prince was more eager to obtain a fresco than an oil painting from Caravaggio, since at this time the interior decoration of the villa consisted overwhelmingly of frescoes, stucco, luxurious silk hangings and tapestries - although two outstanding portraits of Andrea Doria, in his admiral's gear by Sebastiano del Piombo, and heroically nude and long-bearded in the guise of Neptune by Bronzino, are now on display again at the villa.

The architecture of the villa was inspired by that of Roman villas, then being rediscovered, and especially ancient seaside residences. It was a villa in that it had a rural setting outside the city walls, but often alternatively referred to as a palazzo. Its proportions were certainly palatial, while never losing an engaging countrified air enhanced by the greenery of its statue-adorned gardens. The terracing overlooking the sea clearly drew on Bramante's Belvedere at the Vatican, and in 1599 Giovanni Andrea I added the present centerpiece of the villa's seaward vista, a colossal fountain out of which rises a giant marble sculpture of Andrea Doria's alter ego Neptune.

The location of the villa at Fassolo, outside Genoa itself, was politically significant. Having taken up the command of two of the Genoese Republic's galleys in 1513, by 1528 he had a personal fleet of a dozen galleys, had freed Genoa from the grip of the French king and guaranteed the city state's independence under the protection of the Spanish Emperor Charles V, to whom he hired himself and his warships to contain the menace of the Ottomans and the Barbary Corsairs for the enormous fee of 90,000 gold scudi a year.

Andrea Doria brought peace to Genoa by ending the chronic factional in-fighting that had destabilized it, reformed its Republican constitution and became the state's effective dictator. Yet he remained in theory a private citizen, resident not in the imposing Ducal Palace but on his own private estate, accepting the honorary title of Pater Patriae (father of the nation).

In 1528 Doria recruited Perino del Vaga, one of Raphael's closest collaborators, to adorn the villa's many rooms with frescoes, murals and stucco, and filled them with precious objects and costly tapestries, creating a palace furnished, in the words of the duke of Mantua's ambassador, 'not for a gentleman but a great king.' The occasion of the ambassador's observation was Charles V's visit to Genoa in 1533, when he and his entourage were magnificently lodged in the villa, setting the seal on it as one of the great princely residences of Europe.

Among the many furnishings returned to the villa after a long absence are a pair of rare tapestries, woven in Tournai in the then-Duchy of Burgundy around 1460, illustrating the deeds of Alexander the Great, and a further set of six celebrating the Holy League's naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. The latter were commissioned by Giovanni Andrea I, who had commanded the right wing in that battle.

While increasing Genoa's international prestige as a center of patronage of the arts, the villa had an enormous influence on the city's art and architecture for, as a writer toward the end of the 16th century noted, this palace 'enlightened the Genoese grandees, who in turn built numberless others within the city most richly decorated.'

Innovations at the villa continued to set trends in Genoa and elsewhere. The Golden Gallery, so called for its abundant gilding added in the mid-1590s by Giovanni Andrea I, was one of the first examples in Italy of this kind of aristocratic exhibition hall (which had originated in France). Now restored, it provides an elegant and spacious setting for special exhibitions.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024