Located at the top of the Spanish Steps on the Pincian hill, Rome’s Villa Medici currently houses L’Academie de France, a cultural centre originally created by Louis XIV to enable French artists to live in the city, gain inspiration from their surroundings, and develop their crafts. The categories of artists included has expanded over the years to include writers, chefs, art historians and more (though no mention of bloggers!) with the criteria that French is used as the language of production and dissemination. So, it’s a little bit of France in Rome. However, we had a guided tour in English, and,as the only two on that tour, had the undivided attention of our guide Luca for over an hour making this one of the highlights of our trip.
The villa takes its name from Ferdinando de Medici, who lived here for a few years towards the end of the 16th century while a Cardinal. As fifth son of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, he never expected to inherit the title (despite a prophecy depicted allegorically on the wonderfully-painted ceiling of his bedroom saying he would). However, with the death of all four elder brothers, he assumed his new role and left Rome, taking many of the villa’s contents with him. The villa declined in importance for the family, and once the the main family line died out, it eventually found its way into French ownership,and the Academy found its current home here in 1803.
Despite taking the Medici family name, the villa has housed nine noble families over the years (from the time of Julius Caesar onwards), with each one building and reshaping the existing structure – that development is beautifully portrayed within the House of the Birds (stanza degli uccelli), with decoration by Jacopo Zucchi highlighting how the property developed during Ferdinando’s residence. The grounds also incorporate the city’s Aurelian walls: currently overlooking a dual carriageway and the Villa Borghese: so in its early days, this would have represented the outer city limit of Rome.
Photography wasn’t permitted within the buildings, which, as well as housing the Academy, its library, cafe and more, were also hosting an exhibition by French photographer Patrick Fiegenbaum, who had been one of the artists to spend time here during the 1980s to hone his craft.
The tour focuses more on the outside of the Villa, touring the gardens, for example giving an explanation of the symbolism on the back (which is deliberately much more decorative than the very austere frontage – more acceptable for a post-Reformation Cardinal’s public reputation!
Here, at the back of the property, there’s much evidence of Medici heritage – including the lion, the balls in their shield (which symbolise their many professions from bankers to doctors to soldiers). Some of that imagery is also mirrored within the villa in its representation of Louis XIV, who also had Medici heritage.
In the gardens, there are formally-structured gardens, a maze, and a replica of an obelisk brought from Heliopolis (the original is now in the Uffizi in Florence). The latter is viewable from the Cardinal’s bedroom which we also got to see, and which anyone can stay in. This is the view:
Here’s a peek at one of the houses where one of the current crop of artists was staying.
And, the views across the city are, of course, stunning:
Here, looking from the neighbouring Trinita dei Monti church round to the Vittoriano…
A bird’s-eye view of the Vatican for a Cardinal …
Taking in the Via Margutta, Via Del Corso and beyond to the walls of the Vatican city.