|by Ned Brown
My 12-year-old son, John Patrick (or JP as we call him), had never visited Rome, but he is becoming quite the traveler; and we flew over for a quick five day tour.
Arriving at Rome-Fiumicino airport, he wanted to know where we were staying, adding, “My friend from school stayed at the Hilton.”
I replied, “On a farm, with friends.” JP had a look of concern.
Which brings me to the second reason for the Rome trip: to reunite with two of my dear childhood friends, Manfredo Paulucci de Calboli Ginassi and Marco Petrasek. As I explained to JP, we knew each other way back when we were exactly JP’s age.
|Both originally from Bologna, Manfredo now lives in Rome with his beautiful, seven months pregnant wife, Polissena. Marco currently splits his time between work in Dubai and his family in Bologna.
Manfredo picked us up at the airport for the brief five minute drive to his home. He and Polissena live on the grounds of her parent’s estate, Porto, which has its origins as a Roman commercial port connecting trade in the 3rd century between the sea and the Tevere River flowing to Rome. Polissena and Manfredo live in the former stable, which they beautifully converted and decorated with exceptional taste.
Polissena’s parents, Ascanio and Monica Sforza-Cesarini, have a weekend home next door. Originally the family property was passed down on Ascanio’s side through the Torlonia family, one of Italy’s wealthiest and ancient families. On arrival, JP was relieved to see that it was no ordinary farm.
|Count Manfredo Paulucci de Calboli.||Mozart en rosas.|
|After a quick shower, change and a light lunch, Manfredo took us on an afternoon tour of Rome doing a masterful job of whisking us about to the usual tourist sites: the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, Trevi fountain (where one Chinese tourist dressed in a business suit decided to climb the fountain to the applause of hundreds of spectators – only to be accosted by the caribinieri), the Spanish Steps, the Piazzas del Popolo and Navona.
We also made a stop a beautiful local church, San Marcello, where Manfredo showed us the family’s Paulucci de Calboli chapel.
|The next day’s we started late morning at the in-town home of Polissena’s parents atop the Janiculum Hill, overlooking most of central Rome. The view from the Sforza-Cesarini rooftop is nothing short of breath-taking. After a brief coffee, visit, view and pictures, we were off to our private tour of the Vatican.
This was my first return to the Vatican in more than twenty-five years. I was taken aback by the crowds waiting in lines for the general tour, which apparently has grown exponentially since the death of Pope John Paul II. All I can advise is that if you do the Vatican tour, do it with a private guide. It takes about two hours, and while you still have to negotiate large crowds, a good guide can make the tour more informative, and it moves much quicker.
|After the Vatican tour Manfredo had made arrangements with Prince Prospero Colonna, a member of one of Rome’s oldest royal families, to visit his very private Palazzo Colonna, and to be personally escorted by the Prince. Upon entering the guarded inner courtyard of the palace, we were greeted by Prospero at the front door.
There are four separate original residences that comprise the palace, which is owned and managed by Prospero, his sister and younger brother.
Two immediate impressions came to mind as an American: the interpretations of “old family” and “grand” are relative. While my family is old in terms of American history, the Colonna family has lived successively in Palazzo Colonna since the 13th century. Prospero, his wife, Jeanne, and their children are the 33rd and 34th generations of the Colonnas to live there uninterrupted.
We learned two qualities about Princess Isabella from Prospero: she was a force majeure in Rome (if not all of Italy), and the Colonna family has maintained very close ties with the Vatican for centuries. Her stewardship of the palace was not without controversy.
During the Nazi occupation of Rome during WW II, she gave refuge to a great many Jewish families in the extensive cellars of the palace. When the Nazis suspected this, they confiscated Palazzo Colonna, its art, and temporarily displaced Princess Isabella.
Wherever one goes in Princess Isabella’s residence (most of the original art collection has been reassembled and since expanded), there are tapestries and murals with the Papal crest often close to the single column crest of the Colonnas. One of her closest friends over the years was a Monsignor from Rome who conveniently later became Pope Paul VI.
Prospero’s family relationship with the Catholic Church is as follows: a member who became Pope (Martin V from 1417-31), 22 Cardinals and too many Bishops to count. The residence prominently displays pictures of Papal audiences and letters from every Pope during the 20th century, including a recent audience by Prospero and Jeanne with Pope Benedict XVI.
About midpoint in the tour of the palazzo, we stopped for Champagne, juice and Prospero and finger sandwiches. Prospero discussed the restoration and maintenance of the Palazzo. He had promised his Granny that he would dedicate his life to continuing the devotion she had to it. He believes it is an honor to have this stewardship.
|Main Art Gallery at Palazzo Colonna.||Back of Pope Martin V chair next to Colonna crest.|
|On the second half of our tour, the high point was a visit to the main gallery housing the majority of the art collection. The gallery is approximately the same size as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles: 73 meters long and 13 meters high. One significant difference is that Versailles is owned by the French government, and this spectacular place by the Colonna family. The gallery hall at Palazzo Colonna is even more historically significant as Bernini worked there.
At the end of the gallery is a marble staircase. Halfway up the stairs is a large chip which behind rests a cannonball. This was fired by the French from the Janiculum Hill in 1849, and likely came through the roof and lodged in the stair. The Colonnas left the stair unrepaired and the cannonball in place to remind visitors of the harm man can do to man and to art.
The gallery has had its share of memorable events, and continues to be a much sought after venue. In 1953, William Wyler filmed the closing scene of Roman Holiday here with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Princess Isabella uses it for dances. And Prospero occasionally makes it available for notable economic or political functions.
|Toward the end of the tour, we visited the gardens that are tiered up the hill behind the palace. We then re-entered the palace and came to a room with a man and a woman of the 16th century. Prospero explained that for over a century, the Orsini and Colonna families had a bitter rivalry.
It became very divisive at one point, because it forced other Italian aristocratic families to choose sides. Then one day, some sensible mediator negotiated a marriage between Felice Orsini and Mercantonio II Colonna. The feud was finally put to rest. Coincidentally, I was wandering through the rear garden of the Sforza-Cesarini country home where they keep unearthed Roman and other old stone artifacts when I found a very old stone crest of the merged Orsini (a bear insignia) and Colonna (a single column) families.
|Palazzo Colonna garden.||Prince Prospero Colonna and JP.|
|Throughout the tour of the palazzo, Prospero carefully answered every question of JP, with carefully meticulous explanations. I realized that the Prince is not only a gentleman, he is a gentle man; his time is no more valuable than a child’s.
At the end of the tour, he presented each of us with a magnificent book about the palace, its art collection and the Colonna family, inscribed a touching and personal note to JP. Bidding us goodbye from the front door of the palazzo, I could see in my son’s eyes it would be an occasion he would remember forever.