The Gilded Age in Rome: the Palazzo Brancaccio-Field

By the end of the 19th century the classical marvels of Rome attracted tourists from all over the world, the numerous "English Colony" in Rome, based around the English Ghetto was soon joined by the mid-century by the American community which inspired by their original motherland came to Italy with a love for culture and a desire to build a new empire on the basis of Ancient Rome. The first Americans began to arrive at the turn of the 19th cntury and also settled in the Tridente - where they also had amenities and other services in their native language. The 19th century was also a time of cultural rediscovery and self-identification for the new American aristocracy, the oldest families of New England and New York realized that in order to affirm themselves, they had to follow the steps of the princely families of the Renaissance - they became great philanthropists, that is how families such as the Astors or Vandebilts became the new Medici by granting large donations to museums, churches and other social institutions, and by marrying into the continental nobility. Britain and Italy were the center of their attention. This was the Gilded Age, and Rome was a central destination. JP Morgan, the Astors, and all the great Americans of the time came to Rome, they had funded a large American church, St.Paul's within the Walls, established a massive American Academy and by marrying into the local aristocracy, they helped funding Rome's last princely palazzo: the Palazzo Brancaccio.

New York's high society heiress, Mary Elizabeth Broadhurst Field married Prince Salvatore Brancaccio on 3 March 1870, he belonged to an ancient patrician family of Naples whose history dated back to the 11th century. Soon into their marriage, the couple sought to build a new magnificent palazzo at the heart of the Eternal City - especially with the help of the one million dollars dowry she brought into the marriage - which also helped fund the fabric of the American parish on the via Nazionale, where her name is still recorded in a memorial.

The site was found on the ancient via Merulana which connected the two papal basilicas of Saint John Lateran and Saint Mary Major, on top of what were once the Baths of Trajan. As for many areas around the Oppium and Esquiline hills, this site was also previously a garden, belonging until 1872 to a convent of the sisters of Santa Maria della Purificazione ai Monti which was then partly demolished and partly included in the palazzo. Legend has it the Tower of Maecenas was incorporated into the palazzo as well, Emperor Nero had wateched the city burn from there. After a short battle with the Comune who wanted the site to be used for popular housing, finally in 1879 construction began under Gaetano Koch, one of the most prominent architects of late 19th century. The last princely palazzo built in Rome would have been a real triumph but also a very conservative example that was to match with the style of other aristocratic mansions in Rome.

Koch's project was that of a composed neo-Renaissance palazzo with a lavish but refined neo-Baroque interior. This was a perfect match of interest, a daughter of the American Gilded Age of New York and Newport who tried to emulate the great Roman palazzos for one of Italy's oldest families. The pictorial decoration of the interior was commissioned to an academic artist of the time, Francesco Gai, already chosen previously for the family portraits. His Triumph of the Brancaccio Family has echoes of Pietro da Cortona and Bernini. A good match between the princess' taste and that of the Roman nobility of the time was the idea of scattering some chinoiserie all over the palazzo, a sign of the love for exoticism of the time - another example were some of the French Rococo details, such as the mirrored halls and their bright stuccos and red velveted silks. The crowning jewel was the garden with its watergames in the stunning form of a Roman Ninfeo - towered by a gazebo (really, a coffee-house).

Construction was mainly completed in 1886, and the final works were over by 1891, when the palazzo was inaugurated with a solemn ball in honor of the Royal Family. Elizabeth Field became a lady in waiting to Queen Margherita. Sadly, the fortunes of the Palazzo ended with the deaths of Princess Elizabeth Broadhurst in 1897 and of Principessa Brancaccio in 1909, when the palazzo became a house and not a home anymore, most of it being rented out for exhibitions or events to this day. The film Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn was partly shot in the palazzo. One can still admire this wonderful marriage of American and Roman opulence and it is very well worth it, the Palazzo Brancaccio-Field is a short 5 minutes walk from the basilica of Saint Mary Major.


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