Victorian Extravaganza in Rome: the Villa Mills

The Rome of the 19th century represented the completion of the Grand Tour. The English Colony based in the "English Ghetto" flourished towards the end of the century. The area surrounding the Spanish Steps was effectively a little Britain, not only there were all the amenities necessary to the life abroad of the well-to-do, such as grocers, chemists, doctors, libraries, telegraphs, hotels, newspapers, etc - but also tea houses and of course three Anglican churches, and a Scot one. Englishmen of all extractions soujourned in Rome, from members of the Royal Family and other aristocrats to artists, writers, composers and all manners of everyday people. By the 1840s the Americans began to enrich the colony. 

Amongst these Brits and Americans were, of course, many philanthropists and lovers of culture altogether. Before the temples of culture and the temples of religion, the academies and the churches - came that new architecture in the form of villas. A wonderful example of this is the Villa Mills in the Palatine Hill, which once was the foremost example of Victorian mansion at the heart of Rome, a triumph of imperial exoticism that would have been at home in Queen Victoria's Brighton or in the quietest corners of Kensington.

Villa Mills was originally known as the Villa Mattei al Palatino, after one of Rome's main princely families. It was a mansion located in the Palatine Hill over the Domus Augustana and the Domus Flavia. The story of the villa begins in the 16th century, the Palatine Hill at the time was essentially made up of gardens and vineyards - Pope Paul III's Horti Farnesiani, Europe's first botanical gardens. There was a tiny country house built by the Stati family over the Domus Augustana with a small loggia decorated by the Renaissance artist and architect Baldassarre Peruzzi (including other masters of the School of Raphael), representing a recurring theme of the Roman High Renaissance, the Zodiac, the Roman Muses and other classical themes. In the following centuries the villa was owned by the main princely families of Rome, such as the Colonna, the Mattei, and the Spada.

In 1818 the villa was purchased by Charles Andrew Mills (1770-1846) and archeologist William Gell (1777-1836), their first task was that of restoring the Renaissance loggia. Then followed the decoration of the exterior which was decorated with a motif of roses, thistles, and clovers in honor of the motherland. This was the first work of the kind since the decoration of Cardinal Wolsey's palazzo near the Pantheon in the 16th century, and the Villa Stuart the century before.

Mills was also accredited with the addition of spires, pinnacles, pointed arches, etc. to the mansion's exterior Gothic revival design, a rare example of pre-Arts&Crafts "Flamboyant Gothic", a style that became popular in the late 18th century in Georgian country manors in England and which opposed unnecessary decoration to the functionality of its Victorian successor. Whatever the reader's opinion might be, it remains a fantastic example of this in the continent, which continued to be emulated by local architects until the early 20th century. He also added the wonderful Chinese "pagoda" elements and the Indian (Indo-Saracenic) rotonda and octogonal turrets in the spirit and love for exoticism at the height of the influence of the British Empire, the force that shaped much of the London of the time, from its museums to the mansions, and even the tube stations. A unique addition to this was the Grand Tour element of its settings, the heart of antiquity and of classical decadence, the Roman Forum, and of course, the lovely Renaissance loggia - all surrounded by a luscious English garden. This must have been one of the foremost examples of 19th century English eclectism.

In 1847, Robert Smith (1787-1873), a former officer of the East India Company, purchased Villa Mills after his marriage to French heiress, Julia Adelaide Vitton de Claude. Finally, in 1856 the property was sold to the Sisters of the Visitation and enlarged by architect Virginio Vespignani. Sadly the villa was demolished in the late 1920s at the hands of the Fascist quest for the impossible quest of rediscovering Italy's imperial past, and with it was gone a wonderful testimony to another time, fortunately the Renaissance loggia and its frescoes were spared.


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