The Columbarium at the Villa Wolkonsky, Rome

The Columbarium at the Villa Wolkonsky, Rome

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Princess Wolkonsky was the daughter of the Russian ambassador at the Saxon court and later at the Savoy court. She was the secret lover of Tsar Alexander I, despite being married to Prince Wolkowsky, his assistant in the field

She used to enjoy throwing legendary parties with guests such as Sir Walter Scott, Gogol, Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka and Gaetano Donizetti

The building was expanded in 1890 by Francesco Azzurri (1831/1901), grandson of Giovanni Azzurri

After the Jewish terrorist attack on October 31 st , 1946 which destroyed the British Embassy , ​​the embassy was moved here

In 1951 it was bought by the British government and since 1971, after the construction of the new embassy, it ​​is the residence of the British Ambassador

In the park of the villa there are THIRTY-SIX ARCHES OF THE AQUEDUCT OF NERO (366 meters - 1,200 feet) extension of the aqueduct of the Aqua Claudia up to the Domus Aurea

Columbarium of Tiberius Claudius Vitalis

41/80 AD discovered in 1866 in the park of the villa

It is a kind of tomb built in bricks, common in the second century AD, with three overlapping rooms of 4 x 3 m (13 x 10 feet) each, about 9 m (30 feet) high in total

There is a marble inscription above the door with a dedication to Tiberius Claudius Vitalis made by his father and architect of the same name and by his whole family

The first two floors have three rows of niches. The third doesn’t have any

The hidden treasures of Villa Wolkonsky

ROME – A fine collection of over 350 Roman marbles was presented Wednesday at the British Ambassador's residence after a Shell-sponsored restoration brought the pieces together.

Speaking at the event at the Villa Wolkonsky, the Italian Minister of Culture and Tourism, Dario Franceschini, outlined the importance of these kinds of projects in recovering parts of the country's archaeological heritage. “The eye of the archaeologist allows you to see things that aren't visible to tourists,” he said.

The collection began with Russian Princess Zenaide Wolkonsky who originally built the villa and gardens in the 1830s. Zenaide wanted a place where she could escape the bustle of central Rome and she designed a fantastic rose-filled garden around the Roman Aqueduct in the grounds.

She filled the garden with artefacts and used it to host artistic gatherings for the likes of Walter Scott and Nikolai Gogol, who planned 'Dead Souls' while laying in a grotto in the garden.

Today, Villa Wolkonsky serves as residence of the British Ambassador, Christopher Prentice, in Rome as it has done for successive British envoys since the end of the Second World War when it was liberated from the Nazi Gestapo, who used it as a wartime headquarters.

The villa and its park are a green island, surrounded by mainly modern buildings, which thanks to the restoration now showcases the princess' collection once again.

The restoration has taken three years to complete, and began with the intention of rediscovering the princess' original plan for the garden. However, as more and more pieces were found in the garden (some of which completely overgrown by vegetation) it was decided a new space be found to house the collection. This winter, during the final phase of the project, a derelict greenhouse in the grounds was redeveloped.

The restored items were then placed on display inside so as to protect them from the damaging effects of the atmosphere and rampant flora.

While unveiling a plaque honouring the financial contribution of Shell to the restoration, Marco Brun, Shell Italia country manager, urged companies to take a central role in the preservation of cultural goods and artefacts in Italy. “I think this will be possible because the new government have introduced favourable rates of taxation for this kind of thing. Often the state simply doesn't have the resources to dedicate to heritage,” he said.

The collection at Villa Wolkonsky contains many pieces typical of a princess' Grand Tour collection. The exact provenance of most of the pieces is unclear. It is thought that some were acquired by the princess and others were recovered from the grounds as they were subsequently developed.

Many of the pieces are historically significant. Although museum records from the late 19 th and early 20 th century document the collection, very few of its pieces are studied or cited in current research. Some items are unique examples of Roman art. A Freedman relief showing six people and a child is the only known example of its kind. Similar pieces at the British Museum show just two adults. Other noteworthy examples include a rare and mostly complete Roman reproduction of the Athena Parthenos and a bas relief sarcophagus.

Dr. Dirk Booms, Curator of Roman Artefacts at the British Museum spoke about the importance of the Wolkonsky collection, “I hope that now that the collection is open it can be studied and we can make a real and true academic publication that will help get these pieces known. They are not just important in and of themselves but also important in understanding the history of Rome.”

Given the artefacts location at the British Ambassador’s residence, the collection will unfortunately not be open to the general public as a normal museum would due to security issues. It will nonetheless be made available to scholars and archaeologists so that more can be learned about the pieces. A spokesperson for the British Embassy stated that while it was not generally open it would be possible to visit on certain occasions.

Villa Wolkonsky Gardens: Et in Arcadia ego

The gardens of Villa Wolkonsky, the residence of the British ambassador, have had a magnetic influence on many people who have lived and worked there. Nina Prentice, the wife of the present British ambassador, has also come under the influence of their Romantic heritage

How many gardens can boast 36 arches of a Neronian aqueduct, not to mention hundreds of Roman antiquities scattered over four hectares just a step from San Giovanni? The Villa Wolkonsky&rsquos grounds even have a section of pre-Christian necropolis complete with fragmentary bones, traces of fresco and a section of well-rutted Roman road. Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the composer, captured the garden&rsquos Romantic spirit vividly in a letter home in 1840.

Through the garden lengthways run the ruins of the aqueduct, which they have turned to account in various ways, building steps inside the arches, putting seats at the top, and filling the vacant spaces in the ivy-mantled walls with statues and busts. Roses climb up as high as they can find support, and aloes, Indian fig trees, and palms run wild among capitals of columns, ancient vases, and fragments of all kinds. As for the roses, there are millions of them, in bushes and trees, arbours and hedges, all flourishing luxuriantly but to my mind they never look more lovely or more poetic than when clinging to the dark cypress trees. The beauty here is all of a serious and touching type, with nothing small and ' pretty ' about it. &hellip Nature designed it all on a grand scale, and so did the ancients, and the sight of their joint handiwork affects me almost to tears.*

Fanny was just one of many musical, literary and artistic personalities Princess Zenaïda Wolkonsky regularly entertained al fresco at the villa during the 1830s and 1840s. Guests were invited to wander in the gardens and encouraged to compose, sketch and write in the Arcadian surroundings. In the evening, they would share the day&rsquos experiences with their hostess, enjoying each other&rsquos art works, setting poems to music and more or less &ldquosinging for their supper&rdquo. In fact, Russian author Nikolai Gogol wrote several chapters of Dead Souls while sitting in one of the tufa grottos Zenaïda built under the arches of the aqueduct.

Even today, the garden&rsquos literary connections live on. Soon after our arrival, the Russian embassy asked us to find the first ever monument to commemorate Pushkin. The princess, an ardent admirer of the poet, had erected it in his honour. Frantic searches in the undergrowth found the plaque propped against a pillar dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, both memorials lost among acanthus and thickets of bay. Soon, Pushkin will be re-established on his own plinth in the area known as St Petersburg, so named for the splendid monument honouring Alexander I, the princess&rsquos first great love. Rumour has it that her hastily arranged marriage to Prince Wolkonsky was precipitated by the necessity of avoiding scandal, such was the young Tsar&rsquos keen interest in the brilliant and beautiful debutante.

The garden&rsquos adventures continued into the 20th century. The princess&rsquos descendants sold the site to the Weimar government in the 1920s and its buildings became the German embassy offices and their ambassador&rsquos residence until the end of world war two. Hermann Goering ordered the pool area built and the story is that, while digging, the workmen uncovered the splendid Roman columns now supporting the tempietto near the beehives. Other traces of the Nazi tenure here still remain. When the British Embassy Children&rsquos Garden Club had the inaugural dig of their new vegetable patch near the Old Chancery Building, we unearthed a great stash of live ammunition dating back to world war two. Needless to say its discovery transformed our budding gardeners into extremely keen diggers but made the military attaché somewhat anxious about what else we might find.

The villa is undoubtedly rich in history and charm, but neither gets the weeding done. Perennial invasions of acanthus and battalions of volunteer bays, viburnums and alianthus keep us busy, but there are other challenges too. The punteruolo rosso (red palm weevil) finished off the Phoenix palms before they could be saved. The 2012 winter&rsquos winds, snow and frost not only brought down a carob, an ancient yew and two beautiful feijoas it also damaged the camellias around the house, broke large branches off the umbrella pines and froze tender shrubs and climbers. Less dramatic but no less urgent has been the ongoing maintenance of lawns and flowerbeds. As for the princess&rsquos beloved roses, so admired by Fanny Mendelssohn and later generations of visitors, these too need replanting and renewal.

The villa&rsquos collection of over 400 antiquities also requires urgent attention if they are to be preserved. A huge head of Hera placed under one of the arches of the aqueduct by the princess is being destroyed by the iron bolts used to fix it in place. Funerary monuments and statues have suffered damage from exposure to wind and rain. Nevertheless, we have been able to make a small but cheering start on the restorations. A generous donation rescued, in the nick of time, a splendid Roman orcio given to the princess by Cardinal Consalvo to mark her conversion to Catholicism. Without this help, last year&rsquos arctic weather would have reduced the pot to a heap of fragments, but there is still much to do if the collection is to be returned to its former glory.

We have been hugely fortunate in the generous support of numerous archaeologists and horticultural experts, all of whom have a passionate interest in the future of these gardens. Together we have finalised a restoration programme. We hope it will not only revitalise the princess&rsquos grounds and her collection of antiquities but also provide an example of sustainable and cost-effective gardening practice. Over the last year we have waged a ceaseless war on weeds, dug out overgrown thickets and opened up vistas and perspectives to let the garden tell its own story. We have recovered and transplanted tired roses, experimented with rhubarb, asparagus, salad potatoes and generated Himalayan heaps of compost. The work never stops but we hope to recapture the &ldquoserious and touching&rdquo natural beauty so beguiling to Princess Wolkonsky&rsquos guests.

Visitors today should wander in Arcadia too.

Nina Prentice

The gardens are not open to the general public 

*Kingeman, C. (trans.)(1963) The Mendelssohn Family 1729-1847 from the Letters of Journals of Sebastian Hensel, Vol. II. University of Toronto.

Villa Wolkonsky opens archeological museum

A small museum housing a collection of over 350 ancient Roman marble artefacts was presented at Villa Wolkonsky, the residence of the British ambassador in Rome, in the presence of Italy's culture minister Dario Franceschini and Britain's ambassador Christopher Prentice, on 10 December.

The marble treasures in the Wolkonsky Collection include votive statues of goddesses, sarcophogi decorated with bas-relief, funerary portraits, friezes, architectural elements and inscriptions, almost all from burials dating from between the first century BC and the third century AD.

A particular highlight of the collection is the life-size statue known as the Music Satyr, which was reassembled from 15 fragments found in various place around the villa's four-hectare gardens in the S. Giovanni district of Rome.

The majority of the artefacts were rediscovered on the grounds during an extensive restoration programme of the gardens, led by dedicated gardener and wife of the present ambassador, Nina Prentice, who described the process in Wanted in Rome last year.

The restored finds have been placed in two converted 19th-century greenhouses situated near the entrance gate on the villa's grounds.

Visiting the museum will not interfere with security arrangements for the residence, according to the embassy, which is planning to open the collection to guided tours for small groups.

Additional information

John Shepherd was born in Edinburgh in the Second World War. He lived much of his childhood in Rome, though attending schools in England. His MA at Cambridge in Languages (French and German) and Economics was followed by post-graduate study of Development Economics at Stanford University in California. He also speaks Italian, and has learned Arabic and Dutch.

His career in the Diplomatic Service included two spells in Rome, including as Ambassador (2000-2003) he served as Ambassador in Bahrain (1988-1991), Minister in Bonn (1991-1996) and was then on the Board of the Foreign Office until 2000. In "retirement" he became Founding Secretary-General of Global Leadership Foundation (2004-2006). He began researching this book in 2012.


In 1605, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V and patron of Bernini, began turning this former vineyard into the most extensive gardens built in Rome since Antiquity. The vineyard's site is identified with the gardens of Lucullus, the most famous in the late Roman republic. In the 19th century much of the garden's former formality was remade as a landscape garden in the English taste (illustration, right). The Villa Borghese gardens were long informally open, but were bought by the commune of Rome and given to the public in 1903. The large landscape park in the English taste contains several villas. The Spanish Steps lead up to this park, and there is another entrance at the Porte del Popolo by Piazza del Popolo. The Pincio (the Pincian Hill of ancient Rome), in the south part of the park, offers one of the greatest views over Rome.

The Piazza di Siena, located in the villa, hosted the equestrian dressage, individual jumping, and the jumping part of the eventing competition for the 1960 Summer Olympics. A balustrade (dating from the early seventeenth century) from the gardens, was taken to England in the late 19th century, and installed in the grounds of Cliveden House, a mansion in Buckinghamshire, in 1896. In 2004, a species of Italian snail was discovered, still living on the balustrade after more than 100 years in England.

The villa, located in the southeast of the city, still within the Aurelian Wall , comprises parts of an aqueduct built under Nero , which forms a branch of the Aqua Claudia . The area then served agricultural purposes until the beginning of the 19th century. Princess Sinaida Alexandrovna Volkonskaya, daughter of a Russian diplomat, acquired the land in 1830. The Princess grew up in Turin , where her father was an ambassador. She lived in Rome from 1820 to 1822 and then returned to the Eternal City with her family in 1829. Volkonskaya commissioned the architect Giovanni Azzurri with the construction of a villa, had the associated park laid out and the part of the aqueduct that ran there restored. Her villa soon developed into a renowned literary salon , which was visited by Karl Brullow , Alexander Iwanow , Bertel Thorvaldsen , Gaetano Donizetti , Stendhal , Sir Walter Scott and Nikolai Gogol , among others . Princess Volkonskaya mainly used the villa as a country residence, as she had other apartments in the city center. After Sinaida Volkonskaya's death in 1862, her son Alexander inherited the villa, then it passed to Marchesa Nadia Campanari, a granddaughter of Alexander Volkonsky. The Campanari family built a new building south of the original villa, which was then rented out. At the end of the 19th century, the property lost much of its scenic charm due to the urban expansion of Rome. In 1922 the Campanaris sold the Wolkonsky villa to the German government, which set up its embassy to the Kingdom of Italy and the ambassador's residence there. The main building and the old building were expanded, and another building was built at the main entrance. With the German occupation of Italy in September 1943 ( Axis case ), the embassy ceased its diplomatic service. After the liberation of Rome on June 4, 1944, the Italian government confiscated the embassy, ​​which had been used as a prison during the occupation with its branch in Via Tasso, among other things. The property was temporarily left to the diplomatic mission of Switzerland and the Italian Red Cross .

On December 31, 1946, the British Embassy at Porta Pia was the target of a terrorist attack by the Zionist underground movement Irgun Tzwa'i Le'umi . The Italian government then made the Villa Wolkonsky available to the British embassy. It was acquired by the British government in 1951. At the end of the 1950s, extensive restoration work was carried out. In 1971 the embassy office at Porta Pia could be moved into. The Wolkonsky villa has since served as the residence of the British ambassador again. In addition, there are accommodations for the rest of the embassy staff on the site. The extensive property is also used or rented by the embassy for cultural events, seminars, workshops and the like. The British monarch's birthday is celebrated annually in the park with around 200 different species of trees and plants.

The Villa Wolkonsky in Rome : History of a Hidden Treasure Hardback

The Villa Wolkonsky, Rome, is the incongruously named official residence of the British ambassador to Italy.

Nestled within the city's Aurelian Wall, the site's history dates back to antiquity, its gardens dominated by the remains of a first-century imperial Roman aqueduct.

In the 19th century a remarkable Russian princess, Zenaide Wolkonsky, turned it into a country home and salon d'art with such illustrious visitors as Gogol, Turgenev and Fanny Mendelssohn.

Following generations excavated Roman tombs, collected antiquities and built a new grand mansion, before selling the Villa to the German government in 1922.

It remained the German embassy, being much enlarged, until the Liberation of Rome in 1944.

After the war the UK bought it, first as embassy offices and residence and, since 1971, as the residence for the ambassador and other staff. In this handsomely illustrated volume, Sir John Shepherd, former ambassador, has undertaken new research to debunk long-held myths and present, for the first time, a comprehensive history of this hidden Roman treasure.

Ancient tokens and their communities

For the month of October, BSR alumna Clare Rowan has been staying at the BSR to conduct fieldwork for her European Research Council funded project Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean. Here she tells us more about her own research on the subject, and the project’s workshop that was held here at the BSR last week.

Tokens in antiquity were monetiform objects, largely made of lead, that were created across the Mediterranean at a very local level. Tokens likely served a variety of purposes: they might aid in governmental procedures (e.g. Athens), serve as banquet tickets (e.g. Palmyra), were used in cults and festivals (e.g. in Rome), and may also have served as a sort of currency at times, particularly in bath houses.

Lead token (20mm) from a private collection showing on one side a male head surrounded by the legend P GLITI GALLI the other side shows a rooster carrying a wreath and palm branch. The image is a visual pun on the name of Gallus, which meant ‘rooster’ in Latin.

The find spots of tokens aid us in understanding how they were used. Their imagery reveals information about ancient identities, imagery and ancient joie de vivre. While at the BSR, I have been focusing on the tokens of Rome and Ostia, working at Ostia to look through the archives of excavations (Giornali degli Scavi) for tokens and token moulds found in the port. I have also been cataloguing the token collections in the Museo Nazionale Palazzo Massimo, the Capitoline Museums, as well as a collection that was recently acquired by the Archaeological Museum at Palestrina. This last collection consists of more than 1000 specimens, many of which are new types. By using archival and library materials to locate where token moulds (made of palombino or lunense marble) and lead casting waste are found, I have been able to begin to identify that tokens were privately manufactured across both Rome and Ostia, connecting particular types to particular buildings, and even particular tabernae.

Lead token (22mm) from a private collection showing the lighthouse of Portus on one side and the legend ANT on the other.

A workshop was also held at the BSR on the 18 and 19 October, Tokens, Value and Identity, Exploring Monetiform Objects in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, organised by a postdoctoral fellow in the project, Antonino Crisà. Scholars from around the world came to discuss tokens from different collections and excavations across the Mediterranean.

Half of a palombino marble mould for casting circular tokens showing Fortuna holding a rudder and cornucopiae. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Transfer from the Alice Corinne McDaniel Collection, Department of the Classics, Harvard University, 2008.118

The workshop underlined the idea that tokens were made very locally, often unique to a particular city – the method of using marble moulds to cast tokens, for example, appears to be found only in Rome and its port. The exchanges among the scholars who attended continued to contribute to the development of a methodology to study these objects, which have not seen serious attention since Rostovtzeff in the 19th century. If you are interested in seeing and learning more about these objects, you can find the blog entries of the team members here:

Speakers at the Tokens, Value and Identity Conference

Clare Rowan (Associate Professor, University of Warwick and former BSR-Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar)

Ancient Roman statues emerge from British ambassador's garden in Rome

For decades they were hidden beneath a jungle of overgrown vegetation, coated in lichen and moss, but now hundreds of delicate Roman statues and other marble artefacts have emerged from a painstaking restoration of the garden of the British ambassador's residence in Rome.

Carved reliefs of wild boar, satyrs, griffons and goddesses were discovered mouldering beneath soil and leaf litter during the laborious landscaping of the garden of Villa Wolkonsky, which was once the home of a Russian princess.

As gardeners hacked through the tangled vegetation, they discovered more than 350 artefacts – far more than they had expected to find.

The marble statues and funerary reliefs, once covered in slime and moss, were cleaned by experts and went on display on Wednesday for the first time in the gardens of the villa, a historic palazzo which has been the residence of the British ambassador to Italy since the end of the Second World War.

They include stone reliefs from ancient Roman tombs that depict the faces of freed slaves, their wives and children, as well as carved friezes showing chariot races and the ritual sacrifice of bulls.

The three-year restoration of the 10-acre garden was led by Nina Prentice, a keen horticulturalist and the wife of the ambassador, Christopher Prentice.

"I was weeding from the age of two," she told The Telegraph in the grounds of the residence, which are shaded by holm oak trees and palms.

Rather than delegate the project to embassy employees, she performed much of the back-breaking digging and clearing of overgrown shrubs herself.

Working methodically through the garden, which is enclosed on one side by the well-preserved remains of a 1st century AD aqueduct built by the Emperor Claudius, she came across the marble carvings.

Many of the artefacts came from a nearby Roman necropolis and were used to decorate the garden when it was owned in the early 19th century by Zenaida Wolkonsky, a Russian princess who entertained the likes of Gogol, Goethe, Stendhal and Sir Walter Scott.

Mrs Prentice found ancient sarcophagi used as plant pots and Roman capitols wedged underneath slabs of marble to form benches.

"Everything had slid into ruin and was covered in muck," Mrs Prentice said, walking past a grotto in which Nikolai Gogol is believed to have composed part of Dead Souls, a classic of Russian literature.

"Every time we ventured into a different part of the garden, there would be another amazing statue. I just kept saying to myself, 'I can't believe it.'

"There were bits scattered all over the place so we had to match hands with arms and heads with bodies."

Many of the pieces that were rediscovered are important from an artistic and archaeological point of view, experts said.

"There's a sarcophagus with a lion's head from the imperial period that is of very high quality," said Prof Christopher Smith, the director of the British School at Rome, an archaeological institute.

Dr Dirk Booms, a curator from the British Museum, said: "The funerary relief showing five freed slaves and a child is very rare. They have Greek names, suggesting they were Greek slaves who were freed by their Roman owners. The collection is an important part of the story of Rome."

After falling on hard times as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Wolkonsky family sold the villa and its gardens to the German government, who used it as their embassy in Rome.

During the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1943 and 1944, its underground bomb shelter is thought to have been used to hold Italian civilians, some of whom were reportedly tortured by the Gestapo.

Others were shot when they tried to escape from the villa's tennis court, where they had been temporarily held after a Gestapo sweep of the city.

The palazzo was confiscated from the Germans after the war and soon taken over by the British, who moved in after the existing British embassy was blown up by Irgun, the Zionist terrorist group fighting for a Jewish homeland, in 1946.

It later became the residence of the British ambassador, after the embassy was transferred to a modern, concrete building about a mile away in 1971.

Watch the video: Ancient Roman frescos from the Columbarium of villa Doria Pamphilj manortiz (August 2022).