New Thinking About Old Places

Tour of the Villa Aurelia

Cristina Puglisi leads fellows and fellow travelers on a tour of the Villa Aurelia in Rome.

Last week, Cristina Puglisi, Deputy Director for Administration at the American Academy in Rome, took a group of architects, preservationists, and landscape architects at the academy on a tour of Villa Aurelia. Cristina – the key staff liaison for the restoration of this villa – had an audience that wanted to delve deeply into the thinking behind the work and decision-making around the building’s preservation, and we all enjoyed the give-and-take during the 90 minute tour.

Cristina is an American-trained preservationist who has worked for years in her native Italy.  Her insights into the different approaches to preservation in the two countries was especially enlightening to me as I think about new paths for preservation in the U.S. in the 21st century. She mentioned many of these in her tour, which led me to a follow-up conversation over lunch earlier this week in which she fleshed out several of her comments.

For some background, here’s the history of the villa, from the AAR website:

The Villa Aurelia, originally built for Cardinal Girolamo Farnese around 1650, is the setting for conferences, public receptions, concerts, and other programs. It also includes apartments for the Academy’s Residents and is surrounded by 3.8 acres of magnificent gardens.

In the early 19th century, the property was purchased by Count Alessandro Savorelli, who began extensive restoration and new construction projects. Much of the decorative work from that period is still visible today. In 1849, Giuseppe Garibaldi selected the Villa Aurelia as his headquarters for the defense of the Roman Republic against the French Army, and, after only one month, French artillery had caused extensive damage. Count Savorelli was able to restore the Villa before his death, and it was then sold to the Monte di Pieta from which it was bought in 1881 by Mrs. Clara Jessup Heyland, an American heiress from Philadelphia. In 1909, Mrs. Heyland died, bequeathing the Villa to the American Academy in Rome.

Villa Aurelia Entrance

Entrance to Villa Aurelia

The restoration of the villa began in 2000, and was completed in 2002.  As we headed up the drive towards the mansion, Cristina mentioned that one of the differences between Italian and U.S. preservation law was that in Italy all buildings over 50-years of age owned by organizations, institutions, and businesses were – by law – considered landmarks unless the owners received approval to de-designate these buildings.  This falls in line with some recent thinking of my colleague, Tom Mayes, that the burden of proof for demolition should fall on the owner.

Tom, in an upcoming essay prepared for a book on 50 ideas for the next 50 years of preservation, makes the compelling case that we grant too much freedom of demolition to property owners.  In his essay, Tom proposes that in the U.S. we should instead enact local ordinances that begin with the premise that in the service of energy conservation and fighting climate change we must no longer allow demolition by right of ownership to virtually all buildings.  Instead – as happens in Rome – institutional owners have to justify why they cannot adapt an older building.

Villa Aurelia Facade

Villa Aurelia Facade

The flip side is that the landmarks commission in Italy is much more flexible about changes to historic buildings that reflect current use.  Time and again, as we moved through the house, Cristina provided examples of how the flexibility of the landmarks commission in Rome permitted changes which responded to current needs, use, and relevance.

Detail of spiral staircase

Detail of spiral staircase

 

Spiral staircase

Spiral staircase

 

Second floor

Second floor rooms at Villa Aurelia

 

Contemporary tile

Contemporary tile in a historic setting

So decisions are made – as in the tile shown above – to use terra-cotta in a size that was appropriate for the era but which did not “match” the existing pattern (which was unknown).  Other more extensive changes took place with walls and doorways, to help facilitate current needs and use in the building.

View of Rome from Villa Aurelia

View of Rome from Villa Aurelia

We ended our tour on the side terraces, looking over the Eternal City.  This is a view that many guests who use the villa see at the end of day.  It reminds those visitors – as well as those of us who only come here on rare occasions – of the power of both the villa and the city to shape our understanding of our past, present, and future world.

More to come…

DJB

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