The 1644 visit of the English diarist John Evelyn to the Villa Ludovisi

It was Niccolò Ludovisi (1610-1664), younger brother of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, and nephew of Alessandro Ludovisi (= Pope Gregory XV), who acquired for the Ludovisi family the Principality of Piombino (1634) and then the Principality of Venosa (1656). He also obtained high-ranking political positions under Spanish patronage, such as Viceroy of Aragon (since 1660) and of Sardinia (since 1662).

BLNLPiombino copy

Quattrino of Piombino featuring portrait of Prince Niccolò Ludovisi on obverse, arms of Ludovisi on reverse

Plus the third wife of Niccolò, whom he married in December 1644, was Costanza Pamphilj, whose uncle Giovanni Battista Pamphilj had earlier that year been made Pope Innocent X.

Remarkably, the English writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1726) paid a visit to the Villa Ludovisi, just a month and a half before this marriage, in November 1644. Here is his engaging and revealing account of the Villa Ludovisi in the time of Niccolò Ludovisi.

“10th November, 1644. We went to see Prince Ludovisio’s villa, where was formerly the Viridarium of the poet [sic!], Sallust.”

“The house is very magnificent, and the extent of the ground exceedingly large, considering that it is in a city; in every quarter of the garden are antique statues, and walks planted with cypress.”

“To this garden belongs a house of retirement, built in the figure of a cross [i.e., the Villa Aurora], after a particular ordonnance, especially the staircase. The whiteness and smoothness of the excellent pargeting [i.e., decorative plaster] was a thing I much observed, being almost as even and polished, as if it had been of marble.”

PreviewScreenSnapz003Detail of view of Villa Ludovisi by Nicolaes Louwers (1650): Casino Aurora 

“Above, is a fair prospect of the city.”

d5210255rPanorama of Rome as seen from the Casino of the Villa Ludovisi (1851). Photo: Emil Braun (1809-1856)

“In one of the chambers hang two famous pieces of Bassano, the one a Vulcan, the other a Nativity; there is a German clock full of rare and extraordinary motions; and, in a little room below are many precious marbles, columns, urns, vases, and noble statues of porphyry, oriental alabaster, and other rare materials.”

PreviewScreenSnapz002Detail of view of Villa Ludovisi by Nicolaes Louwers (1650): Palazzo Grande at lower right

“About this fabric is an ample area, environed with sixteen vast jars of red earth, wherein the Romans used to preserve their oil, or wine rather, which they buried, and such as are properly called testae.”

“In the Palace [i.e. the Palazzo Grande], I must never forget the famous statue of the Gladiator, spoken of by Pliny, so much followed by all the rare artists as the many copies testify, dispersed through almost all Europe, both in stone and metal.”

DGThe so-called Dying Gladiator (sc. Gaul), found in situ on the grounds of the Villa Ludovisi, had found its way into the family’s collection by 1623. Later Pope Clement XII (1652-1730-1740) acquired it and placed it in the Capitoline Museums

“There is also a Hercules, a head of porphyry, and one of Marcus Aurelius.”

FirefoxScreenSnapz003Bust of Marcus Aurelius from Ludovisi collection, now in Museo Nazionale Romano Palazzo Altemps

“In the villa-house is a man’s body flesh and all, petrified, and even converted to marble, as it was found in the Alps, and sent by the Emperor to one of the Popes; it lay in a chest, or coffin, lined with black velvet, and one of the arms being broken, you may see the perfect bone from the flesh which remains entire.”

“The Rape of Proserpine, in marble, is of the purest white, the work of Bernini.”

PreviewScreenSnapz001Bernini’s Rape of Prosperpina (1621/1622), finished when the sculptor was just 23 years old. This sculpture remained in the possession of the Ludovisi then Boncompagni Ludovisi families from 1622-1908, when the Italian state purchased for exhibition in the Galleria Borghese

“In the cabinet near it are innumerable small brass figures, and other curiosities.”

“But what some look upon as exceeding all the rest, is a very rich bedstead (which sort of gross furniture the Italians much glory in, as formerly did our grandfathers in England in their inlaid wooden ones) inlaid with all sorts of precious stones and antique heads, onyxes, agates, and cornelians, esteemed to be worth 80 or 90,000 crowns [note: 1 crown = 5 shillings, which represented more than an average workman’s weekly pay in 1644].”

“Here are also divers cabinets and tables of the Florence work, besides pictures in the gallery, especially the Apollo—a conceited chair to sleep in with the legs stretched out, with hooks, and pieces of wood to draw out longer or shorter.”

Almost six months later, John Evelyn still could not get one of the curiosities he had seen, that natural mummy which evidently had been discovered frozen:

“4th May, 1645. Passing the Ludovisia Villa, where the petrified human figure lies, found on the snowy Alps….”

John_Evelyn_by_Hendrick_Van_der_Borcht_croppedJohn Evelyn (1641), detail of portrait by Hendrick van den Borcht II

John Evelyn obviously had a particular eye for the lavish, unusual, exotic, even the grotesque. But he points up a crucial fact about the Villa Ludovisi that was one of its most impressive attributes: it was entirely situated within the city walls. He also noticed the ingenious winding staircase in the Casino Aurora that Carlo Maderno designed. The buildings of the Villa, the associated Gardens, and the many art treasures of the Ludovisi collection attracted the admiration of many visitors after John Evelyn, including Goethe (1787), Stendhal (1828), Nikolaj Gogol (1838-1842), Nathaniel Hawthorne (an invaluable description from 1858), and Henry James (1873), to name just a few of the literary luminaries. We will be exploring and exploring each of the accounts here at

BL_SchreiberPlanEdit2 copyMap of the Villa Ludovisi as it stood in 1880 (from Theodor Schreiber, Die antiken Bildwerke der Villa Ludovisi in Rom). By that time, it had more than doubled in size, compared to when John Evelyn made his 1644 visit—extending to the east to encompass 89.6 acres, all within the ancient walls of Rome.


  1. […] Ludovisi, died prematurely (indeed, suspiciously) in 1632. Five years later, his brother Niccolò Ludovisi presented King Philip IV of Spain with two choice paintings by Titian from the collection, the […]

  2. […] and repositioned in that room in the Villa Aurora from some other context—say, the family’s Palazzo Grande on the Via Veneto, which the Boncompagni Ludovisi relinquished in 1891, or the Palazzo Piombino al […]

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