New from 1896: Designs to purchase the Casino Aurora (or Palazzo Farnese, or Villa Celimontana) for the new American Academy in Rome

Here comes light on the late 19th century Boncompagni Ludovisi from an unexpected quarter—a new archival collection that has surfaced in Tacoma, Washington. This large cache is particularly rich in correspondence between the Boston lawyer Samuel A.B. Abbott (1846-1931) and his friend the noted architect Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909).

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Letter (detail), 18 January 1896, from Samuel A.B. Abbott to Charles F. McKim, listing noble properties then for sale in Rome

Abbott was president of the Board of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library from 1888-1895, and as such brought in the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to implement his vision of the magnificent Library building (built 1888-1892) that today adorns Copley Square. Walter Muir Whitehill‘s outstanding 1956 institutional history of the Boston Public Library superbly details the relationship of these two men.

A newly-uncovered letter from January 1896—transcribed in full below—finds Abbott in Rome, writing candidly to McKim about the (many) noble palazzi then for sale in the city. McKim at that time was seeking to establish a permanent home for the new “American School of Architecture in Rome“, which he essentially had founded in 1894. As it happened, at that point the Americans were leasing the Villa Aurora from Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1832-1911), Prince of Piombino (VIII) from 1883. As this letter reveals, they were then seeking to buy it, but at the lowest possible price.

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The Aurora room of the Casino Aurora, fitted out as the library of the new “American School of Architecture in Rome”, ca. 1896

How did all this come to be? In 1885 the Boncompagni Ludovisi had sold a major portion of the Villa Ludovisi—89.6 acres, all within the Aurelian Walls—for its development into an upper-class residential and business quarter. That land corresponds roughly to today’s Rione Ludovisi.

The family in late 1890 then moved into a massive new palace, with two adjoining smaller villas. This they had built to compensate for the City’s expropriation and destruction of the Palazzo Piombino al Corso. The new complex was on the Via Veneto (originally known as the Viale delle Province). The freshly-built main palace incorporated the old Ludovisi Palazzo Grande in a complicated architectural scheme that we will discuss on another occasion on this site.

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Design of facade of the new ‘Palazzo Piombino’ (completed 1891) by Gaetano Koch, as it faces west on the Via Veneto. Today it houses the US Embassy in Rome

The problem was that the Boncompagni Ludovisi family itself had invested massively in the sale and development of the Villa Ludovisi. Already in November 1887, a financial collapse in Italy brought constructors, real estate companies, and investors in Rome to their knees. Matters greatly worsened with the Banca Romana scandal of 1889. The continuing crisis forced the Boncompagni Ludovisi in 1892 to sell their newly-constructed palace complex on the Via Veneto. In the following four years in particular we find the family divesting themselves of a mindboggling array of additional assets.

The newly-formed Banca d’Italia, which now owned the Via Veneto property, rented the ex-Boncompagni Ludovisi palace to the American Ambassadors Wayne MacVeagh from 1894 to 1897, and William F. Draper in 1897 to 1899. And that is where Queen Margherita of Savoia took up residence after the tragedy of Monza of 29 July 1900 which saw the assassination of her husband King Umberto I. Immediately this main building was known as the Palazzo Margherita.

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A 1902 postcard showing the Palazzo Piombino on the Via Veneto (at right); the building on the left is the westernmost of the twin Villini that Gaetano Koch designed to accompany the palace

The Queen lived in the ex-Boncompagni Ludovisi palace until her death in 1926. It then became the headquarters for the Fascist Confederation for Agriculture. However in 1931 the US Government purchased the two adjoining twin villas. Possession of the Palazzo Margherita itself followed in 1946, to house the US Embassy in Rome. Valeria Brunori offers an excellent concise treatment of all these developments (and much more) in her article “The Horti Sallustiani and Villa Ludovisi”, in Olof Brandt (ed.), Unexpected Voices (Stockholm 2008) 11-35.

This long letter from Abbott to McKim in January 1896 reveals much about the spirit of the times—both the perilous state of the Italian economy in the mid-1890s, and upper-class American brashness of the Gilded Age.  Seemingly everything had a price—even the Palazzo Farnese, which Abbott insists could be had for “about $1,000,000”. Abbott also spells out in plain terms how McKim might best take financial advantage of Prince Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi.

The dramatis personae in this 1896 letter range from American financier J.P. Morgan, to Angelo Del Nero (a sculptor who had been Italy’s Special Commissioner to Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893), to Baron Richard von Hoffman, a German aristocrat who lived in the massive Villa Celimontana with his American wife Lydia Gray Ward, to Conte D’Amidei Francesco Barbiellini, also married to an American, Harriet Hallam Lewis.

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The Palazzo Farnese was inherited from the Farnese by the Bourbon kings of Naples, from whom the French government purchased it in 1874. Mussolini changed the terms to a lease in 1936. Today it houses the French Embassy in Rome and the Ecole Française de Rome

In a year’s time, Samuel A.B. Abbot himself would become the second Director of McKim’s new institution, henceforth to be known (starting June 1897) as the American Academy in Rome. Abbott stepped down as its Director in 1903, but the Americans stayed on as tenants in the Casino Aurora until 1907. Later, the firm of McKim, Mead and White designed a purpose-built building on the Janiculum that the American Academy has occupied from 1914 through the present day. Abbott himself lived the remainder of his life in Rome, dying in 1931.

Here is the letter from Samuel A.B. Abbott (who signs himself SABA) to “Rollo” (as he always fashioned McKim in their correspondence). The original letter consists of just six paragraphs, subdivided here to suit the electronic medium. My annotations and expansions (italicized) are in brackets.

“Palazzo Carcano – 97 Via Due Macelli

Rome January 18, 1896.

Dear Rollo.

“I was delighted to receive your letter which [Angelo] Del Nero here [?delivered] to me some fortnight since, and I have delayed answering it only in order, if possible, to obtain some definite information in regard to the Villa Aurora matter. Of course you are right in thinking that I am greatly interested in the American Academy and that I shall be glad to do anything in my power to promote its interests.”

“I at once set to work to find out the condition of affairs, but I had to move slowly as I thought it better that my connection with you should not be known. You know that the Italians are a very difficult people to deal with, and are very slow, and, especially, in dealing with foreigners, very untrustworthy. They have an idea that Americans are made of money, and the moment they think that an American is desirous of buying anything the price is quadrupled.”

“I thought it best not to take even Del Nero into my confidence any farther than was absolutely necessary; and from what I have been able [2] to learn about him I think it will be well in the future not to tell him too much about your intentions. With one exception, I have not spoken to anyone as if I were at all interested.”

“The one exception is the Conte Barbiellini, whom I have known for some years who married an American who is, I believe, as trustworthy as anyone we are likely to find here. He happens to know the Prince Piombino [i.e., Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi] very well, and he knows all the ins and outs of the Romans, and undertook to find out for me the Prince’s position in the first place.”

“You know I suppose that the prince is practically bankrupt and that the only property that he now owns is the Aurora. His palace—which McVeagh, our ambassador, lives in—and the two Villini connected with it are in the hands of his creditors.”

“He has apparently put the Aurora into his son’s name [i.e., probably Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi]: presumably for the purpose of keeping it out of the hands of his creditors.”

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“Barbiellini in a talk with him said that he had a friend who was desirous of buying a place in Rome if he could get one for a reasonable price, and asked him incidentally if he would tell sell the Aurora. The answer was in substance, that there were some Americans who wanted it, and would give almost [3] any price because of the paintings etc., and that no Italian would give anything like what an American would. So that it would be useless to talk further of the matter etc. and refused to give any price. Del Nero reported to me that the prince’s man of affairs would not entertain any offer at present as at the end of the lease he could make his own terms. All this is confirmed from other sources.”

“I told Del Nero, therefore, that while you would like the Aurora, that you would not pay an exorbitant price for it and as it was evident that the Prince intended at the end of the lease to trade upon your necessities, it was better at once to give up all idea of the Aurora and to look out for some other suitable villa or palace, as there are plenty for sale.”

“The Palazzo Farnese, among others, is now in the market, so I told him how much you admired it and how delighted you would be to have the academy settle there etc. etc. The price of the Farnese is about $1,000,000, rather beyond your means, I fancy, but it will do well enough to talk about.”

“Besides the Farnese, I find the following properties are for sale. Viz. the Villini Piombini [i.e. the twin villas near the palazzo on the Via Veneto], the Villa Madama, the Palazzo Orsini (on the [4] Theatre of Marcellus), the Villa Albani, the Villa Sciarra (S. Pietro Montorio near the Spanish Academy) and the Villa Mattei. The last is now owned by the Baron Von Hoffman, who is husband of one of your friend S.G. Ward’s daughters, and is surrounded by magnificent grounds and is to my mind the finest of all the old palaces in Rome. The Villa and grounds cover something more than 34 acres and are held at about $750,000, but could probably be had for less.”

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The Villa Mattei di Giove (= Villa Celimontana) today. It is now a public park

“All these properties are held at much more than you wish to pay for the Villa Aurora and I suppose would be out of the question unless Pierpont Morgan or some of your other rich friends want to do the handsome thing and endow the Academy.”

“Still it is just as well to look about and to disabuse the mind of the Prince Piombino of the idea that the Villa Aurora is all that you care for. Possibly when he finds that you are not interested in the Villa Aurora, he may experience a change of mind. Meanwhile, it is best to let it be understood that you have given up all thought of the Aurora. Let it leak out [5] from New York that this is the case. Let your people over here—Del Nero and the rest, and etc.—understand that you are in earnest about getting some other place and that you don’t propose to have any more dickering with Piombino, and as he needs money badly enough, he may come forward with an offer.”

“Cash is very tempting to Italians who see but little of it these days, so it will be wise to let me know just how much you can pay and if I may offer cash down. Of course if you have to wait for subscriptions, and if the purchase is to depend upon the result of subscriptions, you will have to pay more.”

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Samuel Appleton Brown Abbott, first Director of the American Academy in Rome as such (1897-1903)

“I have thought up a scheme which may be worth considering. The New York Mutual Life has a large office here, and I suppose they must be obliged by law to keep a certain amount invested here. I think they are clients of yours, and it might be possible to arrange with them to take a mortgage in the property you purchase. You could pay a reasonable [6] margin so that the investment would be safe, especially if some quantity were made for interest etc. Or possibly Morgan or some of those who have millions locked up at present might be willing to make some such arrangement. A place like the Villa Mattei—for which Hoffman refused a million some years since—with no end of available building land, would not be an unsafe investment.”

“All this seems very little to tell you considering the time I have taken, but you must remember that business is not done here as it is in New York. It takes days here to arrive a conclusion that would be reached at home in a few hours. Besides all these Italian princes what not would feel as if they were defrauded if there was not more or less appearance of intriguing and plotting.”

“Fortunately I happen to be thrown in with what are called the grand people here so that I hear a great deal about their affairs that I should never hear if I were attending to my own business and living respectable life like a decent [7] Centuryaulier [i.e., member of New York’s Century Association, to which Abbott had been elected in 1893] and not wasting my time in society. However, it is fortunate that I can be of some service to you so that I need not look upon my life here as absolutely wasted. I don’t think that a new approach to princes (which are as thick here as flies in huckleberry time) increases my respect for the tribe. I can well believe that “no prince”—certainly no Roman one—is even a hero to his valet.”

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Charles Follen McKim: portrait by Frances Benjamin Johnston (after 1890). Collection Library of Congress

“I wish, by the way, that you would give me a letter to some one connected with the Academy for I would like to visit the Villa, and to see something of the men there. I am very glad that everything is going on so well with the scheme, and I am very glad, too, that I can help you on with it—altho’ in so modest a way. I have been such a drone of late that I had begun to feel that I was of no [illegible] in the world.”

An illustrated postscript relating to McKim’s facade of the Boston Public Library follows:

“I suppose you will recognize at once the correct representation of your work in Boston. Those two lower XX XX mean the roll moulding if that is what you call it and the two crosses are the places for the flag sockets which can be made very handsome.”

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Many warm thanks for their help with this post: Mr. Rick Wood and Professor Lisa Fortlouis Wood (University of Puget Sound), for so generously making available this original document and many others relating to Abbott, McKim, and the earliest history of the American Academy in Rome; and Professor Eric Lindgren (University of Puget Sound) for sharing the images. Thanks also to Malissa Arras for her careful transcription of the 18 January 1896 letter.

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Entrance facade of Boston Public Library, corresponding to Abbott’s sketch of McKim’s design above

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  1. […] dei Cipressi, that stretched northeast from the Palazzo Grande to the Aurelian Walls. After the dissolution of the Villa Ludovisi in 1885, it appears the ‘Juno’ remained for a dozen years in sad isolation at the […]

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