“The Destruction of Rome”: Herman Grimm (1886) on the development of the Rione Ludovisi


The Villa Ludovisi as it appears in Rome’s Piano Regolatore of 1883—as yet untouched.

Herman Friedrich Grimm (1828-1901) was a groundbreaking German art historian with a special expertise in the art of Raphael and Michelangelo; more generally, he saw himself as the intellectual heir of Goethe. He was born into an academic family: his father Wilhelm and uncle Jakob (who for their entire lives shared the same roof) were the famous philologists and folklorists known as “The Brothers Grimm“.

In late January 1886 Herman Grimm penned a “letter”—really a full-blown essay—entitled The Destruction of Rome, in which he strongly expressed his disapproval of how Rome was physically adapting itself to serve as capital for the recently-created kingdom of Italy. It saw publication first in March of that year, in the Deutschen Rundschau, but then in many other venues, with translation into Italian and English. Here Grimm reserved particular scorn for the tragic dismantlement of “the most beautiful garden…[on] the whole earth”, the Villa Ludovisi. The relevant bits of the letter can be found below, at the end of this post.


A bit of necessary background, told in outline. The 10th of July 1883 saw the death—in Milan—of Antonio (III) Boncompagni Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino (VII), just short of his 75th birthday. He left as his widow Guglielmina (nata Massimo), whom he had married a full 55 years previously. However for reasons both political and personal (to be recounted in a future post) Antonio had spent almost the entire period 1861-1883 outside of Rome. As heirs Don Antonio had two living sons, Rodolfo (born 1832), who succeeded his father as Prince of Piombino, and Ignazio (1845). There were also three married daughters, Maria Carolina (Rospigliosi, born 1834), Giulia (Boncompagni Ludovisi Ottoboni, born 1845) and Lavinia (Taverna, born 1854).

The family’s Villa Ludovisi at that point spread over some 247,000 square meters and by some method was reckoned with its buildings to be worth L. 14,645,000 (i.e., 55 lire a square meter). Amazingly, as Stefano Palermo points out in a recent minute study of Boncompagni Ludovisi family finances in the 19th century, this constituted just 7.7% of Prince Antonio’s wealth. By paying off his co-heirs in cash to the tune of almost 3 million lire, Rodolfo quickly became sole proprietor of the Villa, including the famed family Museum with its dazzling collection of Greek and Roman sculptures. (In any case, a law of 28 June 1871 had established the indivisibility of art collections among heirs.)


French painter Ernest Hébert (1817-1908) expressed his deep dismay at the modernizing destruction of Rome in his “Roma Sdegnata” (1896). Hébert had started a second term as director of the Académie de France à Rome in June 1885—remaining in the position until October 1896—and so looked on from the Villa Medici at the dismantlement of the neighboring Villa Ludovisi from start to finish.

Stefano Palermo in his 2007 book Terra, Città, Finanza capably guides the reader through the vexing issues that the  patrimony of the Villa Ludovisi presented in the political, legal and economic context of post-unification Italy. In the event, on the 6th of April 1885 Don Rodolfo hammered out an agreement with the Società Generale Immobiliare in which he would form a partnership to sell the greater part of the Villa Ludovisi for division into lots and development as a new business and residential quarter for the city, adjoining those already being constructed under Rome’s Piano Regolatore of 1883. Rodolfo was clearly confident that the Comune of Rome would approve the scheme, since construction started before the vote of formal ratification was received on 12 February 1886.

What is not often taken into consideration in discussing the lottizzazione of the Villa is the fact that the Comune had started in 1884 to make strenuous efforts to expropriate four of the family’s properties in Rome, including its valuable Palazzo Piombino on the Via del Corso. Apparently, Rodolfo feared the prospect of losing that admirably situated palace, and then having to maintain a sprawling 17th century Villa within the walls of Rome that his family in any case might also soon lose.

Hence Prince Rodolfo devised a scheme in which he would immediately cash out, so to speak, on the historic Villa Ludovisi, but preserve the most architecturally significant bits—the Palazzo Grande and Casino Aurora, as well as several buildings at the eastern end of the family’s properties—expanding the Palazzo into an incomparably grand, fully modern residence to face the new Via Veneto. The story of the building and fate of that palace complex (which included a private light railway built by the Decauville company connecting family residences) as well as the financial disaster that ensued will require its own full narrative on this blog.

To return to the decisions of spring 1885. After Rodolfo’s agreement with the Società Generale Immobiliare, the work of demolishing the Villa commenced almost immediately. Starting in May of that year, hordes of workmen began carting off the numerous ancient artifacts in the Villa Ludovisi in preparation for what would prove a frenzy of excavation and building. And the felling of the Villa’s magnificent trees apparently started on 12 June 1885, to judge from a contemporary oil painting by Guglielmo Mangiarelli commemorating this dubious event.


Gugliemo Mangiarelli (1846-1917), “Villa Ludovisi—12 giugno 1885—una giornata triste”. Museo di Roma.

The international outcry was near-instantaneous, with the sale and development of the Villa Ludovisi attracting universal condemnation by academics, journalists, poets and visual artists. It would take some effort to make a full collection of contemporary or near-contemporary reactions, which range from the German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius‘ call to action (his forceful essay ‘Der Umbau Rom’s’ published in the 21 March 1886 Allgemeinen Zeitung which Herman Grimm himself cites) to the poet Vittoria Aganoor Pompilj‘s 1903 lament “Villa Medici“.


Trees felled in the Villa Ludovisi, apparently summer 1886. The location is in the immediate vicinity of the Casino Aurora (see below). Photo: Museo di Roma.

But perhaps the most famous and evocative description of the destruction of the Villa Ludovisi is found in Gabriele D’Annunzio‘s 1895 novel The Virgin of the Rocks, where the narrator conjures up the sad state of affairs as it stood in November 1885:

“….The gigantic Ludovisi cypresses, those of the Aurora, the very same which had once spread the solemnity of their ancient mystery over the Olympian head of Goethe, lay on the ground (I see them always in imagination as my eyes saw them one November afternoon) side by side in a row, with the smoke from their naked roots rising up to the pale heaven above, with their black roots all laid bare, and seeming still to hold prisoner within their vast intricacies the phantom of omnipotent life. ”

“And those lordly meadows all round, where only one spring ago violets more numerous than the blades of grass were springing up for the last time, were now ghastly with white lime-pits, red heaps of bricks, the creaking of cart-wheels loaded with stones; while the shouts of the master builders alternated with the hoarse cries of the carters, and the brutal work which was to occupy places so long sacred to Beauty and Visions went on rapidly.”

“It seemed as though a blast of barbarism were blowing over Rome, and threatening to tear away that radiant crown of patrician villas, incomparable in the world of memories and poetry.” (trans. Agatha Hughes)


The same spot as in image above, near the Casino Aurora in spring 1885, before the felling of trees. Photo: Prince Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1885), from collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

But let us now turn to an account nearer to the event itself, that letter from Herman Grimm on The Destruction of Rome, dating to the end of January 1886, in its translation that same year by Sarah Holland Adams:

“When returning to Rome again last autumn, after an absence of ten years, the impressions I received were unexpected and depressing. I saw, that, in transforming the city into the capital of ‘modern Italy,’ they were on the point of effacing ‘old Rome.'”

“Rome owes the peculiarity of her external form to the walls with which Aurelian, fifteen hundred years ago, surrounded the city. These walls, built for defence, and which enclose Rome as in a mighty stone ring, have always been preserved in good condition….if we compare the chart of Rome in the time of Michael Angelo with that in the time of Pius IX, we find, that, on both, the city has the look of a small, compact kernel surrounded by large gardens or waste-lying fields; whilst about all, in a still wider circumference, the walls were drawn.”


Ettore Roesler Franz (1845-1907), view of eastern portions of Ludovisi gardens (looking west) with Aurelian Walls to right. Watercolor, signed and dated: E. Roesler Franz Villa Ludovisi – Roma 1886

“What they have now begun to do is to convert this entire circuit of inner Rome into inhabitable districts, where the houses, at some future day, are to reach out in every direction to the walls of Aurelian. In many places the new streets are already laid out, and cover the garden plots of inner Rome.”

“All this was to be foreseen. As early as May, 1882, the bill had been passed directing the changes and extension of the city; and an official plan is before me which furnishes a survey of what was projected….According to the legally sanctioned plan of the changes….it had been taken into consideration, that, while building upon the waste spots in the city, the places must remain untouched, which were, as the English say, the lungs of the city, — reservoirs of pure air during the sultry summer months in Rome, — and affording shade, coolness, and refreshment. We see, therefore, a number of gardens spared, in whose improvement continued interest is expressed. Among these the Ludovisi gardens.”


The Villa Ludovisi in its urban context, as depicted in the Piano Regolatore of 1883. The areas to the south and southeast colored in maroon and salmon were already under construction at the time.

“The Villa Ludovisi lies, or, we must say to-day, did lie, at the eastern end of the city, at the Porta Salara. It reached to the Aurelian walls, which, overhung with ivy, formed its boundary to the east. The most delightfully shady avenues, of laurel and holm-oak interspersed with pines tall and broad, the balsamic air, the repose which reigned there, made the Ludovisi Villa, into which it was not always easy to gain admittance, one of the places in Rome first named, when the enchantment of the Eternal City was talked of.”

“Indeed, I believe that if in regard to the whole earth the question had been put, ‘Which is the most beautiful garden?’ the answer, from all those who had ever known Rome, would instantly have been, ‘The Villa Ludovisi.'”


Guglielmo Mangiarelli, view of the Villa Ludovisi dated 20 December 1886. The statue is the colossal “Juno”, which stood before the Aurelian Walls at what is today the intersection of Via Campania and Via Abruzzi. Sold and shipped to Brookline Massachusetts in 1897, the “Juno” was acquired by the Boston MFA in 2011.

“Among the ideas associated in the minds of connoisseurs, or lovers of  ‘Old Rome,’  with the conversion of the city into the capital of Italy, was the hope that these grounds, with their superb gardenhouses filled with pictures and statues, would pass into the public possession, and only to be made more accessible to the people. A prophecy, that, under the new regime, this villa would be destroyed,— as it has been; its laurels, oaks, and pines felled, as I have seen them, would have been treated as a suggestion too insulting and ridiculous for the bitterest enemy of the new kingdom to dare to give it utterance.”

“And how have these grounds been destroyed to-day? This ‘how’ will, in afterdays, yet be discussed. They have hacked this villa to pieces to gain more than twice or three times as large as the new shadeless Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, around which the new houses are already fast crowding in. No talk here of the ‘public necessity;’ it is only said, that the fate of the villa was decided when the land became so valuable that the Ludovisi family could be paid for it the number of millions they demanded.”

“But even in this case, as Dante says in the fifth song of the Inferno, it is still not il modo che offende. To whom have these gardens been sold? How are they to be built over?”


The ‘Fons Ludovisia’ (as the inscription has it), apparently a 20th century creation utilizing bits and pieces from the old Villa Ludovisi. The location of the fountain is in a niche of the Aurelian Walls at the  intersection of Via Campania and Via Abruzzi, i.e., almost directly behind the colossal “Juno” depicted above. Note the ‘SPQR’ embedded in the marble pieces.

“According to that plan of 1882 it was not proposed to hurry on the work at such a rate. The changes were to go on gradually; the building and general style of the houses was to be more dignified, and only with consideration for the needs of the growing city….The startling feature in the present change in the manner of building is the sudden eruption of things monstrous….A number of moneyed corporations, it is said, have bought large tracts of land, and undertaken to cover them with houses….the building ground in every direction has been utilized to the very last inch. Houses immoderately high, crowded close upon one another, in many instances filled with tenants in the upper stories while the lower ones are still unfinished, for the most part devoid of architecture, but, wherever architecture appears, presenting all the features noticeable in buildings of a like kind elsewhere, — this is the character of the houses which within and without the Porta Salara have sprung, we may truly say, with feverish haste, out of the ground, and of such as will also, in too short a time, cover the grounds of the Villa Ludovisi.”

“I should have been well justified in drawing the conclusion, that this destruction of the Villa Ludovisi was an example of what, beyond dispute, is to be termed vandalism.”

“But do not let us be unjust to the vandals, who have, through simple unconsciousness, ruined the property of strangers. The vandals neither destroyed for the sake of making money, nor let loose their passion for destruction on their own household gods, but trespassed upon and injured the possessions of others, whose value they were incapable of estimating.”

“The people who have made money by the ruin of the Villa Ludovisi, however, can scarcely pretend to have been ignorant of the significance which was attached to this, the fairest spot on earth.”


View from the Casino Aurora northwest toward the Villa Borghese, apparently in late spring/early summer 1885, as clearing of the trees of the Villa Ludovisi begins. Photo Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi; collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome

“In reply to what I say, the question may be put, whether mourning over the trees in the Villa Ludovisi, and complaining of these modern vandals, will undo what is done; and what use there is, after all is over, in branding with a stigma, deeds committed more through ignorance than from any evil intention.”

“My feeling toward the Italians has ever been only that of gratitude and affection. Their mode of thinking corresponds to ours, however great the differences may appear to be. The way in which they are bravely struggling upward to-day, inspires our respect; while the difficulties with which they contend enlist our sympathy. Dante, Michael Angelo, and Raphael will forever unite the German people in spirit with the Italian.”

“But trying days may come to them such as we earlier have experienced, and all nations experience. And should the talk in those days again turn upon Rome, the Eternal City, we should hear a voice reply coldly, The world knows that the Italians themselves destroyed Rome at the close of the nineteenth century.”


Album of smaller-format photos of the Villa Ludovisi assembled by Prince Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi in 1885. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Fortunately, as readers of this blog know, Rodolfo’s brother Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi in winter/spring 1885 commissioned a comprehensive photography campaign to capture the Villa Ludovisi as it looked before its dismantlement. In all 107 different views of the Villa have come down to us through this medium;  there are 70 large format and 89 smaller format photos, making for 159 distinct images in all. The artistic merit is very high, and the treatment is often clever.

Carlo Dossi in his posthumous Note Azzurre (1912) tells an anecdote, dated to May 1885, that whatever its veracity must relate not just to Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi and his disposition of the Villa Ludovisi (though the names are suppressed), but to this very album of photographs. Rodolfo’s interlocutor on this occasion is none other than Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), winner of the 1902 Nobel Prize for Literature and by common agreement the greatest modern historian of ancient Rome who has ever lived. Here is Dossi:


“(May 1885) [Theodor] Mommsen, invited to a pompous breakfast given in his honor by the Prince of [Piombino] at the table showed himself to be taciturn and frowning, contrary to his usual nature. After breakfast, the Prince, surrounded by archaeologists and other learned men, presented several photographs to Mommsen and begged him to accept them. They were photographs of the famous Villa [Ludovisi] consisting of plantings three centuries old, ‘a Villa which as you know’, so said Prince [Boncompagni Ludovisi] to the German historian, ‘that will soon disappear.’ When he saw that an unsmiling Mommsen with a wave of his hand refused those images, he said, ‘but Professor, take them, they are a keepsake….’ Mommsen sternly replied, ‘I did not know that the Princes [Boncompagni Ludovisi] made themselves photograph their own disgraceful acts’. The [Prince Boncompagni Ludovisi] gasped. He seemed thunderstruck.”

The 70 “large” print photos are well known and have been often reproduced, thanks to the fact that Rodolfo’s grandson Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi (1886-1955) as Governor of Rome presented an album of those images to the Museo di Roma. But more is soon in store. Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi and Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi director Corey Brennan are currently working on a book that will see all the photos published for the first time in one volume.


Herman Grimm (Kassel 1828-Berlin 1901)


  1. […] their most famous possession, the Villa Ludovisi. This ancestral home in Rome, established in 1621, was developed starting in 1885 into the Rione Ludovisi which encompasses today’s Via […]

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