Historic Villas Overlook Lake Albano

Author: Dr Hans-Joachim Kracht


Dr Hans-Joachim Kracht
Editor German edition

From Albano the beautiful Galleria di Sotto, bordered by ancient holm oaks, passes by the Villa Barberini, with a spectacular view of Lake Albano and the picturesque heights of Rocca di Papa, as well as the almost 1,000-metre high Monte Cavo, before reaching Castel Gandolfo. The modern town of approximately 7,500 inhabitants can look back upon a long history. According to legend, it was founded in antiquity by Ascanius, son of Aeneas, who named it Alba Longa; it was the oldest capital of the Sabine league. In the 12th century the area was dominated by a castle belonging to the Roman noble family of the Gandolfi, who gave the town its name. In the 13th century this property came into the possession of the Savelli family. Heavily in debt, in 1596 they sold it to the Apostolic Camera for 150,000 scudi. Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605) approved this favourable acquisition.

Thus the first papal property in Castel Gandolfo was this palace, in which the Pope's apartment with a small garden and a terrace overlooking Lake Albano are located. Urban VIII (1568-1644) was the first Pope to stay there for a prolonged period of time during the summer to preserve his health. On the ruins of the previous construction Filippo Breccioli (1574-1627) and Domenico Castelli, commonly known as "II Fontanino" (died c. 1657), built the papal palace between 1624 and 1629, according to plans by Carlo Maderno (1556-1629). The chapel is decorated with frescoes by Federico Zuccari (ca. 1540-1666). There is also a significant tomb by Guercino, i.e., Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), similar in design to one found at the Abbey of Casamari.

In the inner courtyard there is an ancient bust depicting Polyphemus, Poseidon's one-eyed son. It was found in the nymphaeum, the artificially constructed caves of the crater lake's outlet. In 1773 Clement XIV (1705-74) acquired the adjacent Villa Cibo. Under Pope Pius XI the complex was enlarged through the acquisition of the Villa Barberini, which had also been built between 1624 and 1629. In paragraph 14 of the' Lateran Treaty of 11 February 1929 we read: "Italy recognizes the Holy See's complete right to possession of the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo with all its endowments, possessions and all its dependencies.... Likewise it commits itself to ceding to [the Holy See] the Villa Barberini in Castel Gandolfo with all its endowments, possessions and dependencies".

The entire complex of papal villas today covers a surface area of 55 hectares (136 acres) and is traversed by some 10 km. (6.2 miles) of roads and paths. At the beginning of Pope John Paul II's Pontificate, American Catholics financed the construction of an 18-metre (59-foot) covered swimming pool.

Approximately half the land is part of an agricultural enterprise, which is devoted to the biological cultivation of various types of fruit, vegetables, wine and olive oil. Sixty Holsteins give approximately 500 litres (442 imperial quarts) of full-cream milk daily. The milk is sold at regular market prices in the local shops in Castel Gandolfo and Albano as well as in the Vatican's "Annona" supermarket.

Villa Barberini also has a park which is not open to visitors; from it one can see the sea on a clear day. Some 5,000 visitors a year, however, are permitted to enter the park, which was restored in 1930. They must demonstrate a legitimate "historical, artistic or archaeological interest" in the excavations of the remains of the 14-square-kilometre (5.4 square-mile) palace of the Roman Emperor Domitian (51-96).

Other visitors also come to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo out of scientific interest. Since 1936 it has been the site of the Papal Observatory because the palace offered better working conditions at the time. Each year the institute invites young scientists from all over the world for continuing education. The Observatory, founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, was first set up in the Vatican. In the meantime, because of the brightness of the sky in Castel Gandolfo, the researchers established a branch in Tucson, Arizona, which since 1993 has been equipped with a second Observatory. The Observatory's administration, library and computers remain in Castel Gandolfo.

In the tiny, idyllic market square there is a parish church that is exceptionally beautiful for such a small city. There is a very special reason for this. At the request of the Chigi Pope, Alexander VII (1599-1667), the papal architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) built a cruciform, domed church. It is dedicated to Thomas of Villanova (1487-1555), the Augustinian hermit who later became Archbishop of Valencia. Alexander VII himself had canonized the esteemed Spanish pastor, highly renowned as an "almsgiver", in 1658. Noteworthy paintings are the altarpiece by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) and Carlo Marratta (1625-1713), who also worked together on the Roman Church of the Gesu.

Among the most beautiful villas in the town we should mention the Villa Torlonia, with sculptures by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), and the Villa Ludovisi.

Lake Albano lies 293 metres (961 feet) above sea level, is elliptical in shape and, with its smooth surface, functions as a natural amphitheatre. The most beautiful of Italy's volcanic lakes, it is fed by several underwater streams. The steep and precipitous banks of Castel Gandolfo's crater take reaches 162 metres (531 feet) above its surface. The water level is regulated through an ancient outlet, located near the cemetery. Its construction was reported by the Roman historian Livy (59 B.C. to A.D. 17). The tunnels were bored through peperino and lava from the side facing the sea proceeding towards the lake. The lake water then reached a drainage ditch and from there was carried to the Tiber. Frequent visitors and admirers of Italy such as Stendhal, Goethe, Winckelmann and Gregorovius are truly not alone in singing the praises of Castel Gandolfo and Lake Albano.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 September 1999, page 8

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