By Federico Schiaffino
The splendid villa on the slopes of Monte Mario, a jewel of the architectural Renaissance, derives its name from the famous “Madama” Margherita d’Austria, and was used as a country residence during the period of 1538-1550. Margherita d’Austria, the illegitimate daughter of Charles V, was brought to Italy when she was quite young to marry Alessandro de’Medici, and wid-owed at only 15. She then left the villa for a second marriage to Ottavio Farnese, and undertook a series of trips through Italy and Europe. After her death in 1586, the villa passed through inheritance to the Farnese family and afterward to the Borboni family of Naples, finally falling into complete disrepair. In the last century, maintaining respect for the original design, artistic restoration began, but was not completed.The history of Villa Madama is an extraordinary testament to the splendors of the Roman Medici. In 1523, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clemente VII, commissioned Raphael with the design for a vineyard residence that might compete in sumptuous beauty with the Villa Farnesina, then the prop-erty of banker Agostino Chigi. Raphael, occupied with other work, contributed to the design, while entrusting the con-struction to his most trusted collaborators, the elite of the great masters of their time: Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane, Giulio Romano, Baccio Bandinelli, and Giovanni da Udine.
The building, inspired by ancient Roman villas, is a masterpiece of harmonic composition, rendered yet more enchanting by the marvelous marriage of art and nature. Through an avenue immersed in green, one approaches a kind of amphitheater with a small Italian garden that leads to the entrance and the wonder-ful veranda, purportedly designed by Raphael and frescoed by Giulio Romano with paintings of mythological scenes. The grand cupola, whose central ornament of an enormous shell with scal-lops, flowers, and animals, is reflected in the floor’s concentric design recalling the same idea of movement found in the palaz-zo’s towering structure. A close study of the classics reveals obvi-ous similarities between the stucco decorations and wall paint-ings in the villa and the ancient techniques adopted by the Romans in the Domus Aurea.One of the most beautiful rooms, believed to be the work of Giulio Romano, boasts a vaulted ceiling decorated with the Medici coat of arms.
The symbols of the sun, the moon, and a variety of exotic animals are inspired by the fauna of the then-recently discovered Americas. Outside you’ll find a terrace garden overlooking a fishpond; it is embellished with a single foun-tain in the form of an elephant’s head decorated with mosaic motifs created with shells. It is the representation in marble of the famous white elephant Annone, a gift to Pope Leo X in 1514 from the King of Portugal. The elephant, much beloved by the Roman people for his kindly character and intelligence, died four years later and was buried in the Vatican.Two colossal statues in stucco guard the terrace entrance, which opens onto a secret garden, characterized by rows of cypresses, rustic vegetation, fountains, and columns. During his time in Rome, Goethe came to the villa often to find inspiration and admire at sunset a solitary pine tree, present in many of his draw-ings during the period. Unfortunately this famous pine was cut down at the beginning of the twentieth century.Currently the Villa Madama, purchased by the Italian State in 1941, is the prestigious seat of the Council of the Presidency, housing high-profile, international meetings and hosting receptions in honor of distinguished guests, including ministers, presidents, sovereigns, and ambassadors.