Wed, Aug 25, 2010 - Page 15 News List

Caravaggio comes home to sumptuously restored Genoan villa

After falling into disrepair, the 481-year-old building, owned by the wealthy Doria-Pamphilj family, has been restored to its former glory

By Gildas Le Roux  /  AFP , GENOA, ITALY

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Renaissance master Caravaggio is the guest of honor as Italy’s legendary Doria-Pamphilj family puts finishing touches on painstaking renovations to their sprawling villa in northern Genoa.

Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt — an exquisite painting bought by the family for a pittance in 1650 — has pride of place at the villa in Genoa overlooking the sea.

“Bringing this painting here to the villa while we are commemorating the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death has put the spotlight on the villa, which many Genoans don’t even know exists,” said Laura Sciove, an art history graduate who leads tours of the mansion.

Allowed to fall into disrepair until 1997, the old Villa del Principe, begun in 1529 by Admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560), has gradually regained its luster.

The villa still needs work, with a roof still pock-marked by wartime bombings and cracks still apparent in the facade.

Apartment blocks and roads steadily encroached on the grounds — including a motorway that now runs along the coast — and the garden at the foot of the main staircase was even transformed into an open-air movie theater.

“The villa was reopened to the public in 1997, and each year we carry out new work to return the building as well as the gardens to their original glory,” Sciove said.

Its founder, Andrea Doria, deserves a museum devoted just to him. An admiral to the emperor Charles V who fought for what was then the Republic of Genoa, his prestigious lineage was bolstered further in 1671 with a marriage to Rome’s Pamphilj family, whose descendants still own the villa.

A secretive figure, he was able to use his alliances to maneuver between King Francis I of France and Charles V, and he lived to the exceptionally old age of 96.

The summer residence he built has 15 rooms on two stories with a sumptuous balcony on the upper floor, dubbed the Heroes’ Loggia because of its frescoes representing the Doria family’s 12 warriors.

When the Doria-Pamphilj family decided to revive its unique heritage, it had the frescoes meticulously restored, while the cinema gave way to a formal Italian garden.

To celebrate the rebirth, they invited Caravaggio to the party, with the current exhibition titled Caravaggio and Flight: Landscape Painting From the Doria Pamphilj Villas, which runs until Sept. 26.

Sciove said historians “assume” Caravaggio was invited to the villa in 1605, about a decade after he completed the painting at age 20.

The painting, which normally hangs at the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj in Rome, “was acquired in 1650 by the Doria-Pamphilj family along with another painting for the pittance of 90 ecus,” Sciove said with a bemused smile.

The experience has something for all tastes: ebony and ivory furniture, enormous fireplaces in white Carrara marble and black Promontorio marble, precious tapestries, paintings by masters including Rubens, Titian, Bronzino, Sebastiano del Piombo and others.

One room in particular deserves special mention: the Hall of Giants, where Andre Doria and Charles V met to cement their alliance after Doria left the service of Francis I.

Stunning Flemish tapestries from Tournai dating from 1460 grace the walls.

Depicting scenes from the life of Alexander the Great, the profusion of colors and the fineness of the details are a feast for the eyes.

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