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Landscape and Identity in Early Modern Rome: Villa Culture at Frascati in the Borghese Era.

Tracy Ehrlich. Landscape and Identity in Early Modern Rome: Villa Culture at Frascati in the Borghese Era.

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xix + 422 pp. + 12 col. and 155 b/w pls. index. append. illus. maps. gloss. chron. bibl. $95. ISBN: 0-521-59257-7.

The central subject of this book is the development and use of the Villa Mondragone in the countryside of Frascati during the Borghese pontificate in the early seventeenth century. But, as suggested by the title, this is far more than a diary of construction and ceremonial events; rather, Ehrlich interprets the villa as an instrument for realizing the dynastic aspirations of the Borghese family. Part of Ehrlich's program is to shift the balance of historiography of Frascati toward the Villa Mondragone which till now has been overshadowed by attention given to the Villa Belvedere, the first papal villa at Frascati. If a paragone, or competitive comparison, still exists among the villas at Frascati, the Borghese should rest easier with their fortunes so improved by Ehrlich's work.

The popes of the late sixteenth century made Frascati fashionable and thus gave the Borghese, who only arrived in Rome in 1537, a place to campaign for the family's permanent eminence in the Roman scene. The opportunity came with the long reign of Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-21). He supplied money and honors; but the person who effectively used these resources to create the sought for identity was the cardinal nephew, Scipione Borghese. Ehrlich sees in Scipione a master strategist for realizing the family's aspirations; she carefully reconstructs the devices he used to make the Villa Mondragone a great landed estate, enabling the Borghese long after the demise of Paul V "to use their position in the countryside to sustain their aristocratic status in the city" (2).

The story is nicely pieced together. The account starts with ancient Rome, telling how the city was related to its surrounding hills and how villa culture was developed on these hills, most notably by Cicero at Tusculum. By the High Middle Ages, Tusculum was deserted; but slightly below lay the town of Frascati. When the antiquarians of the fifteenth century sought to revive villa culture, the area of Frascati was an ideal site. Wealthy humanist churchmen dotted the hillside with villas and set about recapturing the aura of ancient Roman otium. One such villa, the Belvedere, was acquired by Pope Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1592-1605) and developed by his cardinal-nephew Pietro Aldobrandini. The villa's crowning glory was its water theater, elaborately described by Ehrlich to set the stage for the challenge faced by the Borghese when the election of Paul V signaled the moment to claim their place on the Tusculan hill.

Through the agency of his cardinal-nephew, Paul V was able to force the purchase of the Villa Mondragone from the Altemps who, as members of Rome's second tier of baronial families, were of higher standing than the Borghese. Scipione's task was to render the Mondragone suitable for the representational needs of the pope and effective as an instrument for raising the status of his family. Based on extensive archival work, Ehrlich systematically reviews how Scipione worked with his architect, Jan van Zanten, to create a physical space that would declare the pontifical rank of its occupant and, after the inevitable death of the Borghese pope, would still proclaim the family's nobility and standing in Rome.

Essential to this project was creating a suitable landscape for the villa. The design of the pope's palazzo included several strategically located vantage points. From these, the view afforded to visitors had to testify to the Borghese nobility. First came the purchase of surrounding land, eventually 20,000 acres, so that the Mondragone became the administrative center of a vast agricultural and pastoral enterprise. The land was then shaped into a landscape that proclaimed the Roman identity of the Borghese. Ehrlich is particularly effective in showing how the plantings selected by Scipione and the arrangement of the vigne, olive groves, and woods evoked an association with ancient Roman villa life. By this means, the social standing sought by the Borghese was confirmed and plain to see from the terrace of the villa, a perspective that maintained its validity for the almost three centuries that the Borghese ruled their Tusculan lands as local lords.

Ehrlich succeeds in establishing both what was accomplished at the Villa Mondragone and how the cultural resources available in early modern Rome were used to make it happen.


Loyola University Chicago
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Roemer, Robert E.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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