An early account of the Roman villa at the Villa Negroni in Rome

Pre-scientific accounts of archaeology can be very vague.  The 1777 discovery of a magnificent Roman house, near what is now Termini station in Rome, is naturally not properly documented.  It does not help that the area of ground – a farm within the walls, essentially – goes under various names, such as the Villa Peretti, Villa Montalto, Villa Negroni, and Villa Massimo, after its successive owners.

The earliest account known to me, of the discovery of the house, was written by the Benedictine abbot, Angelo Uggeri (1754-1837).  The title is given by Lanciani as Iconografia degli Edifizi di Roma antica, vol. 3, plates 14-17, page 55; and in volume II, plate 24, which is supposedly a floor-plan.[1]  But I can find no such work listed. Probably the reference is in error somehow.

However I was able to find a notice by Camillo Massimo, in his account of his own property, Notizie istoriche della Villa Massimo alle Terme diocleziane, Rome, 1836.[2]  The account is on p.213-216, and includes a plan.  The author indicates his dependence on Uggeri.

I thought that it might be interesting to translate this account into English, as best I could, with the aid of Google Translate.  Those who wish to do so can of course consult the Italian online at the links below.

At points Count Massimo’s sentences just run on, so I have split some of his sentences accordingly.  Here it is.

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But the most fruitful of all the excavations made at the villa was that undertaken in the month of June of the year 1777 by the cavalier Azara in an area of land located between the Viminal and Equiline hills. There were found the remains of a house, which at that time prior before the discoveries at Pompeii was the first example of the manner in which the ancients made their own homes, and therefore was a famous discovery in antiquarian history. The following inscription stamped on the bricks that composed it, indicated that it was built in the times of Antoninus Pius:

SERVIANO III COS
SALEXPSLCIVVEN

i.e. in the third consulate of Servianus, which corresponds to 134 AD.

This little palace was made up of two floors, with permanent stairs, but the upper floor having been destroyed perhaps on the occasion of some earlier excavation, there remained only a few remains with incrustations of marble. The ground floor, emptied of earth, shows the arrangement that the ancients gave to their homes.  This was unknown up to that time, aside from the casino of Pius IV in the Pontifical Vatican garden, which is said to have been built by Pirro Ligorio based on an ancient model.  The following plan is copied from the drawing made on-site by the architect Camillo Buti Romano, and was made to raise awareness of these precious remains, which are now once again covered by the earth.

The walls of the rooms were all painted as dscribed in the list below, and they show representations of various deities, distributed one to each room, and executed with the greatest of care, perfection of colour, and elegance of design, both in the figures, and in the accompanying decoration (1).

(1) The Diary of Rome, which informed the public at the time of the discovery, tells us (Number 262 p. 16), that the first-found room, when, with the proper licenses, the house was opened towards the end of June 1771, was the one with the paintings of Venus, shown in the plan by the letter C; that after this, there was discovered in the room B, dedicated to Adonis, the paintings of which are described in Num. 272. p. 13; and that in the month of August (Diary num. 274. p, 9) were discovered the paintings of the third room, marked D, representing Hercules in a frame with cup in hand, supported by a Faun, and in the other a Baccante, playing two flutes at the same time, with another Bacchante upright nearby listening.

Floor plan of the ancient house discovered in 1777 at the Villa Negroni
Floor plan of the ancient house discovered in 1777 at the Villa Negroni

A. Vestibule painted without figures.

B. Room dedicated to Adonis, in which there were two pictures, one representing Adonis, going hunting, and the other the same Adonis, wounded, and dying. This room has a door leading into the next room, and a window on the opposite wall corresponding to the road, and placed at the top, just as is usual for the windows of the studios of painters. The side walls are of “opera a cortina” (?).

C. Room dedicated to Venus, likewise with two painted walls.

D. Room dedicated to Bacchus, in which were three pictures, one representing the drunken Hercules supported by a young Faun; the second Bacchus and Ariadne; and the third a Faun, which plays two tibias, with Silenus who listens.

E. Juno Room, with two diamonds, and a marina with Greek ships, and other compositions.

F.  Room decorated with niches, and arabesques.

G. Last room, where there was only one painting representing Pallas.

H. Staircase to the demolished upper floor.

I. Peristyle, or courtyard with piscina in the middle.

Total length of the house, 125 palms, width 70 palms.  [A palm was about 8″, so 84′ x 47′ or 25m x 14m, or thereabouts. – RP]

So interesting was the discovery that the famous painter, Raffaelle Mengs, who was in Rome, and was a great friend of Azara, rushed to see these beautifully preserved paintings.  He found that they were of such good style, that, so that they should not perish, from the effects of fresh air, he began to draw them attentively with the help of the cavalier Maron, his brother, despite the damp in the deep place where they were. The paintings, and their colour copies were found so attractive, that those interested in this excavation, also by the advice of Mengs, were determined to make them known with all possible diligence.(1)

To this end the talented engraver Campanelli was chosen, and, so that the lovers of the arts might have a perfect idea of those precious monuments, the praiseworthy Camillo Buti, who was born in one of the houses of the same Villa Montalto, where his family had long lived, was set to colour these prints with elegant miniatures, representing with inexpressible accuracy and perfection the same colours as the ancient original paintings, thus forming a fine collection of thirteen prints, which was the number of painted walls remaining in place.

The description given to the public, with a plan similar to this, is perhaps the most learned of this kind ever published, and was dictated by the same Antonio Raffaele Mengs, who knew exactly how to explain all the virtues of these paintings, which were much preferable to those of the Baths of Titus (2).

(2) An exact description of four of these rooms, the colors of all their decorations, and even the minutest details, is given in volume 3 of Icnografia degli Edifizj di Roma antica, p. 53.f., the work of Abb. Uggeri, who in Tables XIV, XV, XVI and XVII, also records the contours of the paintings of those four rooms; and in Volume II. Tab. XXIV. figure 1, reproduced in a small plan the whole house with its size, and with the index of paintings remaining in it. The description of this is also given in the manifesto printed on that occasion in a flying piece of paper which has become very rare, and in the second edition of the Roma antica of Ridolfino Venuti with additions by Stephen Piale, Par. I. cap. V, p. 125.

While in this way these paintings were conveyed to the mercy of eternity by beautiful engravings, and miniatures, the originals, (as we read in the Diary of Rome num. 266. For 19 July 1777. p.8.) were, with the proper licenses, sawed from their respective walls by an English merchant, who sold them to my Lord the Earl of Bristol, and they were brought to England, where they may be found in his Antiquarian Museum.

Meanwhile when at Rome the news of the discovery was known, as usual there began disputes among antiquaries to decide to whom that elegant little palace would have belonged.  The beautiful distribution of its plan, the finiteness of the paintings, and rarity of the marbles with which were encrusted the door jambs, bases, and floors, indicated that it belonged to an uncommon owner. From these clues together with the brick stamp imprinted on the bricks as we mentioned above, and the style of the paintings and ornaments, which became barbarous not long after that time, it was generally agreed that that the building was of the time of Antoninus, and that, secondly, most widely stated in the Antologia Romana vol. 6 (1780, pag.252), was a holiday home of Lucilla wife of Lucius Verus, and daughter of Marcus Aurelius, and of Faustina Minor. What made him believe this was one of the paintings of those rooms, where near an altar there is seen a woman wearing a stole, whose right hand shakes a tree, from which falls almost upside down a cupid, bearing an apple.  This painting, which was the first to be discovered in the excavation, according to the Diary of Rome of 5 July 1777, p. 16, is a most perfect copy of the reverse of a coin of the same Lucilla, which suggests that the palace belonged to the same princess, and that she had painted in it that emblem of her own.

There was also found among the ruins of the house a small statuette of Venus in rare sculpture of marble, but missing a leg (1); and the same excavation was continued, as stated in the Diario di Roma num. 304. p. 3. On the 29th November 1777, there were found three beautiful sculptured Fauns.

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This all gives us something.  The entrance to the villa is to the left, and you pass through the rooms into a atrium with a central water tank or piscina.  Sadly the plan does not indicate north.

Let’s see what else we can find out!

  1. [1]R. Lanciani, The ruins and excavations of ancient Rome, p.147, note. Online here.
  2. [2]Various copies at Google books.  A high resolution copy is online and downloadable at Arachne here.

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