The Casina delle Civette, Rome, Italy

The Casina delle Civette Museum is a former residence of the Torlonia family transformed into a museum. It is located inside the park of Villa Torlonia in Rome. The name derives from the recurring theme of the owls inside and outside the cottage. In the nineteenth century it was known as the Swiss hut for its rustic appearance similar to that of an alpine refuge or a Swiss chalet.

The Casina delle Civette was designed in 1840 by the architect Giuseppe Jappelli and later transformed by V. Fasolo in 1917–20. Since 1997 it has been an interesting museum dedicated to artistic stained glass.

The twenty rooms of the Museum, characterised by painted walls, stucco work, mosaics, carved wooden panels, make up a route which includes: 54 pieces of stained glass replaced, after restoration, in their original positions; 18 pieces of stained glass acquired and displayed on separate frames; 105 sketches and preparatory cartoons for stained glass.

The rooms have atmospheric names, a relic of the fantasies and fixations of Prince Torlonia, who lived here alone, without either wife or children, with only the company of his servants and a few friends.

No residence possesses such a wide or thorough collection of samples of stained glass. They document the history and fortune of the technique in the first decades of the last century.

Villa Torlonia, the most recent of the villas belonging to Rome’s nobility, still retains a particular fascination due to the originality of its English-style garden (one of the few examples in the city), and to the unexpectedly large number of buildings and garden furniture in the grounds.

When Giovanni Torlonia inherited the title of Marchese in 1797, to confirm his new status he purchased Villa Colonna (formerly Villa Pamphilj) on Via Nomentana and commissioned Giuseppe Valadier to renovate the property to raise it to the standard of the other villas belonging to noble families in Rome.

Between 1802 and 1806 Valadier turned the main building into an elegant palace, transformed the small Casino Abbati into a very gracious palazzina (today the Casino dei Principi), and built the Stables and an imposing entrance (demolished when the Via Nomentana was widened). He also laid out the park with symmetrical, perpendicular avenues around the palace, and the view to the north from the building in line with one of the entrances to the Villa from Via Nomentana. Numerous works of Classical art, many of which were sculptural, were purchased to furnish the Villa.

Following the death of Giovanni, in 1832 his son Alessandro commissioned the painter and architect Giovan Battisti Caretti to enhance and increase the size of the property. In addition to enlarging the size of the buildings, Caretti constructed several features in the park to suit the eclectic taste of the Prince: these were the False Ruins, the Temple of Saturn, the Tribuna con Fontana, an Amphitheatre, the Coffee-house, and the Chapel of Sant’Alessandro (the last three no longer exist).

To plan and carry out the works inside the Villa, Alessandro employed two other architects: Quintiliano Raimondi for the Theatre and Orangery (today more commonly known as the Lemon-house), and Giuseppe Jappelli, who was in charge of the entire south section of the Villa. This area was completely transformed with winding avenues, small lakes, exotic plants and decorated with buildings and outdoor furniture of unusual taste: the Swiss Hut (later transformed into the Casina delle Civette), the Conservatory, the Tower and Moorish Grotto, and the Tournament Field.

The huge self-celebratory project culminated in 1842 with the erection of two pink granite Obelisks that commemorated Alessandro’s parents, Giovanni and Anna Maria Torlonia.Yet despite the work and effort expended, Villa Torlonia was only on a few occasions the setting for magnificent social events for high-ranking foreign and Roman nobles that Alessandro had hoped for. In an attempt to relaunch the splendour of the family name, his heir, another Giovanni, built the Medieval House, another enclosure wall, the Red House, and the Watchman’s House at the entrance on Via Spallanzani, and he radically transformed the Swiss Hut to turn it into the current Casina delle Civette.

The new buildings were for the most part designed to be lived in. In 1919 a large underground Jewish cemetery was discovered in the north-west area of the grounds. In 1929 it became the house of Mussolini and his family, where he remained until 1943.

The presence of the Duce did not bring substantial modifications: he lived in the Palace and used the Medieval House and the Lemon-house to show films and hold parties and cultural meetings. And a tennis court was set up on the Tournament Field. Nor did the Park undergo changes, with the exception of the creation of vegetable gardens during the war at the instigation of Mussolini’s wife. In June 1944 the entire property was occupied by the Allied High Command which remained there until 1946.

The Villa was bought by the Municipality of Rome in 1977 and a year later it was opened to the public. A series of restoration projects was initiated in the 1990s in both the park and buildings: first the Casina delle Civette, then the Casino dei Principi, the southern section of the park, the Red House, and more recently the Lemon-house, Medieval House, Casino Nobile, Old Stables, and the north section of the park.

With the opening of the theatre in December 2013, and with the upcoming openings of the greenhouse and Moorish tower, which have already been restored, Villa Torlonia will return to its former glory.

The stained glass
For Rome, the incredible creativity of the early 20th century gave rise to an exciting new style adventure known as Liberty. The hub responsible for developing a range of techniques associated with the style, not to mention the experimentation that it inspired, was a workshop run by Master Glassmaker Cesare Picchiarini (1871-1943), the man many credit with bringing about the renaissance of the glassmaker’s art. By around 1910, he had attracted a small but significant group of artists who wanted to work with him, including Duilio Cambellotti (1876-1960), Paolo Paschetto (1885-1963), Umberto Botazzi (1865-1932) and Vittorio Grassi (1878-1958).

All together they took on the task of reviving traditional glassmaking / working skills and increasing their desirability and value, adapting techniques, when necessary, to meet the demands of clients, the new bourgeoisie in particular, for decorative elements in their new houses.

What made their work different and so identifiable was that they set aside the concept of “pictorial effects” and traditional methods of firing painted glass. In the early days, their work was decidedly eclectic, featuring medieval or pre-Raphaelite themes but as the style matured, these were mostly replaced with geometric and zoomorphic figures, thematic innovations that introduced a real sense of elegance and grandiosity to the living spaces they adorned.

Their work began to attract international acclaim and this led to increasingly important commissions amongst the Roman bourgeoisie who were keen to have their own homes reflect the fashion of the day.

The artists in this Roman group continued to design windows along geometric or naturalistic themes for their local, middle-class clients, whilst those depicting scenes or figures were done for ecclesiastical clients or as funerary items. The real Roman adventure in Liberty style began only after the Picchiarini workshop closed down towards the end of the 1920s.

One fine example of stained glass art from the Liberty period is undoubtedly the “Casina delle Civette”, commissioned by Giovanni Torlonia jr., where visitors can admire different pieces, completed between 1908 and 1930, by Duilio Cambellotti, Umberto Bottazzi, Vittorio Grassi and Paolo Paschetto, all held to be the greatest exponents of the Roman Liberty style. All were done at the Picchiarini workshop and reflect exactly how techniques evolved during that time.

The Casina delle Civette, as an example of Roman Liberty style has no equal, so it is unsurprising that it was designated as the Museum of Liberty Glass once the building itself had been fully restored to its former glory. Pieces such as “Civette” (Owlets), “I migratori” (Migrants) or “La Fata” (the Fairy) show off the broad palette of colours used by Dulio Cambelotti to perfection, whilst Umberto Bottazzi’s work, as seen in “Cigni” (Swans) and “I pavoni” (Peacocks) reflect his skills in depicting the animal world. Aspects of nature are key to windows designed by Paolo Paschetto as seen in his “Rose, nastri e farfalle” (Roses, ribbons and butterflies) or”Ali e fiamme” (Wings and flames) whilst the symbolic world is featured in the magnificent window entitled “L’idolo” (the Idol) by Vittorio Grassi.

The roofs
The roofs of the House of the Owls use a variety of architectonic solutions, whose unifiying element is the gray color of the roof surface that mantles the house. Originally slate was used, then in the years 1915-17 the architect Fasolo replaces them with a new material, asbestos, which itself was then removed and replaced with slate, as part as the restoration works following the fire in 1991.

In contrast to the gray tones of most of the roofing, some of the canopies and parts of the roof are covered with tiles made from glazed terracotta, in vivid colors including bold contrasts of turquoise and bordeaux, yellow and green, blue and green, pink and turquoise, with the joining tiles decorated with acanthus leaves.

The Wrought Iron
The complex was lit using a variety of lamps, both inside and outside: along the facade a number of fine lanterns in wrought iron were supported on elaborately designed brackets in the same material, which enclosed the Prince’s intitials, GT (Giovanni Torlonia), while the rooms had fine lamps with animal and plant decorations.

Only some have survived: among there are the delicate clover lamps which hung in the room of the same name; the elaborate circular lamp with leaves and poppy seed capsules, which hung from the ceiling of the Prince’s bedroom, and the lamp with the flight of the swallows, placed in the Hall. Other decorative elements in iron are found in various door decorations, in the parapet of the annex’s staricase, and in the fire screen in the Room of the clover.

The wood panelling
Three of the rooms on the ground floor of the House are richly decorated with boiseries: the Luncheon room, the Smoking room and the Room of the Owls.

Currently these wood carvings are only on display in the Luncheon room, having been recovered by a complicated restoration process. The Hall is entirely covered with wooden panels with delicate inlays, little more than a metre high, which frame the four glass doors with a design of crowns of flowers, parallel to those in the stucco work along the vault.

The decoration consists of laurel leaves and stems, and is enriched by brass inlays, in the form of geometric designs and ears of corn, and inlays of lighter wood, in the forms of ribbons and tendrils.

The stucco decoration
The most characteristic rooms of the House of the Owls are rich in stucco decoration, intergrated or harmonized with the pictorial decoration, the glass, the wood carving and the fabric decorating the walls.

The most important stucco work is that in the Room of the Swallows (swallow’s nests in the corners showing the phases of courtship, brooding, hatching and feeding), the Room of the Satyrs (tendrils of ivy on the walls, snails in the cornices and, in the eye of the lantern, a ring of crouching Satyrs), and in the Room of the “Nail” (a frieze and the central ceiling rose designed as bunches of grapes and vine tendrils and leaves).

The majolica
In the house we find elaborate majolica work by the firms Richard Ginori, Cantagalli and Villeroy and Bosch, as we know from the ledgers of the Torlonia Archive, but it is not always possible to attribute the origina of a particular work to a specific one of the firms.

The polychrome majolica which covers much of the roofing of the bay windows and the loggia, that in the hall floor, the art nouveau tiles which decorate the two bathrooms on the first floor, the panel with the nest of owls in the lunette above the entrance door of the octangonal pagoda are all of high quality. Unfortunately, many of the tiles have been lost.

The Collection
After the restoration of the building, the original pieces of stained glass were returned to their places, while those which had been irremediably lost were reconstructed, where possible, on the basis of the original designs. This work was done by the Stained Glass Art Giuliani company (recognisable by the lime writing); to this original nucleus other materials were added: an archive of preparatory designs and cartoons from the Picchiarini workshop was acquired, which, after this celebrated workshop had closed, had been obtained by the Giuliani company, which continued to operate until recent times, keeping alive the tradition of Master Picchio’s workshop, as the talent craftsman was affectionately called.

The Museum’s display makes it possible to compare the drawings and preparatory cartoons with the stained glass that was ultimately made from them. For example, in the case of The nail with vines and grapes (1914-15) and The migratory birds (1918), by Duilio Cambellotti, an immediate comparison can be made between the pictorial renderings in watercolour and charcoal and the corresponding play of colours translated into the subtleties and transparency of glass.

It is interesting to note, for example, that in the Roses and Butterflies by Paolo Paschetto, rounded glass has been used to give depth the the butterflies’ wings, or that the delicate nuances given to the bunches of grapes in Nail, have been emphasised by retouching with flame.

Among the most beautiful of the works are those created to designs by Duilio Cambellotti in 1914 and 1918, on the theme of the owl, around which the whole decorative scheme of the House developed; or again the extremely beautiful tondo, with the stunning figure of the Fairy (1917), again designed in cartoon by Cambellotti, which shows a stylised female figure, with delicate ivory coloured flesh, which blends with the blue and grey tones of the background, made more brilliant by the addition cabochons.

The variety of the materials which furnish the rooms of the House offer the visitor a very interesting tour, full of continual discoveries of unknown and intriguing details, a continual dialogue between the exuberant decorative elements of the building and the works on display there.

After the death of Prince Giovanni Torlonia (1938) the House of Owls began to decay, occupied, as all of the park was, by the Anglo-american troops from 1944 to 1947.
In 1992 the restoration works, which had been planned for a while, began.

The reconstruction made use of photographs from various periods (some from the 30s, others from 1978), numerous archive documents and verbal records made in 1944 and 1947, the points at which the Anglo-american troops requisitioned and reconsigned the buildings.

At the beginning of the restoration all the fragile decorative elements, such as the glass, the wooden panelling, the majolica, and the built in furnishings were, as far as possible, removed into storage, and underwent separate restoration before they were returned to their places.
All the immovable decorations, such as the stucco and the tempera painting, were then secured, before work proceeded to the restoration of the architectural structure.

All the pre-existing elements have been restored and replaced, with the exception of the roofing, dressed with asbestos, a material which the regulations now forbid. It has been replaced with slate tiles, as in the original construction. The cleaning of the many doors and windows was extremely labour intensive: they were removed, restored and catalogued and, where possible, replaced in position, or reconstructed on the basis of the original modela. The restoration was completed in 1997.