Rome, Open City (By Appointment)
The bad news? Many of Rome’s finest works of art are behind closed doors in private collections. The good news? With the right contacts you can have them practically to yourself, says Emily Rookwood
THE HISTORY OF Rome is a history of sneaking about: from the early Romans abducting the Sabine women, to imperial shenanigans around the back of the Palatine, to theological manoeuvres in papal conclaves, to the bunga-bunga assignations of Signor Berlusconi. My sneaking about was a lot more innocent but no less enjoyable: Rome has some glorious private art collections tucked away behind wrought-iron gates, so of course Spear’s found a way in.
There are several ways in, though only one or two don’t end with you fleeing the carabinieri on the back of a Vespa. Staying at the Rome Cavalieri hotel would be one of the more rewarding, wholly legal methods. Perched in fifteen acres of private Mediterranean garden on Rome’s highest hill, the Monte Mario, the unparalleled views over the entire city are reason enough to stay.
Contrasting with its unforgiving mid-century architecture, the hotel has a remarkable collection of art, hinting at the main attraction of this hotel — its access to Rome’s fantastic but hidden galleries. Few places would allow you to nurse your glass of Prosecco a mere 10cm from one of Tiepolo’s very first independent works. Wandering through the hotel you’ll find exquisite Beauvais tapestries by the lifts, a Brueghel still life aptly above the sprawling breakfast buffet, Magnascos by the conference rooms, Lagerfeld sofas in the suites and Warhols above the beds.
Plastered against a midwinter sky, the beautiful Palazzo Colonna in the heart of old Rome is home to one of city’s largest and finest private art collections. Mentioned by Petrarch in his poetry and said to have hosted Dante, it somehow still goes unnoticed by the legions of tourists afflicted by Colossal tunnel vision. Small portions are open to a few savvy members of the public on Saturday morning, though the majority of the collection here remains hidden — unless you’re with Alexandra Massini. Our very own art historian, courtesy of the hotel, she has known and worked with the owners for years. We were treated not only to the in-depth yet accessible art historical information you can only dream of on a museum tour, but also anecdotes, local history and the odd bunga-bunga pun.
EVERY LAST INCH of plaster in the palace’s cavernous rooms is covered with intricate decoration. Vast frescos embellish the walls and ceilings. Annibale Carracci’s Mangiafagioli, in its surprisingly Impressionistic style, hangs next to works by his contemporaries, highlighting why he inspired Van Gogh centuries later.
Family portraits of the Colonnas with various popes are proudly perched on side-tables and artefacts from the Temple of Serapis litter the intricately laid coloured marble floors. From small, ornately decorated Rococo anterooms to the vast gallery, the Palazzo Colonna is, simply, beautiful. Yet it is the stillness of this private palace that makes it so very enchanting.
Leaving down the modest back staircase, we happen upon a tiny private chapel tucked away behind the cool, thick walls of a small landing. On the day we visited the door was ajar and a fastidious cleaning lady was inside. With centuries-old ecclesiastical objects from the Colonna family adorning the walls and an exquisite 13th-century gold mosaic, hidden spaces like this are the real reason for a private tour. This is one room that even Margaret Thatcher did not see on her tour with Massini a few years ago.
Walking back out to the street and the abysmally driven taxis, the value of our private tour became all the more apparent. In a city in which it seems every inch has already been meticulously documented and exploited for millions of tourists, tours like this take you into some of Rome’s most special spaces. Sneaking around in Rome has never been so rewarding.
Nightly rates for an Imperial Room start at €615. A guided tour, ‘The Private Palaces of Rome’, with Rome Cavalieri costs €1,100 for two guests
Emily Rookwood is managing editor at Spear’s