Villa Torlonia: ersatz architecture and Mussolini’s home in Rome

Just north of Rome’s tourist heart is the “hidden gem” of Villa Torlonia. This public park, named for the magnificent neoclassical palazzo at its heart, is free to visit and open to the public from sunrise to sunset. 

The park is a beautifully landscaped arboretum of 32 acres (13 hectares) packed with architectural curiosities, that was created over the course of a century by a family that some may say had more money than taste.

It’s popular with the locals as a great place for exercise or a picnic, and also contains a decent restaurant/café-bar where lunch, dinner, or an aperitivo can be taken in the grounds as beautiful green parakeets fly between cypress tree and date palm. 

For anyone looking for a uniquely Roman experience that is near the center, yet completely removed from the tourism industry, Torlonia is truly an unmissable visit. And it’s only ten minutes’ walk from another relatively modern marvel, the Coppedè quarter, so you can turn your visit into a stroll around Rome’s latter-day architectural quirkiness.

In this article

Villa Torlonia arboretum obelisk Rome

The History of Villa Torlonia

It was at the end of the 18th century that the mind-blowingly rich banker Giovanni Torlonia decided to build a stately home in several acres of semi-agricultural land that he’d just acquired on what was then the edge of the city, next to the north-eastern Roman Road known as Via Nomentana.

In 1802, Giovanni commissioned the accomplished architect (and Rome’s urban planner) Giuseppe Valadier to sculpt the land into a park in the then-fashionable “English picturesque” style, and to build him a huge villa in its center.

The vast white mansion – the Casino Nobile – was completed by 1806, standing atop imposing steps that lead up a landscaped rise from its grandiose entrance gate, with a terrace looking down onto the road. Giovanni filled it with hundreds of priceless artworks from antiquity that he had acquired from early archaeological digs all over Rome, which became known as the Torlonia Collection.

Roman follies

It was after Giovanni senior’s death in 1829 that the park’s strangeness really began to take shape: his son Alessandro Torlonia began commissioning various odd constructions all over the park, and in turn Alessandro’s son Giovanni Torlonia (the younger) continued the tradition of eccentricity well into the 20th century, the pair spending nearly a century adding ersatz ruins and bizarre buildings, including a fake temple, a fake basilica, a fake mosque and a magnificent theatre, all constructed in a hodge-podge of styles.

Temple of Apollo Villa Torlonia
Temple of Saturn, fake ruin, Villa Torlonia, Rome

Mussolini’s home in Rome

Following the rise to power of Benito Mussolini, in what some may see as a generous move – but that others may see as bare-faced opportunism – the younger Giovanni Torlonia offered the house and grounds to the Mussolini family for an extremely generous 1 lira per annum. Il Duce moved in in 1924 and did not leave until 1943.

Temple of Saturn, fake ruin, Villa Torlonia, Rome

During this time Mussolini had a network of bomb-proof bunkers built beneath the grounds that connect to the villa.

Villa Torlonia after the war

The buildings and grounds were occupied by Allied High Command in 1944, during which time some of the structures were damaged, and following their withdrawal in 1947 the gardens were closed, and the entire complex fell into disrepair for thirty years.

Villa Torlonia reopens to the public

The Comune of Rome claimed the grounds for the people of Italy in 1977, and it was opened to the public as a park a year later, albeit with most of the structures in a state of collapse. A major restoration project has been ongoing ever since, and nearly all of the buildings have been brought back to their original magnificence. Several have also been converted into museums in their own right, including the main Casino Nobile itself, which opened to the public in 1996. 

Villa Torlonia - Rome Vacation Tips

Villa Torlonia’s buildings

Though the Torlonia family’s amphitheater, coffee house, and the Chapel of Sant’Alessandro are long gone, the remaining structures are sometimes beautiful and always remarkable, and it is well worth a stroll round the entire park to see them all – it’s a very manageable size, as the perimeter path is only 4/5ths of a mile (1.3 km) around.

The Casino Nobile

A brass band plays on the steps of the Casino Nobile, Villa Torlonia, Rome

The huge mansion that dominates the park was designed by Valadier. It originally had a simple facade looking down onto Via Nomentana, but after Alessandro Torlonia died his son commissioned Giovan Battista Caretti to add a vast neoclassical portico made up of huge pillars, with a triangular roof, which he had topped by a Rinaldo Rinaldi bass relief in terracotta, portraying the god Bacchus.

The centerpiece of the house’s interior is a huge ballroom covered in mirrors, and the decoration throughout is eclectic and covers a variety of styles and eras. In the basement Giovanni Jr had a false Etruscan tomb constructed. There is also a tunnel leading under the grounds to the Casino dei Principi.

During the years of Mussolini’s residence, doors were added to the basement that led into the bunker network.

To the front and back of the house are two fake Egyptian obelisks in porphyry, the rear of which stands above an ornamental fountain pool.

Today, the house may be visited as a museum, and it also houses special exhibitions.

The Casina delle Civette (the House of the Owls)

Possibly the strangest building in the entire park is a Hansel-and-Gretel gingerbread house called the Casina delle Civette – the “Little House of the Little Owls”. Originally built in 1840 as a Swiss-style chalet by Alessandro Torlonia, his son Giovanni had the building repeatedly added to as a “Medieval village” in a dizzying patchwork of styles, finishing it in 1917 with Liberty (Italian Art Nouveau) flourishes.

the house of the owls Villa Torlonia

It gained its name during later works in which the motif of an owl was repeatedly used in decorations and stained-glass windows. This was the house in which Giovanni chose to live, sharing the grounds with Mussolini, until his death in 1938.

When the park is open, the surrounds of the Casina delle Civette can be accessed for free, and the house itself can be toured as an art museum – tickets available at the main entrance to the park.

Locals’ tip: the Casina delle Civette also houses that rare thing in Rome, a free public bathroom, which is possibly the cleanest and best maintained in the city.

Villa Torlonia’s fake ruins

Alessandro Torlonia was obsessed with the Roman Forum, and though he was able to add to the family’s huge collection of excavated classical sculptures, he was unable to locate any ruins on his own land. He therefore tasked Caretti with building a number of follies in the grounds. These include a fake basilica (shown), the tumbling-down ‘Temple of Saturn’ (pictured earlier in this article), a mini Forum of fallen columns, and a Tribune and Fountain – all complete fantasy.

Fake ruins at Villa Torlonia, Rome

Most of these can be seen on the path to the left of the main entrance, as you ascend the slope towards the Casina delle Civette.

Casino dei Principi (The House of the Princes)

Casino dei Principi Villa Torlonia

Its door flanked by fanciful winged sphinxes, this long thin neo-renaissance building diagonally opposite the front of the Casino Nobile was completed in 1840 – but is so accurately constructed that it wouldn’t look out of place in any street in the centro storico of Rome. It currently houses a museum of seasonal exhibitions, as well as the Archive of the Roman School, the artistic and architectural movement that flourished between the two world wars.

It is connected to the main house (Casino Nobile) by an underground tunnel.

La Limoniaia (building and restaurant)

Built as an orangery, a somewhat redundant idea imported from England (because as with the Moorish Greenhouse below, there has never been an issue with growing citrus fruit in Rome’s hot and temperate climate), this barn-like hall was constructed to house fully-grown orange trees. For reasons unknown, it was then renamed as a place to grow lemons instead.

Today it houses a mid-priced restaurant and café, with large outdoor terraces front and back, which is a great place to have lunch in the open, to stop for a breakfast coffee or an aperitivo, or even an atmospheric spot to have dinner when the weather is nice, since the entrance to the restaurant in Via Lazzaro Spallanzani (#12 on the map) remains open even when the park is closed. Booking recommended. Visit the restaurant website >

Limonaia Interior

Attached to the hall is a medieval palazzo complete with tower, which houses “Technotown”, a children’s science museum that is only open by prior appointment.

Serra Moresca (the Moorish Greenhouse)

This is a conservatory built in “orientalist” style, ostensibly to grow fruit that requires high temperatures – which like the Limonaia, was built only for show. The “Arabic” writing and iconography here is completely invented. Behind the “serra moresca” is a tower with a faux-minaret onion dome and a garden entered through an “Arabian Nights” door in the wall. 

After having been closed for 14 years, the Serra Moresca finally reopened to the public on December 8, 2021. It is open from 10 am until 4 pm during winter months, and from 10 am until 7 pm from April 1 to September 30. Tickets are €4 and are available from the ticket office at the main gate of the park.

Moorish Greenhouse Villa Torlonia

Theater Torlonia

This splendid building encompasses a confusing variety of architectural styles. Building commenced in 1841 under the guidance of architect Quintiliano Raimondi, but it was not completed until 1874.

Theater Torlonia, Rome

The theater itself is in a grand semi-circular room, with a proscenium stage and two collonaded mezzanine floors above the stalls, all beneath a cupola decorated with frescoes. At the rear of the building is a semi-circular hall with glass walls, below which is a toroidal hothouse inspired by Kew Gardens, surrounding a ceremonial fountain and column.

The internal decoration of the theater space and the many ornate rooms that surrounded it was provided by Constantino Brumidi, the “Michelangelo of America” who also painted frescoes for the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. including the “apotheosis” of the dome.

Despite the vision of its creator, the theater hosted one sole public performance in the 20th century, in 1905. It went on to sustain damage during the Allied occupation, and then fell derelict until it was restored in the early part of this century – thanks to support of various Italian and international organisations and foreign embassies – and it reopened for special performances in 2013. L

The bunker

Mussolini commissioned two bunker complexes under the park. The first was an air raid shelter created in 1941 in a converted wine cellar that extends under the ornamental lake. 

However Il Duce deemed this not safe enough, and too small and stuffy, so in 1942 he started a far larger and more bomb-proof excavation, much deeper – up to 60 feet (20 metres) under the ground – and with walls up to 12 feet (4 metres) thick. While the bunker was successfully completed, the rest of the ambitious work (doors and ventilation) were never added, because Mussolini was ousted from power in 1943.

Guided visits to the larger bunker can be arranged with Roma Sottoreana (Underground Rome) but are in Italian only.

Mussolini's Bunker Villa Torlonia

Other features of the park

Villa Torlonia's diverse features

As well as the large constructions mentioned, the park also includes an English-style bandstand, a medieval-style “tournament” field with fake stables at one end – sadly still in a dilapidated state – an ornamental lake, a striking red lodge house on the corner of Via Spallanzani and Via Siracusa (best viewed from the street outside), an old folks’ social club, various columns and statues, a fake hill next to the Casina delle Civette, a small children’s playground, and a medieval tower above Technotown on the wing of the Limonaia.

The nearby area around Piazza Bologna is Rome’s “second Jewish Ghetto“, and in the early 20th century the Torlonias discovered a 2,000-year-old Jewish catacomb complex on the north-west corner of the park near Via Nomentana, which has not yet been excavated.

The significance of the area to the Jewish population of Rome is also marked by the city’s plans to build a Holocaust Museum (Museo dello Shoah) in the park grounds, a move that, while poetically apt given the former occupant of the park, is also proving highly controversial for reasons of aesthetics and architectural heritage, the potential for destruction of historical aspects of the park, and a perceived lack of involvement of Roman-Jewish stakeholders in the process.

Map of Villa Torlonia

Map of Villa Torlonia
  1. Main entrance
  2. Casino Nobile
  3. Casino dei Principi
  4. Casina delle Civette
  5. Torlonia Theater
  6. Technotown
  7. La Limonaia
  8. The Moorish Greenhouse
  9. The Red House
  10. Old Folks’ Social Club
  11. Gardening Service
  12. Entrance
  13. Entrance
  14. Obelisks
  15. Tribune with Fountain
  16. Temple of Saturn
  17. Fake Ruins
  18. Tournament Field
  19. Decorative Lake
  20. Aviary (defunct)
  21. Entrance
  22. Columns
  23. Large urn
  24. Statue of Ceres
  25. Bandstand

How to visit Villa Torlonia

Covid news: the park remains OPEN, but the museums and bunker are temporarily shut.

Opening times:
Jan – Feb: 7.30 am – 5 pm
Mar: 7 am – 6 pm
Apr, May: 7 am – 7.30 pm
Jun – Aug: 7 am – 8.30 pm
Sep: 7 am – 7.30 pm
Oct: 7 am – 6 pm
Nov, Dec: 7.30 am – 5 pm
Closed: 1 Jan, 15 Aug, 25 Dec
Entrances: Via Nomentana (two), Via Lazzaro Spallanzani (two), Via Siracusa (one)
Nearest Metro: Bologna (Line B) – 10 minutes’ walk
Buses: 62, 66, 82, all stop just by the entrance in via Nomentana
Museum ticket prices:
Casino Nobile: €9 full – €8 reductions
House of the Owls: €6 full – €5 reductions
Combined ticket for House of the Owls and Casino Nobile: €11 full – €9 reductions
How to buy tickets for the museums:
There is a ticket office at the main entrance (#1 on the map) that takes cash and cards.
Sweet tip:
Just over the street from the main park gates in Via Nomentana is Guttilla, a delightful gelateria that specializes in serving gelato with hot chocolate fudge sauce. The perfect topping for this confection of a park.

Now make sure you don’t miss out: plan your visit in advance:

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Photo credit: AFP

Tickets in advance!

Because of ticket supply problems following the end of Covid restrictions, it is strongly advised that you buy tickets and tours in advance to visit attractions in Rome.

Buy your tickets now to avoid disappointment.