Palaces & Palazzo’s – Posh Monuments to Folly or Success

Buckingham Palace

Palaces are lavish, enduring decidedly posh buildings developed by human society during times of prosperity, expansion, peace and stable government. They certainly reflect, in architectural terms, the personal tastes and self-gratification of wealthy, powerful princes and potentates, as well as provide a setting for state occasions and hospitality.

‘If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces’*

Buckingham Palace at London has been a focus for the British people at times of national rejoicing and crisis for over a century now. Originally only known as ‘Buckingham House’, a house in town built for his grace the Duke of Buckingham in 1705 on a freehold piece of land, it only became a residence of royalty when George III acquired it from him in 1761, one year after his accession to the English throne. It then became known as the Queen’s House, a reference to its occupant Queen Charlotte, George III’s consort.

Buckingham Palace LondonEnlarged by George IV’s famous architect John Nash and completed by Edward Blore following his dismissal, it finally became an official ‘palace’ of the British monarchy when Queen Victoria went to live there after her accession to the throne in 1837. The final major additions include the famous East Front overlooking the Mall, which was made through a series of stages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These also included the Buckingham Palace balcony from where today the royal family greet the people.

Most of the current interiors were designed and completed during the nineteenth century when Queen Victoria’s Empire was at its height. The Queen’s Gallery, following a suggestion from the Duke of Edinburgh, opened in 2002 for the Golden Jubilee. It was built in the space where a bomb had destroyed the royal Chapel in Word War II.

The word ‘palace’ has throughout history been applied to royal or imperial residences, as well as to the official residence of a Prince Bishop or Cardinal Archbishop. It derives from the Latin word Palatine, which was the name of one of the seven hills on which the city of ancient Rome was founded.

It was also used to describe the complex series of buildings raised on that hill between the 1st and 4th centuries by successive Roman Emperors, the most famous being the Domus Aurea or Golden House of the Emperor Nero (37 – 68). With a touch of irony, the word palace was attached to a place of commerce, leisure or amusement. For example there was the Crystal Palace of 1851, which was built in Hyde Park London to showcase the products of England’s booming industrial revolution at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Classical detail, including a Roman Arch, on the building that housed a former ‘gin’ palace at London

The People’s Palace was sometimes used as a nom de plume to refer to British Parliament as well as being a home for recreation and education, that opened in East London in 1887.

Then there is a Gin Palace like one at Bristol in England, which was in its heyday of the Victorian age entirely decadent and the very antithesis of what a ‘real’ Palace purported to be.

Many early civilized groups such as those based in the Nile and Euphrates Valleys, those who lived in the Mediterranean at Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros, the Andean civilisations of the Americas, the Imperial rulers of India, China and Japan all had vast ‘palace’ style complexes. However our contemporary custom of ‘thinking big’, at least in western modern terms directly descends from an image burned into our pschye for that of a 1st century Roman Palace.

The ancient Romans controlled the area around the Mediterranean for over six centuries celebrating their victories with great triumphal processions and expressing their politics and cultural mores by holding grand festivals and banquets that were stupendous spectacles. During the 1st century the first Roman Emperor Augustus (27BC – 14 AC) considered himself a ‘ first among equals’.

According to documented accounts and the fashionable gossip of his day the grandnephew of Julius Caesar, was frightened of thunder, fond of virgins and ironically, completely opposed to ostentation or displays of luxury of any kind.

As a supporter of the republican ideals of the man whom adopted  him as his heir Julius Caesar, Augustus preferred to live his own life in the comparative simplicity of a modest house on the Palatine Hill, the remains of which were discovered in 1961. They have only been opened from 2008 onward for a few people at a time due to the extreme fragility of the still largely intact wall frescoes, which have been painstakingly restored.

House of Augustus, wall frescoes

They are in vivid shades of blue, red and ochre and were painted about 30BC.

He could not bear gorgeous palaces’ writes Roman Historian Suetonius, in his biography of Augustus. ‘He ordered the demolition of an extravagant country house, which had been built by his grand daughter, Julia’.

Augustus slept in the same bedroom summer and winter for over forty years. Its furniture was as simple as the house itself, which it seems Suetonius’ did not believe was elegant enough for an average private citizen, let alone for an Emperor.

In Augustus’s time as Emperor concepts about family and household, whose ideas till impact on western society today were settled, including the power invested in the head of household, rules of inheritance and relationships between a patron, freedman or client.

Like that of his neighbours the house Augustus lived in during his lifetime was rapidly overshadowed and overbuilt by the extraordinary architectural extravagances of his successors.

The showplace of one reign became the foundations for the next.

Since ancient times Rome celebrated her wealth of water . 1st century commentator of Roman life Lawyer, author, natural philosopher, military commander, provincial governor Pliny the Elder (23AC – 79AC) recorded in his Naturalis Historia that it flowed freely through its baths, in its fishponds, canals, villas, gardens and palaces.

This was an incomparable technical achievement as its system of connecting aqueducts conveyed entire rivers into the town everyday.

Pliny marveled at the quantity of water his contemporaries used daily and by the time the Emperor Trajan (53 – 117) reigned 11 aqueducts fed more than 1300 fountains, which were not mere utilitarian drinking fountains, but were shaped like grottoes with cisterns, jet fountains and sculptured decorations.

It was the adopted son of Augustus the Emperor Tiberius (42BCE-37ACE) who built the first known Roman Imperial palace.

His reign was darkened by conflicts within the ruling family dynasty and the oppressive gloom of his last years all but obliterated the memory of much good government earlier in his reign.

He raised The Domus Tiberiana on the northwest side of the Palatine, not far from where Augustus had lived. The Emperor Caligula then enlarged Tiberius’ work, and most of its rooms are still today underneath the Farnese Gardens that were laid out during the 16th century.

The Emperor Nero (37 – 68) seemingly knew no restrictions on his liberality or expenditure and was notorious for his petulance, lechery, and love of luxury, cruelty and greed’.

It would have to be said Nero’s opportunities as a builder were entirely enhanced when, during the moonlit night of 18th July ACE 64 a fire broke out in some shops near the Palatine Hill and spread uncontrollably throughout the Imperial city.

Whatever folklore decrees some scholars believe Nero was at the city where he had been born Antium (Anzio) 57km south of Rome when the great fire of Rome broke out.

There he had built an imperial scale villa on the site where Augustus had received a delegation from Rome to acclaim him Pater patriae (“Father of his Country”). Each Emperor in turn up to the Severan Emperors who ruled between 193 and 235 used it.

Hurrying back to Rome to assist fire fighting efforts and to supervise the provision of shelter for the homeless, any credit Nero might have been given for his actions was dispelled by a rumour that when the flames were at their height he had mounted a stage and likened the dreadful calamity to ancient disasters by singing a tale about the Sack of Troy.

The fire burned fiercely for six days, leaving Rome in smouldering ruins, with only four out of its original fourteen regions still intact.

In the wake of the fire Nero devised a new plan for urban development with houses built of brick facing out onto wide roads. His own palace, the Domus Transitoria had been utterly destroyed so he immediately appropriated 125 acres in the heart of Rome to replace it, an action that infuriated its citizens.

His Domus Aurea or, Golden House was completed 68 years after the Christ event and became the stuff of legends.

Today its excavated remains include a huge octagonal room, a central focal point from which many of the most important rooms of the palace radiated. Descriptions survive from those who either admired or resented it.

Roman Biographer and antiquarian, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, known as Suetonius (75-160 ACE), left this description for posterity.

To have an idea of its size and its magnificence, it suffices to recall the following details: there was a vestibule in which a colossus was erected in Nero’s likeness, one hundred and twenty feet high. So vast was this vestibule that its interior had arcades with triple rows of columns for a length of one thousand paces, and a pond that looked like a sea, surrounded by buildings formed like cities. Furthermore, inside there was countryside, rich with fields, vineyards, pastures and woods with a great number of wild and domestic animals of all species. In the rest of the building everything was coated with gold and embellished with gems and mother of pearl. The ceilings of the banqueting halls were of moveable, perforated ivory so that the flowers and perfumes could be sprinkled over the guests. The greatest of these halls was round, and turned continuously all day long on its own axis, like the world.

Nero’s successors converted his palace to public use before it was finally swept away by a raging fire in 104 AC.

Hadrian later demolished the fragments, which remained above ground and in 121 built his Temple of Venus and Rome on its site. The Colosseum was built over its vast lake, which was drained. Some of its surviving rooms were found below ground during the 15th century. The walls were covered with delicately painted stucco reliefs by an artist known only to history as Fabullus (who lent his name to our term for works of indescribable beauty), which the palace in all its richness clearly was.

Nero was reported to have declared when it was finished….’Good, now at last I can begin to live like a human being.’

Following the fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth century the great palace complex of the Palatine Hill crumbled into a series of ruins for a thousand years and baffled people during the Middle Ages. Archaeologists have spent the centuries since the rebirth of Humanism in Italy unravelling the puzzle.

The link between the ancient Palace of an Emperor and a grand Palazzo’s built by Italian noble families during the Renaissance period at Rome from the 14th to the 16th century is that they were both conceived as residences built to accommodate groups belonging to one family of some renown. Much of the interest in Rome’s history is tied up in their architectural vocabulary.

From the 14th to the 16th century cities throughout Italy underwent substantial urban renewal, setting a pattern for the future. A concentration on mathematics permitted men of the Quattrocento to approach works of art and architecture with a specific attention to formal structures, enabling them to see bodies in terms of volume and surface. Medieval scholasticism gave way to objective knowledge with a concentration on the surrounding world, represented as it appeared to the eye.

In the sixteenth century version of a Palazzo open spaces and courtyards were also placed inside the walls with an element of contact, such as a junction or passage the link between the macrocosm of the city and the microcosm of the Palazzo. In this way the contrast between outside and inside was diluted, the difference of sound and light and variations of mood attenuated. The longer the vestibule, the longer and slower the act of entry and a greater sense of purpose was created.

It was the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) who started a revolution in architecture and his ideas influenced the way all other architects would think in the future and the shape of buildings to come.

He took the various elements of its ancient architectural repertoire the column, the capital, and rounded arch and recombined them with a mathematician’s regard for proportion, but in a fresh new way.

The style has since become known as Baroque.

The Baroque style Italian Renaissance Palazzo is about the application of new knowledge that helped reinterpret that which had gone before. The facade of the Palazzo Borghese has an entrance based on the form of an ancient Roman triumphal arches, with a giant cartouche for displaying the family coat of arms.

The blazon of the Borghese family has at its centre a crowned eagle over a winged dragon. It was after 1610 that the Borghese attained their princely rank by purchasing the feudal holdings of Sulmona in the Abruzzi, from the Spanish crown. This acquisition was a crucial step in establishing the family’s status at Rome. The Bath of Venus within the Borghese Palace complex was a vast nymphaeum with antique statues and three giant water displays set between large niches supported by gigantic caryatids against a boundary wall.

If you were a Prince of the blood or of the Church at this time, you more than likely travelled in a carriage that displayed some of the ornamental repertoire including frolicking putti, flower garlands and scrolling acanthus. Large console tables with matching mirrors in great halls became standard features of state apartments and together with sumptuous textile wall coverings gave any room a feeling of grandeur.

Made in sets of two or four they maintained the all-important symmetry of a room, dividing the walls into balanced arrangements of objects. They were rarely, if every moved, which is why so many have survived.

The private drawing room in the apartment of the Borghese family held grand parties and receptions up until the romantic 19th century when the last great fancy dress ball held in Papal Rome was given there on 7th February 1866.

The most famous of all the Borghese princesses was Paolina Bonaparte, sister to Napoleon and the wife of Prince Camillo. She was immortalised by an early 19th century worthy successor to Michelangelo, the sculptor Antonio Canova as Venus Victrix (Venus the Conqueror) and set against a background of Imperial splendour.

Her private apartments were furnished in 1803 in the Roman Imperial style, and were dominated by a sculptural group by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, (the Rape of Proserpine). The room was filled with marbles, mosaics and stucco decorations, with those rendered on the ceiling taking their inspiration from the painted style of decoration discovered in the remains of Nero’s Golden House.

Sculptural reliefs emanated from the walls, forming a frieze around the room. The walls are articulated with giant pilaster, flanking classical statues in niches that were then surrounded by alabaster and set with rare marbles in a room in the grand manner.

In Roman architectural history the open space in front of any building was important and considered an integral aspect of its design. It provided a clear view of the building as you approached, conjuring up images in the mind of the splendours to be revealed within.

There is a strong relationship between the building of a Palazzo and a Piazza, the grand open space immediately in front of its façade and many of these took shape together.

Sculptor, painter, architect and all around genius Michelangelo, re-organised the Campidoglio or Capitoline Hill, paying particular attention between the partnership of the palazzo and the piazza with at its centre the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

During the Renaissance the creativity of sculptors and a homage to water as the bearer of life was incorporated into architectural design.

In front of the Palazzo Poli and on the Piazza di Trevi is a triumphant, theatrical conflation of architectural elements and sculpture placed on artificial rock, crossed by gushing showers of water and centred in a spectacular niche from which emerges Neptune’s winged horses led by tritons.

On Sunday May 22 1762, Clemens XIII offically completed and inaugurated the new Trevi Fountain. The population of Rome at that time was around 160.000 people.

The seemingly most accepted explanation for the word Trevi is that it derives for the Latin word Trivium, which indicates the crossing of three streets.

The Roman Goddess Trivia was protecting the streets and often her statue featuring three heads was placed at the point where they intersected.

The three streets of Trevi are Via De’ Crocicchi, Via Poli and Via Delle Muratte.

The Trevi Fountain was to be the climax of all preceding designs for fountains developed by the architect Nicola Salvi between 1732 and 1736 from sketches made by the sculptor Bernini more than a hundred years before.

It took over thirty years for it to be completed with the Palazzo Poli forming a monumental background as a metaphor for the palace of Oceanus himself who is standing in its central niche flanked by a statue of Abundance, holding the cornucopia or horn of plenty, and the statue of health, Hygieia. At the top of its central triumphal arch is the Papal Crest flanked by two goddesses representing fame. Today this sparkling image is one that all those who visit Rome today carry away with them when they leave.

The Quirinal Hill, the tallest of the Seven Hills of Rome is recognized as the most important among the seven hills that identify the city of Rome from its ancient past to the present day. The Palazzo del Quirinale with its Trumphal Arch Entrance overlooks a Piazza of the same name.

Pope Gregory XIII as a summer residence built the Palazzo del Quirinale on the site in 1583 although the project was halted when he died in 1585 and never completed.

When Pope Paul V (1605-1621) was in office the Palazzo Quirinal became the official papal residence for over two hundred years until the arrival of Vittorio Emanuele II who became King of Italy (1900 – 1946) in July 1871.

In 1947 the Palazzo Quirinal became the official residence of the President of the Republic and although presidents have lived in it on and off ever since, in 1992 it was returned to being used only for official receptions.

The colossal marble statue of the horse tamers, grouped with an obelisk and a fountain, dominates it. The figures had been found in the ruins of the Baths of Constantine and Pope Sixtus V (1520 – 1590) ordered the magnificent horses to be restored. The red granite obelisk was brought to Rome from Egypt by Claudius in ACE 57 and placed at the entrance to the Mausoleum of Augustus, and finally set up in the Quirinal Piazza in 1781.

For twenty centuries those seeking to demonstrate their wealth, social, religious and political dominance built in the grand manner. They wanted to either defend or increase their role within the limits of the community’s toleration, while seeking to win approval or to incite the envy of others.

Their sweeping statements of art, design and style disseminated from Rome throughout Europe and then on to the rest of world.

‘Pale Death beats equally at the poor man’s gate and at the palaces of kings’.**

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011 – 2012

**Ancient Roman Poet Horace

*English Playwright William Shakespeare

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