By keep­ing it in the fam­ily, and ap­ply­ing in­tox­i­cat­ing mod­ern touches through­out, a stately apart­ment in Rome’s re­mark­able Palazzo Orsini as­sumes the grandeur and sta­tus of pre­vi­ous cen­turies.


To the thou­sands of tourists who pass by it ev­ery day, Palazzo Orsini in the cen­tral Rome dis­trict of Par­i­one is a real cu­rios­ity, im­pos­si­bly perched on the 2000-year-old ruins of a mini-Colos­seum. How­ever, to Princess Mar­tine Orsini, this Re­nais­sance palace, which was built on top of the shell of the open-air The­atre of Mar­cel­lus in the 16th cen­tury, is also her cher­ished home. “The first time I came to Rome, when I was about 18, I passed by this ex­tra­or­di­nary build­ing in a taxi and was truly im­pressed by it,” says the princess. “Never did I think that one day I would marry an Ital­ian prince and live in it!” The French-born for­mer fi­nancier met and mar­ried Prince Domenico Napoleone Orsini in the 1970s, while both worked in Paris — his fam­ily is one of Rome’s most no­ble, its lin­eage dat­ing back to the 12th cen­tury. They have lived in Palazzo Orsini for more than 20 years, but in this sec­ond-floor apart­ment for only five. The palace was orig­i­nally home to the Orsini clan from the 18th cen­tury un­til the 1930s, when fam­ily head Filippo sold it in re­tal­i­a­tion to the in­fight­ing of his chil­dren about their in­her­i­tance. Then, in the 1950s, Bri­tish writer Dame Iris Origo bought it and di­vided it into four apart­ments. When this apart­ment came up for sale in 2012, Prince Domenico de­cided to bring it back into the fam­ily fold. “I was wait­ing a long time to have this one,” says his wife. “It’s the most beau­ti­ful house I’ve ever seen.” De­spite its grand pro­por­tions, the 1021-square-me­tre apart­ment — with its three bed­rooms, two bath­rooms, two din­ing rooms, a li­brary, kitchen, ter­race gar­den and swim­ming pool — was di­lap­i­dated af­ter years of be­ing rented out to tourists. “We had to re­store ev­ery­thing,” says Princess Mar­tine. “We had to prop up the ceil­ings and re­store the fres­coes; the par­quetry floor­ing was fall­ing apart and the doors needed strip­ping and re­fin­ish­ing.” Now, each room is more cap­ti­vat­ing than the next. Whether it is as­cend­ing a steep stair­case into the gilded en­trance hall with its mar­ble mo­tif of bears (the Orsini fam­ily em­blem) on the floor or tak­ing in the mag­nif­i­cent mono­chrome mu­rals of the ‘gal­le­ria’, this house proves the per­fect marriage be­tween old and new. For ex­am­ple, hand­painted Re­nais­sance fres­coes cover­ing ev­ery­thing from ceil­ings to walls col­lide with strik­ing pieces of mod­ern art that in­clude works by such pop art icons as Andy Warhol and Tom Wes­sel­mann. In the li­brary, “we tried to find out if a fresco lay un­der­neath the decoration on the ceil­ing, but the only thing we found is this”, says the princess, point­ing to the patch­work ef­fect of paint hav­ing peeled back in parts. “But it’s very nice to see this, so we left it like that.” An avid art col­lec­tor since her early twen­ties, Princess Mar­tine has hung one of the first paint­ings she bought — Wes­sel­mann’s Tit and Tele­phone — in the liv­ing room. “I de­cided from the be­gin­ning that I would only buy pieces I could hap­pily live with and that made me smile,” she says. A case in point is Damien Hirst’s I Still Love You — an in­stal­la­tion made of yel­low plas­tic tubs, pur­port­edly stor­ing dan­ger­ous sub­stances, locked in a blue cage. “It’s not ex­actly gor­geous but it’s fun,” she says. From room to room, art­works by con­tem­po­rary artists from Amer­ica to Italy and Am­s­ter­dam to Paris, like the naive paint­ing of French-Ro­ma­nian artist Victor Brauner or the avant-garde vi­brancy of Dutch artist Karel Ap­pel, bring a fresh­ness to oth­er­wise tra­di­tional set­tings. The iden­tity of the ar­ti­sans who cre­ated the fres­coes, some dat­ing back as far as the 1700s, re­main sadly un­known. “We have only three sig­na­tures, marked by the artists’ ini­tials and the year they were painted,” says the princess. If the apart­ment sits atop the an­cient ruins like a golden crown, then at its heart lies the glittering jewel of a mag­i­cal, se­cluded gar­den. Lush and abun­dant with cit­rus trees and vines, it is filled only with quiet and bird song de­spite its cen­tral location. It’s the ideal spot for Sun­day lunch with friends or evening drinks spilling out from par­ties in the gal­le­ria. In win­ter, the Orsi­nis like to en­ter­tain in the din­ing room, with its high win­dows invit­ing in the leafy green out­side. “But even if I am on my own, I feel com­fort­able here… and I feel I am liv­ing with some very nice ghosts,” says the princess with a laugh. Palazzo Orsini is once again a wel­com­ing and sur­pris­ingly mod­ern home that res­onates with fam­ily his­tory and is grounded by Rome’s foun­da­tions, quite lit­er­ally. “If you have a beau­ti­ful thing like this, it’s your re­spon­si­bil­ity to main­tain it,” says Princess Mar­tine. “Even if it means deal­ing with win­dows that can’t be in­su­lated, as the build­ing is listed, and wa­ter comes in to ruin the cur­tains. If you re­ally want some­thing to be alive and thrive, you have to live in and en­joy it.”

this page: Princess Mar­tine Orsini. op­po­site page: The DIN­ING ROOM, which the princess refers to as the “win­ter house”, leads out to the ver­dant gar­den.

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