TH E PA L AC E EXCLUSIVE TO VOGUE LIVING
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.