Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Saturday, 25 April 2009 11:43 UK

From 'palazzo' to pastures new

As correspondent David Willey leaves his apartment in the 1,000-roomed palazzo in the centre of Rome where he has lived and worked for the past two decades, he reflects on the microcosm of daily life in one of the few remaining privately-owned homes of the former Roman and papal nobility.

David Willey outside the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj
David Willey has been the BBC's Rome correspondent since 1971

I have been privileged to spend almost a third of my life in this Roman palace.

Now the moment has come to move out of the palazzo, I am realising how attached I have grown to my princely, yet alas now sadly polluted, urban surroundings, which I have chosen to exchange for the cleaner air of the countryside.

The neighbourhood may still be home to nobility and I am sure not many of my BBC colleagues look up at a painted ceiling in their office, but living even at a surprisingly modest rent, inside a 500-year-old building - where by law you are prevented from making any modern improvements - can be uncomfortable.

In summer, the heat inside and the traffic noise outside is pretty stifling. In winter, you tend to freeze.

I can also do without the exhaust fumes and dust particles of the eight million cars, trucks and motorcycles which now circulate every day in the Italian capital.

'Dolce Vita' Rome

Over the years I have witnessed the growing degradation of the inner city, the mindless graffiti which now deface even newly-restored buildings and the disappearance one by one of the small local shops and artisans - the butcher, the greengrocer, the barber, the antique seller - as their rents became too costly.

Trevi fountain
The Trevi fountain was made popular by films such as La Dolce Vita

They have been replaced by trashy and tasteless trinket and souvenir stores, spreading like a fungus, particularly in the area of the Trevi fountain just across the Via Del Corso, Rome's noisy, busy and crowded high street.

I remember as a student half a century ago in "Dolce Vita" Rome, seeing with astonishment a flock of sheep being driven through the city centre by their shepherd along the then semi-deserted Corso early one Sunday morning.

Today the Corso with its narrow sidewalks can be dangerous for pedestrians venturing to cross the road and the other Saturday afternoon it was the scene of a knife fight between rival gangs of youths.

Grand heritage

When I first came to live in Rome it seemed normal for foreigners to rent stately apartments with painted ceilings from cash-strapped princesses who were only too glad to have solvent tenants.

Although all former royal titles were abolished when the Italian republic was set up after World War II, the Roman nobility seem to have successfully survived all attempts to downsize them. They cling desperately to their heritage and continue to use their grandiose titles with aplomb.

The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj into which I settled, is situated in the very heart of Rome.

It is one huge stately home which defrays expenses and pays its taxes by opening some of its art treasures to the public for a modest admission fee, and occasionally hosts corporate and charitable events in the gilded baroque ballroom on the piano nobile, the first floor.

The palace extends for a whole city block and contains a world famous art collection started by a relative of the man who we - who live in the palace - still call "our Pope".

Unforgettable painting

Innocent X was elected pontiff in 1644 and inside the palace you can still see his papal throne with its red damask canopy.

A woman at a Christie's auction house in London looks at 'study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez' painted by Francis Bacon (Photo: JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Bacon's Popes series were inspired by Velasquez's painting from 1650

Innocent had his portrait painted here by the Spanish royal court artist Diego Velasquez.

The portrait - once you have seen it you will never forget it - had never left the building since it was painted more than 300 years ago until it was sent on temporary loan to the National Gallery in London a year or two back.

It is one of the world's great masterpieces of portraiture. The Pamphilj Pope's cynical, worldly gaze inspired a 20th Century master, Francis Bacon, to do a whole series of deconstructed portraits, one of which, I discovered only the other day, actually hangs inside the Vatican's own collection of modern art.

Our Pamphilj Pope Innocent descended from a bourgeois family in Umbria. His uncle was a Cardinal.

Our high ceilinged apartment, situated just above the chapel, was originally used for storing and repairing some of the family's valuable tapestries.

Influential neighbours

From my office window on the third floor I look down over the piazza where exactly 400 years ago Galileo came to show off his new invention, the telescope. The square is now crammed with cars.

I remember fondly our former freelance car parker Pino who for years ran a lucrative private valet parking service. What a luxury it was to drive up and hand him the car keys.

Our immediate neighbours include one grumpy retired art critic, a posse of nouveau riche lawyers, and an Italian widow of advanced years, who having heard I was something to do with television, asked me one Christmas to repair her broken TV set.

Then there is the Anglican centre run by an amiable Australian Bishop who is the Archbishop of Canterbury's personal envoy to the Vatican.

There is also a tiny delicatessen which sells smoked salmon.

Oh, and most important, we have on the ground floor, the Palazzo bar, the Cafe Doria, a wonderful watering hole where Silvio Berlusconi's bodyguards - he lives in another rented palace just around the corner - come to drink their espressos.

In the Cafe Doria on a Saturday you may sometimes bump into the new generation of our own princely Doria family who have just come into town from the country where they live most of the time, as I intend to do in the future. Goodbye palazzo, I shall miss you.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 April, 2009 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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