Rent This 17th-Century Roman Palazzo Designed by Vatican Artists
My husband wants to see the Colosseum. I leave him to it; I cannot bear the idea of ticking off a tourist site when for two days we are living the ultimate like-a-local fantasy, as residents in a private palace. I learned about this four-bedroom fiefdom, the Palazzo Odescalchi, from a well-connected French friend who somehow gets to sleep in most of the grand houses of Europe. It has just been converted into the finest rental in the city, stuffed with 16th-century Flemish tapestries, ancient Greek black-figure vases, and a painting of Saint Joseph by one of the stars of the Italian Baroque, Bernardo Strozzi. I thought it might feel like staying in a museum, but no matter: After a month spent researching a book in Arctic Siberia, I was in desperate need of sleep, and not about to pass up an hour-long bath in a room clad with ancient Tuscan marble for the sake of a tourist bun-fight. I try every one of the elixirs arranged beside the tub on a silver salver—Ortigia bath salts, Carthusia eau de parfum, Santa Maria Novella soaps—then lie in bed all afternoon, snuggled up in a gilded room with Leo Tolstoy. Not until cocktail hour do I emerge to see if my husband has returned from his excursion.
I look for him down the corridor that runs the length of the palace’s piano nobile, which connects the five grand reception rooms with doors aligned in an enfilade. I wander onto the main balcony—a Baroque extravagance designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini—and watch a priest in a cassock run across the street below. My husband, it turns out, has gone nowhere. I find him hanging out in bare feet on a scarlet velvet sofa, scanning the Sonos music system while beside him stands a vase of blue delphiniums that graze the hem of The Sitting Lady, a Van Dyck painting. My husband, who designs camping meal kits, is an outdoorsman who spends half his year in a tent. He loathes anything that smacks of grandeur. But Palazzo Odescalchi has a curious effect: It makes the traveler feel at home, albeit in a fantastical parallel reality.
This is a feeling of intimacy at odds with the palace’s original designed effect, to impress and intimidate plebeians like me. One of the most important private homes in the city, Palazzo Odescalchi stands about a third of a mile from the so-called Umbilicus Mundi, or “Navel of the World.” Under Imperial Rome, this was ground zero, the still point at the center of the turning world from which all distances were measured. Fittingly, the palazzo’s owners have always been at the heart of Roman society. Cardinal Flavio Chigi, nephew to Pope Alexander VII, laid the foundations in the 17th century. The palazzo then fell into the hands of the Odescalchis, who also had a pope in the family (Innocent XI). The current owner, Princess Maria Pace Odescalchi, spent the last two years renovating her inheritance, working with the city’s leading restorers and historians to continue the family’s tradition of patronage and preservation. (She and her husband, an Italian businessman, also own a castle in Bracciano, where Tom Cruise married Katie Holmes in 2006.) No cost was spared, with the installation of almost 1,100 square feet of marble from ancient quarries, some 660 feet of Rubelli and San Leucio silk damasks hung as window drapes, as well as central air conditioning. “It was difficult to find the right line between a museum and a home,” she told me later. “I needed to combine serious works of art with the soul you find in objects that remind you of family.” The Italian art historian Professor Paolo Alei put it another way over a 10-euro pizza on my first evening in the city, citing the theory of luxury posited by Giovanni Pontano, the 16th-century humanist philosopher. “Art must be commensurate with your own wealth without breaking the barriers of decorum,” Alei repeated. “A sense of propriety, and appropriateness.”
Decorum. I like that word; it’s the restraint that saves money-is-no-object spending from the pastiche of, say, Dubai. In the palace’s interiors, it shows up in playful subversion of Renaissance scale through brightly stenciled walls that resemble embossed leather or silk damask. “I wanted to pull the ceiling down toward the floor, to use color so these huge rooms felt closer to jewel boxes. It’s more nurturing this way,” Odescalchi told me. It’s in details like the little silver dishes I find among the Meissen figurines filled with Perugina Rossana bonbons, a favorite of the princess’s grandmother. Then there is the food, created by the family cook, Mary Ann. Every meal resembles a Renaissance painting—garganelli pasta with saffron and zucchini flowers, ravioli filled with fresh mozzarella, sea bass baked in parchment—but doesn’t leave you stuffed.
This interplay—between grandeur and homiest detail, technology and history—is sewn together with such conviction, the palace feels more embracing than any hotel I have stayed in. The princess and her family live on another floor, out of sight unless asked for, allowing us to believe that the palace is ours, which my husband is getting better at by the minute. He flicks the track to 50 Cent—he says he’s looking for the album Get Rich or Die Tryin’—and cranks the volume, sending tremors through the water of a marble fountain in the Sala della Fontana. Odescalchi is thinking she might create a Wunderkammer here, after Athanasius Kircher. This 17th-century German Jesuit father, friend of the pope, Borromini, and Galileo, amassed an extraordinary collection of worldly souvenirs brought back to Italy by Jesuit missionaries: a stuffed armadillo, magic lanterns, Egyptian obelisks. The original Wunderkammer was located four blocks from the palace and dismantled after Kircher’s death.
I don’t quite know what Wunderkammer means, but it doesn’t matter. It has a poetry that describes this house—renovated to perfection and instilled with noble decorum at the center of a world most never get to see, much less live in, for a precious few days.
How to Rent Palazzo Odescalchi
This palace is available on request by emailing [email protected]. It’s staffed by a butler and maid, and further concierge services (at extra cost) can incorporate tours of the city and surroundings led by personal contacts of the owner, Princess Maria Pace Odescalchi. They include academics in art and architecture, fashion designers, and experts on Italian cuisine, wine, and gardens. The advantage of staying here is access to an elite black book, and even tables at the family’s favorite restaurants.
Source: Condé Nast Traveller.