Guide To Palazzo Colonna: A Baroque Jewel Hidden in the Heart of Rome
Updated: Feb 3
Here's my guide to visiting the beautiful art-filled Palazzo Colonna in Rome Italy. You've likely never heard of it. But if you'd like to have an aristocratic private palace all to yourself in Rome (who wouldn't?), this is the place.
Most travelers to Rome are busy cramming the most famous Roman landmarks into their fast paced Rome itinerary. This means they miss out on all the secret hidden gems Rome has on offer, for the slower traveler, repeat visitor, or crowd phobic tourist. Even in high season, Rome has so many layers you can enjoy its cultural riches in relative comfort.
Among these hidden gems are the opulent palazzos of Rome, owned by ancient noble families. Most are open to the public on select days of the week. One such gem is the regal Palazzo Colonna, on Via della Pilotta, where the noble Colonna family still resides after eight generations. It will likely leave you speechless.
Rome's grandest family built themselves a grand private palace that was meant to impress. You might walk right by the staid facade without noticing it. In Rome, you never know from the outside what you'll find on the inside.
Palazzo Colonna is in the heart of Rome right near Piazza Venezia at the top of the Roman Forum, opposite the Colosseum. You leave the hurly burly of central Rome and disappear into a quiet sanctuary of Renaissance-Baroque splendor.
A Short History of Palazzo Colonna & the Colonna Family
Palazzo Colonna is one of the oldest palaces in Rome. It's also the largest private palace in Rome.
During construction and subsequent improvements, the Colonna family let the money flow. The resulting effect is a beautiful and lavish assemblage of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Roman Rococo art and architecture. To top it off, it's done in unfailing good taste and beautiful preserved, with the family's personal objects still in place.
It all began in the 13th century. A count from outside Rome (the nearby town of Colonna) settled on Quirinal Hill. He built the palace on the site of a roman temple. The fortunes of the Colonna family prospered, through arranged marriages, trade, politics, and ties to the church. The Colonna became powerful politicians and military leaders, not just socialites.
The Colonna family included Pope Martin V and over a dozen cardinals. Martin V presided over the end of the "schism" in the catholic church, when the papal seat finally returned to Rome from Avignon. Martin V made Palazzo Colonna a papal seat. From there, he plotted the revival of Rome and survived the sack of Rome by Holy Emperor Charles V.
One Colonna family member, Maria Mancini Mazzarino, was a feisty favorite of Louis XIV of France. Rumor holds that she was perhaps a paramour of the Sun King. At one point, disguised as a man, she ran off to France.
The great Baroque sculptor Bernini was a frequent guest at Palazzo Colonna. His more incorrigible rival, Caravaggio, hid in the palace, after killing a man in Rome. The Colonna family helped him escape to Naples.
The poetess Vittoria Colonna was an intimate friend and muse of Michaelangelo. They often met together at the palace. The pair exchanged letters and sonnets for many years. So close was their friendship that Michaelangelo painted Vittoria into his famous Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums.
Throughout the palace, you'll find the decorative motif of the Colonna family -- a single column topped with a crown -- in almost every room. You can't forget for a single moment that this is Colonna territory.
Palazzo Colonna Interiors
If you like the over-the-top ethos of the Baroque period, you'll conclude that the Palazzo Colonna is one of the dreamiest palazzos in existence. The word “breathtaking” comes to mind.
Aside from all the gilding, this Baroque jewel has many wonders to explore -- a terrific art collection, stunning frescoed ceilings and walls, the private apartments of Princess Isabelle, and the Pio Pavilion.
The walls of the entire residence are covered with Old Master artworks by Pinturicchio, Carracci, Guido Reni, Tintoretto, Salvator Rosa, Bronzino, Guercino, Veronese, Vanvitelli, and many others.
As you walk through the family's rooms, you can admire multi-colored marble floors, authentic period furniture, lavish tapestries, and intricate crystal chandeliers. The more intimate living spaces connect to an outdoor arcade. Beautiful frescos and tromp l'ceil paintings connect the interior and exterior spaces.
The Colonna Gallery has a lovely collection of in situ art. Almost every inch of the walls is covered in artworks, piled one of top of the other. All the ceiling are decorated.
The gallery was originally conceived as a huge state room, to celebrate the victory of the Christian fleet over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The commander of the papal fleet -- family scion and warrior Marcantonio II Colonna -- is depicted on the vault of the Great Hall and the Hall of the Battle Column.
Commissioned in the 17th century by Cardinal Girolamo I and his nephew Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna, the gallery was inaugurated 100 years later by Filippo II. The original architect was Antonio del Grande. At the end of the 17th century, he was given an assist by such luminaries as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Johan Paul Schor, and Carlo Fontana.
While there are many rooms, the four main highlights of the Colonna Gallery are: The Great Hall, The Blue Room, The Hall of the Battle Column, and The Hall of the Landscapes.
The most magnificent room is the Great Hall. It's a Versailles-like gem, akin to the famous Hall of Mirrors but even longer. It stuns with sculptures, mirrors, and 270 paintings set in golden frames. The ceiling fresco depicts The Battle of Leptano.
Over the doors, carved and gilded military standards explode out of the over-scaled marble moldings. A double row of Murano chandeliers hangs in front of the windows along both sides of the gallery. Between the windows, Mario de Fiori painted enormous mirrors with vases of flowers and frolicking cherubs. Beneath them, marble table tops are supported by writhing Ottoman slaves.
The Great Hall has two separate anterooms, marked off from the main space by two columns. The west anteroom was painted by Sebastiano Ricci in 1693-95 with the magnificent Allegory of Marcantonio Colonna's Victory at Lepanto. In the east anteroom, Giuseppe Chiari painted The Apotheosis of Marcantonio Colonna in 1698-1700.
The Great Hall was used as a filming location for the movie Roman Holiday. It also has an actual cannonball lodged in its marble stair, which is a relic of the 1849 siege of Rome.
The most priceless pieces of the Colonna collection are paintings by Bruegel (older and younger), Tintoretto, Andra del Sarto, and Paolo Veronese. The Colonna's most famous painting is Annibale Carracci's remarkable The Bean Eater. There are also several good Bronzino works, including his sensual Venus, Cupid, and a Satyr, in the Hall of the Battle Column.
The Apartment of Princess Isabelle
Isabelle Colonna was born in Sursock, from a wealthy family of Byzantine origin. She fell in love with Prince Marcantonio, who brought her to Italy where she became an aristocratic socialite.
After the fall of the monarchy, Isabelle became a sort of “substitute queen," a player in the informal politics of Rome. Clad in whopping cabochon emeralds, she was the 20th century protector of Colonna Palace, saved it during WWII, and was largely responsible for opening it to the public. She died in 1984 at age 96.
The Princess Isabelle Apartments are in a 15th century wing of the palace. There, she received many royals, including Queen Elizabeth. The beautiful apartments have a theatrical and almost Venetian-like vibe, they're so extravagant. The furnishings and arrangements are exactly as they appeared when the Princess died in 1984.
This is where you'll find a collection of small paintings on copper by Jan Breughel the Elder. The delicate frescos (some by Pinturicchio) depict the pastoral countryside. You can almost hear the birds chirping.
The Hall of the Fountainis literally the stuff of legend. The ceiling is decorated with elaborate Renaissance frescoes featuring Greek and Roman heroes. Near the wall rests a surviving panel of a scattered Renaissance altarpiece. The fountain itself is a 15th century marble basin mounted on an ancient frieze-covered base.
The Pio Pavilion is dedicated to Princess Donna Sveva Colonna. Highlights are the Cornucopia Room, the Room of the Baldachin, the Galleriola, and the Room of the Majolica. The tapestry collection depicts moments in the life of Alexander the Great.
Palazzo Colonna Gardens
I didn't really get a chance to enjoy the gardens because it was raining on my visit. But this is a space where art, nature, and history intertwine. There's a very pretty large fountain with mosaics. You also have a beautiful view of Rome, including the Altar of the Fatherland monument.
Practical Information and Tips For Visiting the Palazzo Colonna:
Hours: Open every Saturday from 9:00 am to 1:15 pm (last entry). There's a guided tour at noon. You may also book a private tour Monday through Friday.
Address: Entrance on Via della Pilotta, 17
Tickets & Prices: galleriacolonna.it
Phone: +39 06 6784350
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