Monday, August 1, 2016

Roman Holiday

This week, in Technicolor, we’re in Rome, where I recently escaped for a few days.

It was a super-private visit. I headed for a dreamy stay at the new Portrait Roma hotel, and decided to focus on art, architecture, and staying close to the hotel, walking.

I discovered the wonderful (quite private) new restaurant at the Villa Medici. I booked a timed visit to the Galleria Borghese. It was a magical long weekend, personal and meditative. I wandered in the Borghese gardens, and gazed at paintings and sculptures in church interiors.

It’s a quick read this week—with lots of discoveries, no filter.

First let’s check into the Portrait Roma hotel, dash up to the hotel’s divine roof terrace, and begin our Roman Holiday. 

The Portrait Roma hotel is a sister of the Portrait Firenze hotel in Florence. You’ll recall I wrote about the Portrait Firenze last fall, when I went truffle hunting. Both hotels are owned by the Ferragamo family, and the management is superb.

The architect and designer of both hotels is Michele Bönan, planner and interior designer. The Portrait Roma opened in 2006, but it feels new and fresh. Staff is attentive and charming. The feeling is rather like a private apartment. The lobby is discreet. And when you want to stroll out to find your favourite Gucci loafers or a Bulgari necklace, you’re there in a minute. Bliss.

From the roof terrace, there’s a 360 degree view and you feel close to everything. Still, the hotel is tranquil and discreet, and the suites feel very quiet. There’s no restaurant on-site, but you’ll enjoy a wonderfully fresh breakfast, and staff will bring you lovely morsels from nearby restaurants. It’s very polished and perfect—yet feels modern and relaxed.

Discovering the Villa Medici

I first visited the very imposing Villa Medici—the French Academy in Rome—as a student, and have always had a fascination for the concept, the grand villa, the gardens, the inscrutability.

On my recent holiday, I fell in love with it all over again, lingering in the gardens. In particular, I discovered the Colbert restaurant, which opened in May. It’s very hidden, with no signage to speak of and it’s a favourite for French students, academy fellows. It’s feels far from the throng. Very far, indeed from the via Condotti just down the hill. Escape. 

Another reason to fall under the spell of the Villa Medici is that Balthus was a director there—and his artistic vision is still part of the mystery and allure. Ask your guide about the rooms painted by Balthus.

For a tour with a guide:

The key: turn up at the Villa Medici, ask at the front desk about afternoon tours, and make it work. English tours are infrequent, and you cannot visit without a guide and group. Good luck! It’s an adventure.

The Colbert Restaurant: It’s on the second floor. There’s no sign…ask the guard.
The light-filled space, with panoramic views over Rome, is lovely in the morning, and glorious in afternoon light. Go, sip wine, relax, nibble on treats, perhaps request a Salade Nicoise, a glass of Frascati, a piece of cake. Linger. Sip a smoothie. La Dolce Vita. Times and information about the Colbert don’t appear to be listed on the website yet. 

History of the French Academy in Rome
The original creation of the French Academy in Rome was part of the policy of great works and ambitious cultural statements of King Louis XlV at the end of the 17th century. It's prestigious to be accepted as a resident--in art and music and film. I met some 'pensioners' as they are called. One French conceptual artist was composing music and abstract sound based on lightwaves. Marvelous.Thanks to Louis XIV whose grand works transformed the Louvre, the Tuileries, and Versailles. The Academy in Rome was created in 1666 under the leadership of Colbert, Le Brun and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It welcomed artists who won the First Prize of Rome and several protégés of powerful lords. Young artists pensioned by the king got broadened training, being in touch with Rome and Italy.

Rome Favorites

For my happy and personal weekend, I stayed within walking distance from the Portrait Roma hotel. The hotel is twenty minutes walk from the Pantheon, and five from the Piazza del Popolo, and fifteen from the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, and five minutes from the Villa Medici and the top of the Spanish Steps.

You know my passion is architecture and art and gardens, and my favorites in Rome usually mean seeing all three in one location.

1. Swooning in the Galleria Borghese: book online. I propose 11am, as you will then have 2 hours to gaze, circumambulate, look at statuary and sculptures from all perspectives. Small-guided groups come and go. I decided to make my own discoveries, but occasionally listened in to the most informed guides who spoke with flair and insight. Bernini’s ‘Apollo and Daphne’ is the highlight for me. As well, take time to study Bernini’s Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius’. Find Caravaggio. Head exploding. I could visit daily, and find new surprises, portrait, a little bronze, odd paintings, and marble columns, gilt frames. Thrilling.

2. Meandering in the Borghese gardens: Wander out of the Galleria Borghese in any direction. I start with a map, and then get lost in the maze of pathways and streets that wind through lush parkland, with views of villas and ancient trees. In summer, the meadows are blooming with daisies and birds are flitting and chirping. Stop at the Pincio, then walk down the stairs to the Piazza del Popolo.

3. Chasing Caravaggio: For a fantastic and passionate weekend, you could simply ‘chase Caravaggio’ around Rome to see his paintings. I propose starting at the Galleria Borghese, which has twelve, then to San Luigi dei Francesi church (near the Piazza Navona). There in the Contarelli Chapel you can see the "Saint Matthew" cycle: "The Calling of Saint Matthew," "Inspiration of Saint Matthew," and "The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.". Look at the angels leaping, figures flying and fantastic compositions. Some of my favorite paintings of all time. Caravaggio is also vividly present in Santa Maria del Popolo (under renovation, but check) and of course at the Vatican.

4. Hanging out at the Villa Medici: I could have spent a week at the Villa Medici. It’s important to book a ticket for one of the informal guided afternoon tours. Mostly, they’re in Italian or French.

The tour will take you out to the gardens—and it is great to know that on some weekends, you can also visit resident artists living and working on the property. Colbert restaurant is open in the grand second floor. You may have to ask a guard to direct you past the ‘velvet rope’. Lunch, a cool fresh juice, a morning coffee and pastry, or a sultry afternoon salad in the garden are all to be discovered. I loved and adored watching flirtatious young Italian women students with their young, handsome Italian tutors ‘studying’ at the tables. Most guests are French or Italian. Wonderful atmosphere, with views over Rome from the front windows. Delightful wait staff. Note the garden terrace is open in summer.

5. Encountering the Galleria Doria Pamphilj: While the Spanish Steps are under renovation (funded by Bulgari), a quick walk from the Portrait Roma takes you to the Doria Pamphilj gallery/ palazzo. Ideally, book ahead for a private tour, or Jonathan Pamphilj’s audio guide. Friend him on Facebook, by the way. Encounter Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, and Velasquez, priceless. Walk around to the Pantheon afterwards.

6. Churches as Art: I have a great passion for religious/ spiritual architecture and perhaps next time in Rome, I’ll simply visit notable historic chapels and churches. This time, I loved Santa Maria della Vittoria on XX Septembre, with the Cornaro Chapel, and ‘The Ecstasy of St. Therese’ by Bernini. Bernini is also at work at the Sant’Isidoro church, a Baroque masterpiece, off Via Vittorio Veneto on Via Degli Artisti. To love: step into a magnificent church/ chapel and you are likely to be almost alone as you spend moments in contemplation, and leave the bustle and whirr and noise outside. The lingering fragrance of incense is always calming. One evening, I came upon a very traditional service, with young monks singing Gregorian chants. Highly recommended.

Happy travels and discoveries.

Where to Stay

I loved the idea of staying at a small private hotel with just fourteen suites and studios. The Portrait Roma is hidden in the elegant center of Rome. For me, the ultimate luxury was taking breakfast on the hotel’s roof terrace, and returning there at sunset for a Bellini or a Negroni or Campari and soda. It's the perfect perch to watch clouds and light flicker across the rooftops and this neighborhood.

The hotel is located adjacent to the Via Condotti, and near the architectural harmony of Trinità dei Monti church perched high above. Walk out the front door—in any direction—and within a few minutes you can be sipping an espresso, trying on Gucci’s latest embroidered gowns or rings (I love Alessandro Michele’s wit and charm) or choosing new luxe sheets at Frette. 

Portrait Roma
Via Bocca di Leone, 23
00187 – Rome
phone +39 055 2726 4000
fax +39 06 691 90 625

Villa Medici
Académie de France à Rome - Villa Medici 
Viale Trinità dei Monti, 1 00187 Roma 

T. +39 06 67611 

Check the various Galleria Borghese/ Roman museum sites, to reserve a timed ticket. Note that you cannot enter without a pre-booked ticket.

Images of the Portrait Roma with kind permission of the Lungarno Collection.

Images of Villa Medici gardens and interiors by Diane Dorrans Saeks.