The palace of wonders. Interview with Prospero Colonna
“It’s always a thrill to be in such beautiful spaces. There is always something new to discover or be impressed by. It’s not something you can ever get used to, or not notice.”
Prince Prospero Colonna, who since his childhood has lived in the magnificent family home on Piazza Santi Apostoli in Rome, shows no uncertainty and is easy to believe: the halls of Palazzo Colonna offer wonder upon wonder, as they have for seven centuries, welcoming twenty-three generations of his aristocratic family as well as thousands of guests and staff.
A single article could never describe all the masterpieces contained in this Baroque treasure chest of art. There are works by Cosmé Tura and Pinturicchio, Gaspar van Wittel and Veronese, Guido Reni and Pietro da Cortona, Guercino and Annibale Carracci, Bronzino and Salvator Rosa.
It would be complicated to even just list all the famous figures from European and international history, from the 14th century to present day, who stayed or visited the palace’s amazing five hundred rooms: there were emperors and poets, musicians and artists, men of the cloth, military leaders and kings. Not to mention movie stars!
From Louis IV the Bavarian – who came to Palazzo Colonna in 1328, after being crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire – to Francesco Petrarca, who stayed for a few days in 1341, when he was about to be proclaimed poet laureate on the Capitoline Hill; from Michelangelo to Caravaggio; from Saint Charles Borromeo in the second half of the 1500s to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, summoned in 1674 for a consultation about the famous Gallery – which a few centuries later would become the set of “Roman Holidays”, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck…
Not to mention the historical figures in the Colonna family itself, such as pope Martin V – born Oddone Colonna, whose election in 1417 ended the Western Schism – and Marcantonio II, hero of the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.
There were also countless “nobodies” who were welcomed in Palazzo Colonna: no less than three thousand Romans – to give just an example – found refuge here in 1527, during the terrible Sack of Rome carried out by the mutinous troops of Charles V.
Prince Prospero Colonna – now in charge of managing the splendid building, which opens to the public every Saturday morning – was kind enough to grant us this interview.
What is it like to belong to one of the most famous noble families in Europe? What responsibilities and privileges does it entail, in the 21st century?
There are certainly more responsibilities than privileges in it. I am a man of my own time, with deep respect for the past. I see myself as the temporary custodian of Palazzo Colonna in Rome and Palazzo Colonna in Paliano, which are the wonderful legacy of my family’s history.
What are the challenges in managing and upholding the value of such an important estate? How do you face them?
Managing a great historical home, and keeping it regularly open to the public is quite complex. The main issues are ordinary and extraordinary maintenance, organizing the museum activities, managing personnel, relations with institutions and public relations in general. Striking the right balance is crucial, to provide solid and transparent management of a delicate cultural activity.
An essential part of our country’s historical, artistic and architectural heritage belongs to the descendants of aristocratic families. Is there a risk we might lose this legacy?
All you have to do is visit ADSI’s website (Associazione dimore storiche italiane, or Italian Historic Houses Association) to grasp the importance of the historical and artistic treasures owned by private citizens in Italy. We face a real risk of losing these outstanding cultural assets today – due to fiscal, hereditary reasons or to the difficulties in the collaboration between public and private, or between different local interests.
Nevertheless, your efforts have been successful… Federico Zeri once said that Italian museums are poorly managed, and that the only collections worth visiting were those owned by the Colonna and Doria Pamphilj families. What is your secret?
I knew Federico Zeri – and his strong personality – well. He made that statement a long time ago, and Italy’s cultural offer has hugely improved since then; our country now has many excellent museums, both big and small. That said, the Colonna Collection has been curated and managed for years with dedication and passion. We put our heart in it, and sometimes that does make a difference…
We’ve seen a constant increase in Chinese tourism in the past few years, and Rome is obviously a favorite destination. Have you come up with any particular strategy to promote Palazzo Colonna in China?
We have had the pleasure of opening our doors to Chinese visitors for years now. Our website (www.galleriacolonna.it) is translated into nine languages, including Chinese, and we have had our book “Visit to Palazzo Colonna” and DVD translated into Chinese as well. Visitors can follow a complete tour of the Gallery in Chinese, available at the entrance. Recently, we’ve also sent some of our communication materials to the Italy-China Association and to all the main travel agencies and tour operators in the Chinese market.
Who are the figures you feel closest to, in your family’s history?
I am grateful and ideally attached to all the ancestors who traced the millenary history of my family. Among the many, I can pick three in particular: Pope Martin V, Oddone Colonna, for everything he did for the Church and the rebirth of Rome; poetess Vittoria Colonna, who was Michelangelo’s friend and inspiration; and my grandmother Isabelle, for her devotion to Palazzo Colonna and its art collections.
You mentioned Vittoria Colonna and Donna Isabelle: your family has included outstanding female figures, such as Anna Borromeo and Maria Mancini for example. How important were women in the history of the Colonna family?
Women always had a very important role in the history of my family. Often a crucial one, indeed, even in recent times.
The Colonna family always had close ties to the Church, with one Pope and many cardinals serving in Rome. Is that connection still alive?
Yes, absolutely. It’s alive and runs deep.