Casina of Cardinal Bessarion – a summer house from the Renaissance
In the past, this summer house was located outside of Rome. Its present-day shape is from the XV century, but it also contains older remains, going as far back as ancient times, covered up during subsequent modernizations. Underground, traces of tombs from the I century B.C. were discovered, but there are also fragments of a black and white floor and remains of buildings from the I and II centuries. During the Middle Ages, there was a hospital here, and later a Benedictine Sisters monastery.
In the second half of the XV century, the building was taken over by the titular cardinal of Tusculum – Bessarion (1449-1472) whose diocese included the nearby Church of San Cesareo. Then the residence was expanded by the first-floor loggia. This story includes the main chambers, while the upper floor houses small living quarters. The ground floor had a kitchen with a fireplace. After Bessarion's death, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Zeno moved into the house. In subsequent centuries the building was transformed. Its walls housed the Collegium Clementino, and then the building served as a tavern. The recovery of its Renaissance shape began in the twenties of the XX century, and in 1933 the picturesque mansion was used by Benito Mussolini for official meetings. The works were continued until the seventies of the previous century. Ultimately the structure retained its original form and was fitted with furniture from that time period. In this way, a rare example of a suburban Renaissance residence was recovered, which along with the adjacent garden created a suggestive scenery, one fit for a man who wanted to contemplate the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, namely cardinal Bessarion – an erudite and an expert on ancient philosophy. Unfortunately, no documents have been preserved which would indicate that it was he who was responsible for the Renaissance shape of the
casina, or if perhaps it was the doing of the next resident and at the same time the next bishop of Tusculum – the aforementioned Cardinal Giovanni Battista Zeno. The coats of arms painted in the rooms may point to the latter, a Venetian and nepot to Pope Paul II.
The loggia of the building where notables rested and welcomed guests far from the stifling presence of Rome was an important location connecting the garden with the house. Steps lead inside, while its arcades are supported by slender columns. The loggia is richly decorated with paintings. It is surrounded by a verge, which has elements of stylized acanthus leaves, angel heads, and vines, as well as a motif of an aedicula, but above all (partially damaged) landscape scenes with fragments of rocks, a castle, and a church submerged in the greenness of trees and meadows. The loggia was to be an extension of the actual garden, a window opening onto the imagined garden. Were these paintings made during the times of cardinal Zeno, or perhaps later – we do not know? An indication that they were painted in the middle of the XVI century may be the coat of arms of yet another owner of the house – cardinal Crescenzi, who had resided there at the time.
The rooms directly adjacent to the loggia charm with their paintings with delicate plant patterns. In the first of these, we can see stylized vines, heavy foliage festoons, branches made into bouquets, and subtle flowers, among which we can notice putti as well as the coats of arms of cardinal Zeno. All these elements seem to be suspended on the wall, which provides an effect of illusion emphasized by the appropriate chiaroscuro. The room is finished off with a decorative heavy verge consisting of (similar to those found in the loggia) motifs of vines and acanthus flowers. In the niche, on the other hand, we can see an interesting series of frescoes with representations of St. Margaret of Antioch (?), St. Catherine (with a wheel), and St. James (?). The rest of the fresco has been destroyed. The representations of the saints are not the only thing that historians do not agree on. They also have different interpretations when it comes to the date of the creation of these frescoes – some say it was the end of the XIV century and connect it with the existing hospital chapel, others place it in the middle of the XV century.
Another interesting room is the neighboring room with walls decorated with a motif of spirals created out of acanthus leaves, with a pomegranate fruit cut in half in the middle – a fruit often encountered in Renaissance gardens, but one with an important symbolic meaning – in religious art, the motif of the pomegranate is associated with the sacrifice of Christ.
The ground floor housed the kitchen with a large fireplace and space for the servants.
The garden, presently left alone, with its only decoration being a headless antique statue, does not even remotely resemble the one from centuries ago. In the past, it was filled with flower beds surrounded by a hedge, and herb patches, among which one could walk and rest taking in the sweet smells of the summer. Today it is simply a meadow covered with stone pines.
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