Gothic revival atop the heirlooms of antiquity: villa mills and the Palatine Hill, c. 1818–1926

MONDAY 13 DECEMBER, 18.00-19.30 CET

Tommaso Zerbi (BSR; Edinburgh)

This event will be in English.

This event will take place via Zoom and requires advance registration. Please click here to reserve your place.

A limited number of in-person spaces are also available. Everyone attending an event in Rome must pre-register using the link below, and will be required to present a valid Covid vaccination pass.

In 1818, the Honourable Charles Andrew Mills acquired a property with the English archaeologist Sir William Gell. Soon after acquiring this property, according to H. V. Morton — or, for some others, after its acquisition, in 1846, by Colonel Robert Smith — the pre-existing villa was turned into ‘shades of Strawberry Hill and Fonthill Abbey’. This medievalist intervention might not seem surprising in the age of Georgian/Victorian Gothic and Sir Walter Scott’s Medievalism. Yet Villa Mills, formerly Villa Spada, was not located in Britain, nor in any of its colonies, but, surprisingly enough, in Rome. Originally erected in the sixteenth century atop the Palatine Hill, above the Domus Augustana, the building housed painterly works by Baldassarre Peruzzi and the workshop of Raphael. Following its purchase in 1856 by the Sisters of Visitation, the villa was almost entirely demolished in the 1920s to pursue archaeological investigations. Aside from brief mentions of ‘eccentric’ architecture in Rome’s built environment as an early case of revivalism in Italy and of the thistled gateposts that seem to materialise Mills’ or Smith’s claim to Scottish heritage, little has been added to our understanding of this building, or the socio-political and artistic contexts from which it emerged. Through an exploration of the textual and visual sources, including archival documentation, this lecture sets out to fill this gap, provide a more nuanced interpretation of Italy’s revivalist architecture and the making of the Eternal City, and discuss the villa as an architectural analogy of the relationship of Britain, Scotland, and Italy.

Tommaso Zerbi is an architectural historian specialising in a cross-disciplinary understanding of architecture in relation to medievalism and modern Italian studies. He holds the 2021/2022 Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellowship at the British School at Rome. Graduated (MArch, BArch) magna cum laude from the Politecnico di Milano, Tommaso earned a PhD in Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh (2021). In Edinburgh, he was Convenor of the Edinburgh College of Art, chaired the Prokalò Research Seminar Series, and taught at ESALA. His doctorate, which was awarded the Barrie Wilson Award for research excellence, constitutes the first study on the reworking of the Middle Ages as a tool for legitimation of the House of Savoy, the first on its architectural manifestation, and the first on the role of mythic views of the medieval past in the political revision of the identities of crown and nation during the Italian Risorgimento. An Early Career Member of the Royal Historical Society, Tommaso has widely presented internationally in academic settings, among others: at the École du Louvre, the University of Cambridge, the Deutsches Historisches Institut in Rom, and the biennial conference of the EAHN. Among his publications, the article published in 2021 on the Architectural Histories journal has countered the biases that read Italian revivalist architecture as an exercise in taste and suggested that medievalism and neo-medieval architecture mirrored a calibrated political strategy during Italy’s ‘resurgence’.