Located on the western slopes of the Caelian Hill, Villa Celimontana is one of the most secluded places to visit near the historic center of Rome, and a lovely place to spend a relaxing afternoon in the spring and fall months, and to look for some much needed shade during the summer.
If you are feeling intrigued, continue reading. I will share everything you need to know to plan your visit of Villa Celimontana, Rome.
The History Of Villa Celimontana, Rome
Situated close to the top of the Caelian Hill, the Villa Celimontana is close to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica overlooking the Baths of Caracalla. Before the villa was built, the area was quite rural, mostly made up of vineyards that belonged to the Paluzzelli family. The site on which the villa stands has long had connections to the ancient history of the city, and remains have been found of buildings and temples that date back to the Flavian and Traianean age.
It’s believed that it was here that the second legendary king of Rome, Numa Pompilius met the divine consort Egeria and discussed laws of the city. In later years, the site would be excavated and numerous important historical finds were unveiled.
Make sure to read my post The Seven Kings Of Rome.
This stretch of rural land was purchased for the sum of 1000 gold scudi by Giacomo Mattei, a founding member of the powerful Mattei family who became known for building the 15th century building in Piazza Mattei.
The Mattei family were prominent figures in Rome society. During the middle ages and in the modern era, the House of Mattei held some of the most prestigious positions in both the church and government. Members of the family obtained high status roles, which included eight Cardinals. The family also owned vast swathes of property in the city, which included five palazzi in Sant’Angelo which went on to be nicknamed the Isola dei Mattei, as well as another one in Trastevere.
Villa Celimontana, as it is known now, was the family’s ancestral home. They reigned powerfully over the area, assuming control over the bridges close to the palace during the time of the papal interregnum. Charges were made to those who wanted to cross the bridges, with different costs for varying types of people. This also included charging Jewish citizens of Rome who were nearby in the ghetto and had to bury deceased relatives outside of the city walls.
It was another member of the Mattei family, Ciriaco Mattei, who took over the running of the property and transformed it into the magnificent villa – known as Palazzetto Mattei – that it is today. Ciriaco Mattei was well known to be a lover of art and a close friend and patron of Caravaggio and the villa was the ideal place to display his ever-growing collection.
In 1580, Ciriaco Mattei enlisted architect and student of Michelangelo, Giacomo Del Duca, to set about building the villa and designing a lavish garden. The ornate gardens became the backdrop on which Ciriaco Mattei could proudly display his growing art collection.
Ciriaco Mattei had the chance to show off his lavish estate and rich art collection in 1552 when powerful priest Filippo Neri started the practice of Visiting the Seven Churches. Pilgrims would travel between prominent churches, such as Santa Maria Maggiore, and the Mattei family flung open the doors of their property for pilgrims to rest in their grounds. The family provided meals of bread, cheese, wine, fruit, and meat and allowed people to relax in the gardens.
These initial garden designs were then altered by the Dominican friar and late-Mannerist architect and his architect brother Domenico Fontana. The estate’s gardens became famous for their water features when beautifully carved fountains created by the likes of Bernini for Girolamo Mattei punctuated the pathways. One particularly prominent piece was the Fontana dell’Aquila. Sadly for the family, after many years of influence their fortunes started to wane.
The once overflowing collection of rare artworks began to be dismantled in 1770 when 10 statues were sold to the Vatican, and again in 1802 when the head of Augustus was also sold. The villa remained in the hands of the family until it was finally sold in 1802.
Following the change of hands, the property then went through a number of different owners, many of which were from noble families themselves. In 1813, Manuel de Godoy, Prince of La Paz and Minister of Charles IV of Spain, bought the estate, followed by Princess Marianne of the Netherlands in 1851; princess of Prussia and of Bauffremont, Frederica, in 1857; and finally Bavarian baron Richard Hoffman in 1869.
Throughout its history, the villa has been a place known for its beautiful artworks and historic finds. In 1889, archeological digs unearthed some fascinating structures which included the Basilica Hilariana, a sanctuary with unique mosaics that was dedicated to the cult of Cybele and erected by local pearl dealer Manius Publicius Hilarus in 105 AD.
There were also various finds in the garden from the many years of Rome which included the Egyptian obelisk of Ramesses II, which was originally constructed at the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis in about 1280 BC and given to Ciriaco Mattei in 1552 by the government.
The villa underwent many changes throughout this period, but one of the biggest changes was during WWI. Still in the possession of the Hoffmann family, the Italian Government seized control of the villa as it was believed to be the property of an enemy national.
By 1923, many of the villa’s important pieces of art had been moved out to the Museo Nazionale Romano and then in 1925 the villa passed on to the Società Geografica Italiana (Italian Geography Society). The villa’s gardens became a city park in 1928 and was opened up for the public to enjoy.
What To See When Visiting Villa Celimontana, Rome
Although the park may not be as large as some of the other public parks in Rome, Villa Celimontana offers up a pleasant spot for sunny strolls, picnics, and spotting interesting historical monuments. Other than Palazzetto Mattei, the largest building in the park, these are some spots you may want to check out.
One of the main features of the Villa Celimontana is its intriguing obelisk. This strange structure has a history that goes back way beyond the building of the house, stretching back even before the time of ancient Rome. The obelisk was originally built in around 1250 BC. Already ancient by the time it was moved to Rome, the obelisk contains hieroglyphics of Ramesses II, connecting the monument to the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis.
Not much is known about how and when it was taken from Egypt and brought to Rome, but it’s believed to have found its way to the city much like those now found in Piazza della Minerva and Via delle Terme di Diocleziano, which were intended to decorate the Temple of Isis in Campidoglio.
By the 1500s it had been erected on the steps of the Capitoline Hill. It was around this time that a legend connected to Emperor Augustus gained popularity. It’s said that the Emperor’s ashes were placed on the globe on the top of the obelisk and it was placed on the Capitoline Hill by politician and anti-papal advocate, Cola di Rienzo, as a symbol of the liberty of Rome.
By 1582, the ancient stone spire had been transported to Villa Celimontana (or Villa Mattei as it was then known) and given as a gift from the Senate of Rome to Ciriaco Mattei. It was to become the centerpiece of the villa’s gardens, a representation of legacy and power.
Today, the obelisk has a curious tale attached to it. In 1817, Spanish architect Antonio Cells ordered the obelisk to be moved to its current position in the central location in the garden. It was during this move that the obelisk was placed on a 16th-century base decorated with lions.
Disaster struck when the ropes supporting the monument’s weight snapped and the worker who had been aiding in the movement had his hand and arm trapped beneath it. His arm had to be amputated on the spot; the remains of his arm and hand are still believed to lie below the millennia-old monument to this day.
This storied obelisk is now, finally, a magnificent centerpoint in the park.
Fontana del Fiume
Many of the ornate fountains that once dotted the lavish gardens have been removed or destroyed over the years. Thankfully, a handful still remain in place today. One of these is the Fontana del Fiume (“River Fountain”), a 17th-century creation that was commissioned by Ciriaco Mattei. This fountain is made up of a curved basin that sits in front of a stone wall.
On one of these walls, a reclining marble statue of a man is laid out on the stonework. The male is believed to be the personification of the Tiber River; from an urn held in his arms the fountain flows into the basin below (though unfortunately last time I visited there was no water). Strangely, the head of the statue was stolen in 2005, but was thankfully returned to its original position two years later.
During archeological digs on the grounds of the villa the remains of the Basilica Hilariana were discovered in 1889. Inside, an inscription reading “College of Dendrophori of the Great Mother Goddess and of Attis” was discovered. It’s thanks to these inscriptions that we can learn that the temple was built by Manius Publicius Hilarus, and was dedicated to the female mother goddess Cybele and later Attis.
When it was first built, the temple was made up of a central courtyard and a vestibule as well as a second floor. Unique mosaics were also unearthed inside the building; some designs feature figures of animals that are located around a single human eye that has been pierced by a spear. It’s believed this was intended to ward off evil spirits. Later, in the 4th century, the temple became used for the worship of Attis, and was planted with a sacred pine.
Check out my post The Most Beautiful Mosaics In Rome.
In recent years the villa and its green space has become known as a venue for summer concerts. The garden oasis of Villa Celimontana provides the perfect backdrop to live music which can be enjoyed while reclining on a picnic blanket on a summer evening.
One of the best known musical events that takes place here is the annual Jazz Festival along with a schedule of classical concerts. The musical events are free for the public to attend and are part of a summer-wide programme of events that take place here. They’re the perfect way to enjoy the elegant ambience of this historic Roman villa.
Practical Info About Visiting Villa Celimontana
Villa Celimontana opening times
Opening hours for Villa Celimontana are 7:00 am to 7:00 pm; there are shorter hours during the winter months when gates close at sunset.
Villa Celimontana tickets
The grounds of the Villa Celimontana are completely free to enter and no ticket is required. Sadly, it is not possible to enter inside of the main house as it is used by the Italian Geographical Society.
Should you get a guided tour?
Although there are lots of interesting things to see within the grounds of the Villa Celimontana, it is not necessary to see it as part of a guided tour. The park is much smaller than others in the city and it’s more of a pleasant place for an afternoon stroll and a picnic. However, there are many historic sights in the nearby area and it may be a good idea to include a visit to the park as part of a larger tour of Caelian Hill.
There also are guided golf cart tours of Rome that include Villa Celimontana as their final stop. For more information, click here.
There are toilets located in the grounds of the park. The cost of using the facilities is one euro, however I should point out that the toilets are not always open.
The park is accessible to disabled visitors, but it’s a good idea to consider the route around the property. Some of the pathways within the grounds are made up of gravel and portions are also on sloped sections.
How to get there
The main entrance to the Villa Celimontana is located on Piazza della Navicella, which is around a 10 minute walk from the Colosseum. The second entrance is on Clivo Scauro, a short walk from the Circus Maximus.
If arriving at Termini station, Villa Celiomonta is a 30 minutes walk away. It’s around 17 minutes from Termini station by bus number 714; get off at Largo Amba Aradam Walk and walk 5 minutes. Alternatively, take metro line B from Termini to Colosseo and walk 15 minutes.