A Renaissance castle with a stupendous, well-preserved garden, and bags of family history to boot.
So far, I have not been able to find Castello Ruspoli in any guidebook. Only those who know the region really well, or are connected to the princely family that still owns the castle, seem to be aware of its existence.
Yet with the tiniest bit of effort it's really easy to visit. And when you do, you will find one of the best-preserved gardens all'italiana in existence. As well as a castle rich in art, decorations, and unconventional family history.
This is not a dead museum, managed by civil servants. It's still family-owned, and you may even get a personal tour by one of the princesses of the house!
In Vignanello, a tiny hamlet about an hour north of Rome. Map.
THE RUSPOLI FAMILY is one of the illustrious aristocratic families that used to rule this part of Italy, called Tuscia, in cahoots with the supreme local overlords, the Papacy. These lands were the heartland of the Papal States, providing cardinals and cheap labour in equal measure.
It's therefore no surprise that the history of Castello Ruspoli started in 1531 when the de' Medici Pope (Paul III to Ortensia Farnese) Clement VII awarded Vignanello as a fief to Beatrice Farnese. Her daughter Ortensia married Sforza Marescotti (whose family hailed from Scotland), and as a wedding present the fiefdom received an upgrade as the couple became the first count and countess of Vignanello, courtesy of Pope Paul III Farnese. Paul III was really just being a friendly neighbour- the Farneses had their own mansion just around the corner, in Caprarola, where they built their own Minor Sight.
You may have noticed by now that the family history of the Ruspoli family reads like a who-is-who of Papal and Italian nobility- as witnessed by the massive family tree painted on a wall inside the castle.
|Donna Claudia Ruspoli giving a quick rundown of family history- starting in the 8th century.|
|Trimmed and manicured...|
|...with another secret garden just hidden around the corner!|
|Map of the garden. You can verify it's accuracy in Google Maps Satellite View.|
|The salon where Händel used to perform.|
|Wake up and stare at the ceiling.|
|Even the doors are decorated: this one is covered in detailed leather.|
|Chandelier- halberds and the family coat of arms in the background.|
|Santa Giacinta: from spoiled noble brat to sanctified nun.|
Many pictures of Don Alessandro Ruspoli, 7th Prince of Cerveteri, grace the castle, easily recognized by his pirate-style eye patch (the result of a hunting mishap). The continuing close ties between the Ruspolis and the Papacy were exemplified by the Prince's role at the Holy See where, as Grand Master of the Sacred Apostolic Hospice, he escorted the Italian king on the first royal visit to the Vatican in 1929.
|The 7th Prince Ruspoli- notice the custom wallpaper bearing the family seal in the background.|
The castle is currently owned by Princesses Claudia and Giada, who still use it as a part-time residence for themselves and their extended family. The downside of this is that the castle is not permanently open to visitors. The upside is that your visit may include a personal tour by one of the princesses. Beats going to Disney, doesn't it?
So if you are in need of a wedding location or just a swanky salon for a musical performance, it would be worth putting in a call to the friendly lady-in-waiting who deals with such requests.
|Nothing says 'castle' like a drawbridge over a moat.|
Be sure to check out the small town center around the Castle. The tiny town and church were commissioned by the first Ruspoli Prince- the family coat of arms can be found humbly decorating the church doors and the tiny town square.
|The Ruspoli coat of arms- 6 mounds and a grapevine.|
Contact the Castello in advance to make an appointment. The castle is open for individual visitors on Sunday (except august) but groups can make reservations all year round. The email address is castelloruspolivignanello AT gmail.com.
There is a regional train run by ATAC from Rome Flaminio to Viterbo that stops in Vignanello. It's not very frequent... but may be worth looking into. Buses seem more hassle than it's worth, but are supposed to run from Orte and Viterbo.
Vignanello is about an hour by car from Rome's ring road, the GRA.
Since you made it all the way here, you may as well make a day trip out of it- have lunch at the excellent Il Vicoletto 1563.
There are several other great gardens in the area- for more on them, check out our post about 4 Renaissance gardens near Rome on Lazio Explorer.
The official website has all kinds of practical information, including the contact details to make an appointment, or to make inquiries about organizing events, or to stay at the castle.