Italy: Castello Ruspoli- See the Garden, Meet the Family

What?
A Renaissance castle with a stupendous, well-preserved garden, and bags of family history to boot.

Why visit?
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!

Where?
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.
Other friendly neighbours were the Orsinis, and one of them, Ottavia Orsini, married into the family. Ottavia must have inherited the green thumb of her father, Vicino Orsini, who created the gardens of the Sacro Bosco in nearby Bomarzo.  She recruited some top-notch gardening talent (perhaps even Vignola himself) and created a giardino all'italiana, following the latest 17th century fashions. 400 years later, the garden basically still stands as it did back in the days of Ottavia, making it possibly the best-preserved Renaissance garden in Italy. 
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.
As if that's not enough, the castle itself is chockful of art and decorations. Not too shy to indulge in a bit of self-aggrandisement (few nobles were), the main decorative elements are the family seal, (six mountains reminiscent of the Chigi coat of arms) as well as massive portraits of family members. Occasionally some rooms in the castle are rented out as a B&B- this is your chance to be a prince(ss) for a day.
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. 
Castello Ruspoli is still owned by the Ruspoli family. You'll encounter some of the more fascinating family members, like the family saint, Santa Giacinta, who has a whole chapel dedicated to her in the castle, and who has her own church in nearby Viterbo. 
Santa Giacinta: from spoiled noble brat to sanctified nun. 
Or Francesco Maria Ruspoli, who was a musical fiend, employing GF Händel as his personal entertainer. Händel stayed for two years, performing in the castle's living room as well as in the family's palazzo in Rome. Francesco Maria Ruspoli did not just have a knack for attracting musical talent: through some clever scheming he managed to achieve another feudal upgrade, becoming the first Ruspoli Prince (of Cerveteri), a title that is still being used by the family.

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 9th Ruspoli Prince, Don Alessandro 'Dado' Ruspoli, was a quintessential playboy, fathering children with 3 different women, and hanging out with the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Salvador Dalí, Truman Capote, Roger Vadim, Roman Polanski. Legend has it that Fellini's Dolce Vita was inspired by Dado... He also had a minor role in The Godfather III.

















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? 

Castello Ruspoli is open for individual visits on Sundays, except in August. However, the castle is also open for events, including your own, if you are so inclined. The castle offers plenty of space, and the garden has enormous lawns in addition to the manicured areas. Pictures of previous events show the enormous potential of this magical place. 

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. 

Getting there:
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. 

Useful links:
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. 

5 comments:

  1. I have just watched the interesting BBC documentary. It is sad that I may only stay for breakfast, as I could live there forever ... Princess Caudia being as attractive as the gardens.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Bernie, tell us more. Is there a BBC documentary about the castle? We haven't heard about it...

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    2. It is an excellent documentary in a series of Italian gardens produced by the BBC in 2006. Now, being shown on TVO (Canadian).

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    3. P.S. The title is, 'The Mona Lisa of Parterres' .

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    4. Thanks very much Bernie. With that information I was able to find the documentary- Not sure if it was produced by the BBC but indeed currently available through the Canadian TVO.

      The programme can be watched here:
      http://tvo.org/video/programs/recreating-eden/ep-2-the-mona-lisa-of-parterres

      (Although if you're outside of Canada you may need to use a service like hola.org to watch it. )

      The documentary is a great summary- well worth watching. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. And yes, Princess Claudia is still around. ;-)

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