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Why Villa Palazzola is so special

Imagine standing on the long garden terrace of a 13th century monastery set in extensive broadleaf woodlands. As the sun sets across the still waters of a wide lake, the domes of a papal palace glint in the evening light, drawing the eye to the imperial city of Rome below and onwards to the Mediterranean glistening in the far distance. In the silence and harmony of dusk the only sound is birdsong and the hooting of the occasional owl perched in the trees on the slopes running down to the lakeshore.

Then picture the cloister of a medieval building in an idyllic setting, lovingly restored with comfortable ensuite bedrooms and serving delicious meals using good local produce in the original timber panelled refectory.

In summer, meals are enjoyed outside under the trees while in winter you can cosy up to a log fire in the old Library.  Now you’re beginning to get an idea of the magic of Palazzola.

This is a place where you truly can feel closer to God. If asked to describe Palazzola in one word, most people would say: stunning!  Your shoulders start to relax within hours of arrival and your lungs fill with clean, country air as its tranquil calm weaves its spell. Soon the only thing you’ll want to rush to is lunch.

Palazzola is not a five star hotel, it’s much more than that.  Comfortable, friendly, welcoming, with history all around you from the remains of an imperial Roman villa to the murals in the refectory left by occupying German troops.

In summer Palazzola particularly welcomes families and parish groups.  You can visit Rome and explore the delightful Castelli towns nearby. Take a stroll around the lake to Castel Gandolfo or simply spend your days lying in the sun beside the magnificent outdoor swimming pool, carved out of rock at the end of the garden.

At other times of year we welcome groups of students, religious orders, retreat groups or those seeking a few days of peace and quiet to recharge their batteries, refocus their life or just relax.  Palazzola is perfect for a conference, a family gathering or a wedding. It offers something to everyone.

Have a look at the pictures on this website but be certain of one thing: no photo can do justice to the beauty of the place.  You’ll discover this the first time you emerge through the low doorway onto the magnificent panorama of the garden terrace.  It’s like coming home and you know that however long or short your first visit, you’ll want to return.

A Brief history of Palazzola

Earliest inhabitants

The site of Palazzola has a very long history going back to the Bronze Age people of the 17th century B.C. Palazzola’s Latin name was Palatiolus and as you approach along the via dei Laghi, the Villa appears set against the backdrop of Monte Cavo. This was once known as Mons Albanus with a temple dedicated to Jupiter and intact sections of a Roman road, the Via Sacra.

Legend has it that Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were suckled by a she-wolf on Monte Cavo.  More certain is that Hannibal made his camp here during his assault on Rome.

There was also a Roman villa at Palazzola with the remains of water conduits still visible along the Albano path.  Next to the Villa is the enormous rock tomb of a Roman consul, possibly G. Cornelius Scipio Hispalus, who died c.176 B.C.

A religious house

The Romans abandoned their villa around the 4th century and by the 10th century Christian hermits were living in caves on the slopes of the lake.  The remains of this early hermitage are still visible. In time the hermits moved into the ruins of Palatiolus and became Augustinians.
 
Cistercians from Tre Fontane Abbey near Rome took over the building in 1244 when it was known as Santa Maria in Palatiolis.  There are clear similarities between the Villa church, Our Lady of the Snows, and that of Tre Fontane, especially the roof design and the small rose window.  Carthusians replaced the Cistercians who were in turn replaced by Franciscans in the fifteenth century.  Some of the very elegant columns from the early cloister can be seen in the windows on the upper corridors of the Old Wing.

The visit by Pope Pius II

Pope Pius II or Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini was Pope from 1458-1464. The visit to Palazzola in 1463 came towards the end of his life.  He was invited to visit the monastery of St Paul in Albano and on the way to Rocca di Papa.  This is an extract from his Memoirs.
 
“On the way he visited the monastery of Santa Maria Palazzuola and attended masses there. This is an ancient church, not very large, with one archway and a vestibule supported on marble columns. There are dwellings for the monks and service quarters convenient enough but not very attractive and fallen into disrepair with age. The place overhangs the Alban Lake. The rock has been cut away far enough to give room for the monastery and garden. Grottoes too have been quarried out where abundance of water bubbles up and the clear springs fill the fish ponds. It is delightful in summer to see the cold sparking water thrown high into the air through pipes and it is available for all the needs of the monks. In a corner beyond the beautifully terraced garden is a large natural cave always shady till noon, which is like a hall where a number of tables can be set out.  There too is an abundant spring of clear and never-failing water gushes forth and fills a fishpond nearby………..At the left before you enter the monastery there is a high wall-like rock on which according to ancient custom were sculptured the fasces of a Roman consul and twelve axes.”

Six were covered with ivy, six were still visible. Pius ordered the ivy to be cleared away to encourage the memory of antiquity.”

A Portuguese Franciscan, Jose Maria Fonseca, rebuilt the friary and the church in the 1700s and laid out the garden.  For many years the main entrance to Palazzola was through the large gates now leading to the swimming pool. Two tablets in the cloister record his efforts. Apart from a gap of 20 years the Franciscans remained at Palazzola until the early 20th century.
 
A group of Freemasons took their place for a short time until during the First World War Dr Carlo Arnaldi ran a clinic at Palazzola for, among others, recovering alcoholics. He bedecked the walls with different axioms to uplift his patients, one of which survives in the refectory: Mangiare adagio e masticare bene (Eat slowly and chew well).

The English College comes to Palazzola

Founded in 1579 on the site of a 14th century hostel for English pilgrims, the Venerable English College Rome is a seminary which trains priests for English and Welsh dioceses.
 
At one time students returned to England only once during their seven year course of study at the Gregorian University. To escape the stifling Roman summers they moved to a much loved house at the village of Monte Porzio near Frascati in the cool of the Alban Hills. The house was however too small for the number of students. In 1920 the Rector, Mgr (later Cardinal) Hinsley, met Dr Arnaldi who despite receiving a number of better offers agreed to sell Palazzola to the College for 260,000 lire (approx. €130).  He had bought it five years earlier for 63,000 lire (approx. €32).  When the students moved in, one of their first tasks was to dig the swimming pool. Hinsley’s successor, William Godfrey, later also a Cardinal, added the New Wing, providing 25 additional rooms.

Palazzola on the frontline

For 20 years the College moved to Palazzola every summer but when Italy declared war on Britain in 1940, the students returned to England and took up temporary residence at Stonyhurst College. German troops occupied Palazzola and during the severe winter of early 1944 burned much of the furniture and the library books.  The Villa was soon on the front line as the Germans set up artillery positions above the garden on the upper field Sforza (known by the students as the “Sforza”, the surname of the previous owner) to shell the allies landing at Anzio.  The allies responded with frequent air raids, causing extensive damage.
 
In one incident during the war the late caretaker, Alfredo Piacentini, then aged 21 rescued a young German soldier who lay wounded in the nearby woods after an air raid. His name was Werner Wendt and fifteen years later he arrived back at Palazzola to thank Alfredo, bringing gifts of German sausage and wine. It was a happy reunion.
 
Alfredo, who had served in the Italian army, had a lucky escape when a group of retreating SS soldiers ordered him to come with them, for forced labour, or possibly worse.  When they allowed him to return to the house for his coat, Alfredo slipped out the back door, down the garden and leapt over the wall of the swimming pool onto the Albano path some distance below.  In the process he injured his leg badly but he escaped and for the rest of his life walked with a limp.  Alfredo’s son, Giuseppe Piacentini, is today Administrator at Palazzola, working alongside his English wife Julie who is the Domestic Manager.
 
The advancing Americans captured the Villa but left after a week, looting most of the remaining furniture.  Mgr Carroll-Abbing, a former student of the College and an Irish citizen remained in Rome during the war and worked hard to protect Palazzola. He recovered some of the furniture while Alfredo managed to dissuade some battle-hardened US paratroopers from looting the cellar.

The College returns

After the war the Rector inspected Palazzola prior to the return of the students from England and his letters describe the burnt-out houses and vehicles in Albano.  Air raids had damaged much of Palazzola and blown out the chapel windows. There was an abandoned tank on the Sforza and several hundred German soldiers killed in the fighting near Velletri had been buried nearby.  The Germans had also painted a series of pleasant murals in the refectory, some of which survive. The erotic ones, painted by the Americans were removed before the students returned.
 
After extensive repairs life returned almost to normal with the students spending their summers at Palazzola as before the war. But by the 1970s the students went back to England each summer and the College was under serious financial pressure to sell Palazzola. Happily this did not happen. Instead a dedicated group put together an ambitious plan to develop the Villa and put it on a commercial footing by making it available to groups all year round.  This was in time highly successful and has secured Palazzola for future generations to enjoy.

Further reading

  1. Marina Cogotti (ed.), Convento di Palazzolo on the Shores of Lake Albano, (Roma), Gangemi Editore, 2004
  2. Mgr Anthony Philpot, a Short History of Palazzola, (Rome), Venerable English College, 2001
  3. The Venerabile, annual magazine of the Venerable English College, passim, esp. Fr Terry McSweeney, Alfredo Piacentini obituary, vol.XXXIII, no.1, 2003-4, pp.77-81
  4. The Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope. Published by The Folio Society in 1988.

Media Snippets

“Bought by the Venerable English College in the 1920s so that its students – trainee Catholic priests – could escape the Roman summer heat, the Villa Palazzola overlooks Lake Albano, 29km south of Rome. Retreats run throughout the year, but individuals can also stay here. Prices are very reasonable and the facilities, including a swimming pool, are superb. The villa is surrounded by 65,000sqm of protected forests with walking trails. The church at the centre of this former Cistercian monastery dates back to the 13th century. Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence, is across the water.”

“High in the Alban Hills, south-east of Rome, lies the aptly named Villa Palazzola, a former convent that makes a formidable place of retreat to conjure quietly the rhyme and reason to some of faith’s most insistent mysteries.”

One of the joys of travelling alone is having proper conversations with people other than your travelling companions. It’s what I find on a recent weekend at the Villa Palazzola, an ancient religious house on a hillside by Lake Albano, 18 miles south-east of Rome, where seminarians from the Venerable English College in Rome used to spend their summers. Now, this enchanting spot is open to anybody.

OUR STAFF

Joyce Hunter

Director

Joyce Hunter joined the Palazzola management team in 2006 and previously worked at the Venerable English College from 1994 – 1998. Trained in Switzerland and Germany Joyce brings with her a vast and varied experience in the hotel and catering field gained in UK, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Outside of the hotel and catering field, Joyce has occupied roles with EWTN (Eternal World Television Network), managing a short wave radio network in Rome, with the Irish Christian Brothers organising a world-wide event for the Beatification of their founder and for Evangelisation 2000, planning and organizing a world wide priest’s retreat. Married with two daughters, Joyce lives on the coast just outside Rome.

 

Giuseppe Piacentini

Administrator

Giuseppe was born and bred at Palazzola! His father, the late Alfredo Piacentini was caretaker and icon at Palazzola for over 60 years, as was his father before him. During his student years Giuseppe worked at Palazzola in his spare time, and here met Julie, on a pilgrim visit from England, who later became his wife, and is now Palazzola’s domestic manager. Nowadays Giuseppe is in charge of all aspects of bookings, administration and accounts and brings with him a wide experience of the catering field after working for many years at local catering establishments.

JULIE PIACENTINI

Domestic Manager

Julie left Heywood in Lancashire to make a pilgrimage to Rome staying at Villa Palazzola and left with an Italian boyfriend! She later came to live at Palazzola and married Giuseppe Piacentini in 1982. Julie and Giuseppe have two sons, Riccardo 31 and Daniele 25. Julie manages the small team of domestic staff at Villa Palazzola, some of whom have worked with her for over 20 years.

 

FILOMENA LAURENZA

Dining room, reception and conference coordinator

Filomena Laurenza commenced working at Palazzola in 2008 on a part time basis, after gaining experience in all departments and contracted full time she has become a valid member of the Palazzola team. Filomena hails from Caivano (Naples) and had previously worked for EWRN and The Irish Christian Brothers, Rome.