This villa – white and recently restored – sits in the lap of one of the most crowded cities in Europe. It has the blue sea to its front, colour behind, and is wrapped in an exclusive coat of green.
Its striking, classical profile is very different to the buildings that now surround it.
The entrance to the villa is on the opposite side to its porticoed front. Here, at the back, an awning covers steps which lead up to the doors, and behind them are the rooms that for almost a century and a half were home to three families of adventurers and aristocrats.
To get in you have to walk past two large, gawky dogs. There is nothing proud or intelligent about them but they do attract attention … that’s their job.
Their grins are those of the dog of the Athenian Alcibiades, a brilliant general and politician who lived over two and a half millennia ago. He used his dog as a distraction, going so far as to dock its tail, an unusual thing to do at the time, so that the crowds would talk about the dog rather than him. It must have been awkward for the canine, but the general needed the cover for his own life which drooled scandal.
The two dogs at the Villa Pignatelli were, I presume, put there by the Actons, the first family to own the villa.
The villa was commissioned in 1826 by Sir Ferdinand Richard Acton, who had some of the fanciest social ties in the city. His own name of Ferdinand had been borrowed from his godfather, the Bourbon King of Naples, Ferdinand IV.
The man who shot the family to royal attention in Naples, and who found the junior Acton this godfather, was, in fact, the senior Acton, Ferdinand’s own father, General Sir John Francis Edward Acton (1736 – 1811).
Sir John had been noticed by the King and Queen of Naples after his military efforts for Tuscany against Algiers in 1770s.
King Ferdinand and Queen Maria Carolina were so impressed by what they knew of Sir John Acton’s naval reputation that they invited him to sort out the Neapolitan navy … which he did well. This success and others, coupled with his warm relations with the Queen, grew his role into that of prime minister.
Then, at the end of the 18th century, change arrived in Naples with the French Revolution. This briefly unseated the Bourbons who retired to Sicily under the protection of Nelson … but by the 1820s the royals were back.
Lord-in-waiting to the King at this time was Sir John Acton’s son, Ferdinand Acton, who decided to make a grand statement … to build boldly on the fashionable Riviera di Chiaia.
The villa, the work of Pietro Valente and Guglielmo Bechi, belonged to the Actons until 1841, when, four years after the death of Ferdinand Acton, it was sold by his widow to Carl Mayer von Rothschild – another foreigner with strong Bourbon connections.
Rothschild, a financier, brought his business with him from Frankfurt to Naples, and linked its fortunes to those of the royal family. Perhaps not a great move as the family lost power two decades later. The Bourbons were forced out of Naples in 1860, and the Rothschilds followed shortly afterwards.
In 1867 the villa passed into relatively local hands. The new owner was Prince Diego Aragona Pignatelli Cortés.
His family’s list of celebrity members includes one of the world’s toughest adventurers – Mexico-conquering Hernán Cortés (1455 – 1547); and later, a pope, Antonio Pignatelli (Pope Innocent XII 1691 -1700).
When Prince Diego died the villa went to his nephew, another Diego, who later married Rosa Fici dei duchi dei Amalfi (1869 – 1955).
Rosa, as Diego’s young wife and now la principessa Rosina, brought five children and many grand occasions to the villa … but the fun faded. Her husband died in 1930 and in the 1950s she was faced with the death of three of her four surviving children.
She died in 1955 and in 1961, as agreed with her daughter, Anna Maria, the villa and some of its collections were given to the Italian state.
Now the Villa Pignatelli, also known as the Museo Diego Aragona Pignatelli Cortés, is up for show, and it looks grand.
It’s filled with lovely things and just down the drive a proud display of carriages in the Museo delle Carozze ripples horse-power.
Here every buckle and brass fitting shines.
Lines of freshly painted carriages wait silently for their horses to be harnessed, whilst old film footage shows the city traffic they would have dealt with.
It’s worth trotting down to see. The trumpets may be quiet now, and the Villa Pignatelli may be empty, but they are carefully presented reminders of part of the turbulent life of Naples.
I’ve used many online sources for this piece but I know there is a library full of information I have not managed to find. Please do let me know of any corrections or additions needed.
Here is a link to information on the dog of the Athenian general Alcibiades: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/classical-studies/the-dog-alcibiades
Apparently the breed is a Molossian mastiff. This links to information on the breed.
Thanks as always to Jeff Matthews for the historical information on his site Naples: Life, Death and Miracles.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2016