A blog by Victor Strazzeri, 2020-21 resident at the Swiss Institute Rome

Roman outtakes: visiting with the Texan princess.

For unclear reasons, I form relationships of liking and disliking to cities. It happens with those I’ve only passed through, like with people I meet at social events, but also extends to cities I lived in; in this case, as with people who constitute a more perennial part of my life, early impressions develop into a complicated web of often contradictory feelings. Factors such as climate, architecture or quality of infrastructure play a role, for sure, but it usually comes down to whom I meet there. After a certain time, a balance sheet of reciprocity and resonance forms from the assembly of encounters I had, leading to a persistent perception that I can rarely reshape. My economic status, visa situation and the ways in which my nationality, phenotype and gender are apprehended by a city’s different sets of inhabitants are, of course, key mediating instances in all of this. Yet it’s fundamentally about how I relate to people there.

In this regard, the thing I enjoy most, whether when meeting someone or moving somewhere, is amending an initially negative impression. Those people and places I immediately take a liking to are often just familiar or reinforcing of what I already am (think I am?) or, perhaps, want to be. But learning I was wrong about a person or a place I rejected at first usually tells me much more; about my prejudices and preconceptions, about how superficial I can be. It gives me hope I can become someone better, if only I take the journey from mistaken disfavor to redeemed appreciation enough times. The souring that marks travels in the opposite direction, from like to dislike, happens too; while probably just as telling, it feels less edifying.

My relationship to Rome will, in this sense, be shaped by the fact I am one of a dozen residents living in the unreal premises of the Swiss Institute, an enormous villa, neoclassical and extravagant on the outside, functional and rather austere on the inside (save for exhibition and reception spaces). Being in this bubble of privilege also means we didn’t really leave Switzerland altogether by moving here. Patrick, one of the eleven other borsisti here, alerted me to this neither-here-nor-there, one that it is compounded by the fact that authorities here (as elsewhere) have reacted to the pandemic by emboldening borders of all kinds. The experience of the pandemic has also, it seems, underscored every social contrast our capitalist sun has seared upon the hide of humankind.

Hence, we residents spend more time together than we otherwise would have and have unfortunately much trouble forming bonds to other Roman dwellers. Not least, because most of our encounters with the latter involve a tour or formal visit of some sort, which only stresses this sharp inside/outside dynamic. These same conditions have, however, allowed the nowadays rare privilege of depth in these budding relationships, and a group dynamic built almost entirely offline and through direct exchanges. Everything I write here, then, and most of what I experience in Rome is, to a large extent, a product of my fellow residents’ impressions as well; of how I see the city through them, and them through the lens of the city. A recent collective experience helped me put my finger on all of this.


Across the street from the Swiss Institute sits another perched up villa, the Casino Ludovisi, known for its Caravaggio and its Texan princess. Most of us residents visited with her one afternoon in early November. Here is an archive of the impressions left on us that day.

We met the princess in the villa’s drawing room, after climbing the semi-circular driveway that leads to it, with its ugly orange stone wall, lined with sculptures of animals and Caesars. We were met by the governess and crowded into the passata-red room, all masks and befuddled expectations. The princess made her entry and promptly began reciting episodes from the history of the Ludovisi and Boncompagni families, in a stream of consciousness both knowledgeable and imprecise that did not let up until the end of the visit. In terms of the chronicle of Rome’s noble lineages, it is highly unlikely that there is a scholar, much less present-day descendant, that is better informed.

She then began to praise Switzerland, a country her husband had cherished much. Upon hearing from Adrian Brändli, the head of science at the Istituto Svizzero, that we were a mix of artists and researchers, she praised this combination and remarked that her late husband, the prince, had also been a scientist, having studied at Zurich’s ETH. Adrian, himself a historian of late antiquity, told the princess we were not that kind of scientist, our fields being in the humanities, and that several of us were actually not Swiss. But she elegantly diffused the ensuing discomfort, praising both Switzerland’s and her husband’s multilingualism (he spoke seven languages, including Swahili, against CH’s official four).


We continued to learn much about the Boncompagni and Ludovisi lineages, which stretched back more centuries than there were frescoes in the villa’s ceilings. In the ancestral hall, which the drawing room led into, one of the family members was depicted at the Congress of Vienna, where he wrestled some of the dynasty’s vast fiefdoms back from French hands. The Island of Elba, which Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from to try and cut short that rotten little convention, was not among the recovered territories. The princess mentioned it, because, for two centuries starting in 1399, Elba had belonged to the Appiani of Piombino, a dynasty that would eventually merge with the Ludovisi line. Hence the title of our hostess, the Princess of Piombino, and the reason she took the Napoleon business so personally.

While affable, this encounter with aristocracy seemed to sharpen the perception of hierarchy in all of us. In the case of Hayahisa, a photographer, it reminded him of an episode of his childhood in Japan. His grandparents had owned a small hotel (a Ryokan) near the hot springs of Yugawara, Kanagawa prefecture. He paid a visit to them once and was treated splendidly by the staff. The entire time he could not shake the feeling they had been nice to him because he was a descendant of their bosses.

Hayahisa mentioned this, because the princess very quickly won us over. Could nobility be playing a role in our sudden bout of endearment towards her?

Others turned their attention to the friendly governess, whom I discovered was Ukrainian. Some of the residents later said they had been shocked by the presence of a household worker in uniform, something they had never experienced before. While I had been curious to speak to her from the beginning (and learn more about her working conditions), it never crossed my mind to question the fact she was there in the first place. I felt ashamed.
In a trusted reflex, a sociological excuse rolled off my tongue: Brazil is the country with the highest number of domestic workers in the world (overwhelmingly black women). My middle-class household had been no exception, so why should I have been struck by her presence?

My attempt at dialog proved difficult, as she spoke a jumbled mix of English, Italian and Ukrainian. But was it the language, or was some other (class) barrier to blame? The same one, perhaps, that has been at play in my continued failure to interact with the Swiss Institute’s cleaning and maintenance staff, whom I meet every day, on anything more than a superficial level. As if I were their bosses’ descendant.


If Geneva-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau is attributed with popularizing the notion of the “noble savage”, a term he never used, Alexander Pushkin should get more credit for having best portrayed the savage noble. Though there are many characters to choose from in this regard, the great-grandfather of Ivan Petrovich Belkin, the fictitious aristocratic author of many of Pushkin's short stories, is to me the most memorable. We only learn about him from a short extract of his handwritten chronicles, the main source Belkin reports using for his History of the Village of Goryukhino:

“May 4—Snow. Trishka beaten for rudeness. 6—Brown cow died. Senka beaten for drunkenness. 8—Fair weather. 9—Rain and snow. Trishka beaten on account of weather. 11—Fair weather. Fresh snowfall. Hunted down three hares…”
(translation by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky)

I would add: October 1917—Trishka's descendants throw in their lot with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and expropriate their masters. Should we be so surprised they did so?

The Ludovisi and Boncompagni also left future generations clear evidence of less than noble manners having, for instance, whitewashed the Caravaggio-painted roof of a small chamber on the villa's upper floor. Rediscovered in 1968, the roof painting (it is not a fresco) is now the Casino Ludovisi's main attraction. That the princess not only has visitors, but occasionally does Yoga in that room, somehow felt like apt retribution for that unspeakable deed. Alas, it was not an isolated incident: elsewhere in the villa, the family had a faux roof installed, apparently to cover the frescoes adorning the room's original ceiling.

I must confess I admire the princess for having uncovered this and for opening up the villa to the public. This includes doing the tours herself, as was the case that day, despite mounting Covid cases. Her showmanship does get the best of her at times, however. “Go ahead, touch it!”, said the princess, as we moved into another fresco-covered room, this one with high ceilings, following our encounter with the Caravaggio. Yoan, a painter, looked in horror as some of us went ahead and rubbed off the lapis lazuli from one of the walls, getting blue fingertips in the process. He also noticed that a painting of the princess's dogs in the living room downstairs was signed by her.

“Should she be drilling into the roof like that?” I asked Ginny, an archeologist from Pennsylvania, after learning about the method the princess had used to discover the hidden fresco. “Oh, I'll defend her on that”, she said, pointing out the quality of the work and the many other treasures the princess had rendered accessible for the first time. Among them are the family correspondence and papers, which she had painstakingly scanned over a five-year period (it is now freely available online) and which include letters from Marie Antoinette, she proudly said.


The visit's finale was a tour of the garden, dotted with fountains and sculptures. By then, both the princess and her visitors had gotten more comfortable. She pointed to a tree and said Henry James had written under its canopy, which seemed plausible. She also mentioned having to defend it from Roman authorities keen to cut it down. “I would have chained myself to it”. This was just one of several anecdotes that involved frictions with Italian officials. Did the princess speak Italian? This might have helped. In her defense, many noble rulers never learned the language of their subjects. Whether she did or not, the most hyperbolic of such stories involved her husband's wish to be buried at the Church of Sant'Ignazio di Loyola; it followed the same plot of long struggle, now against the clergy, and eventual triumph. A bit suspicious, I visited said church with Ginny shortly thereafter to confirm the fairytale ending. We found a wreath with the prince's picture (in horse riding attire) in the chapel where Pope Gregory XV and his Cardinal nephew, both Ludovisis, lay buried. The Ludovisi had built the Church. This might have helped.

“Can anyone read Latin?” the princess asked, pointing to an ancient slab covered with inscriptions. We happened to have three residents, all of them women, who could. They crouched before the slab to get a better view and, conferring with each other at each step, promptly deciphered the text. I was so proud. For an instant, I felt that, as a group, the twelve of us could solve long-standing mysteries of mankind. Even if we were not the right kind of scientist.

The princess then showed us the sculpture of a Satyr, which she says is a Michelangelo. “If it is – retorted Giulia, an urban studies scholar, who was standing beside me – what is it doing outside?”. Whomever its author, the sculpture is striking for its grotesque depiction of manhood. At eye-level, it displays one of the Satyr’s disproportionately big hands and a hanging belly over which his penis lays diagonally.

Maybe it was this imagery, or maybe because there was another American citizen there, the subject turned to the soon-to-be-held US presidential elections. The princess turned out to be an ardent Joe Biden supporter and had already cast her ballot at the nearby US embassy. Her vote had not been enough to “flip” Texas, weighing as much as that of an Amazon warehouse worker, a waitress or a truck-driver; yet it crystallized how broad a front there was in support of Biden’s candidacy: from aristocracy to Antifa.

And yet, 73 million Trump voters stood outside it and this time there was no word that the Russians were to blame. Turns out we are not the 99% after all. Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the PCI in the 1970s, had gotten it right. After the coup in Chile in 1973, he said we are, if all breaks in our favor, the 51% and, in the case of a truly progressive government, that is not enough to avert a coup. Makes one wonder about what would happen in the case of a 51% victory for Sanders, instead of Biden.

After dispersing over the garden, we gathered around the princess to say goodbye. “I see the light from that room every evening”, she said, referring to the window of our shared kitchen, which overlooks her garden from across the street. “It brings me joy to think there are young people there”. These words brought me back to the Satyr, whom I saw coming to life after dark and roaming the property, the princess, her governess and the dogs trapped inside.
Before we left, the princess said we should come by to see the letters from Marie Antoinette and her Christmas tree. We plan to visit again soon.

Vila Maraini – Roma, 15 November 2020 (expanded on 24 November)