A Royal Villa

The Villa Reale in the comune of Marlia is one of the grandest of aristocratic villas built by the Luccan nobility for their use both as a summer residence and also as a place to grow crops, especially vines.

Its origins go back a long way. In the longobard era there was a fort here built by the duke of Tuscia. It then passed to the Buonvisi family (the same that owned the Villa Webb in the old part of Bagni di Lucca) who held the property until 1651 when they got into financial difficulties

The Olivieri and Orsetti family then came into possession of the villa and refashioned it, adding a splendid baroque garden, parts of which still remain to this day. They also built the Palazzina dell’Orologio to house the villa’s servicing department.

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Big changes occurred when Napoleon’s sister, Elisa bought the villa from the Orsetti who were, in fact, rather unwilling to sell the place. Elisa paid the princely sum of 700,000 French francs which today (roughly) would equate to around 7 million pounds.

It was Elisa who gave the name “Reale” (royal) to the villa. She enlarged the villa at a cost of another few million euros, ordering the architects Lazzarini and Bienaimè to transform it into the neo-classical building one sees today, and completely re-drew the grounds into an English garden layout with large lawns à la Capability Brown. In the course of this re-structuring many features of the previous baroque garden were swept away to be replaced by trees and bushes transplanted from the royal palace of Caserta (Naples) where one of the first English landscape gardens was laid out.

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It’s a pity one can’t visit the interiors as they contain fine plasterwork, frescoes and decorations by among other artists, Tofanelli (1750 – 1812),  a lucchese who also painted fine religious pictures for the cathedral and San Frediano in Lucca. These photographs are taken from public sources:

It must have been fantastic to be present at the grand soirées held by Elisa in the villa’s new ballroom. Among artistes invited was the great violin virtuoso Paganini who became the princess’s music teacher and, perhaps, a little more. Elisa had quite a few lovers including the chief of her armed forces, Bartolomeo Cenami.

When Napoleon was (regrettably, in my opinion) defeated at Waterloo, just two hundred years ago, British forces under the command of Lord Bentick chased poor Elisa out of her former domain  although she was pregnant for the ninth time. Sadly forgotten and in somewhat straightened circumstances Elisa died in Trieste in 1820, one year before her brother, aged just 42.

(It’s significant that, for a short time, Lucca was part of the British Empire since it was occupied by Bentinck’s troops).

The villa passed to the Bourbons and Maria Luisa. The great architect Nottolini (he of the chain bridge at Fornoli near Bagni di Lucca) added a Viennese-style coffee house and an astronomical observatory.

In 1928 the villa was bought by the Pecci-Blunt family in whose hands it remained until 2015.

Who owns it now? When the Villa Reale was put up for sale there was speculation of the usual sort. Would the Russian magnate buy it or the Arab sheik? Neither, in fact. It was sold to a swiss couple who intend to convert it into one of Italy’s first super-luxury hotels.

No doubt we’ll now see the likes of the Beckhams and Clooneys parading through the villa’s grounds. But will we be able to visit it?

I’m quite sure we will continue to admire the Villa’s magnificent gardens, some of the best in the Lucca and indeed, Tuscan area. The villa itself was never on the visiting list although, no doubt, it may be open for wedding receptions and the like.

The gardens are full of scenic features including fishponds, a Verzura (green hedge) theatre, grottoes, statues and are a joy to visit at most seasons. Rather than describe their features I’ll just show a few photographs from the time we first visited their magic ambience in September 2005.

Can it really be that long ago that we first visited the Villa Reale?

PS If you are super-rich and looking for luxury villas in Italy do consult the site at

http://www.lionard.it/pressarea/2015/venduta-villa-reale

You might even be able to find out how much the villa Reale was sold for!

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