Secret Rome: the bunkers of Villa Torlonia

The places of a secret Rome: Villa Torlonia

There are some places in Rome known less than other places because they are outside the traditional tourist routes. Villa Torlonia is one of them: located along Via Nomentana, it is a neoclassical complex whose construction was begun in 1802 by Giuseppe Valadier and continued in 1832 by G. B. Caretti. In 1978, Villa Torlonia was transformed into a public park, and a museum was set up in the annexed Casino dei Principi. Access is through the Ionic propylaia of 1910, integrating one of the granite obelisks sculpted and moved from Baveno in 1842. One of the most interesting elements of Villa Torlonia is the Palazzo Nobiliare, built between 1832 and 1840 under the direction of G. B. Caretti. Access the interior (consisting of 12 rooms and a ballroom decorated by an anthology of Futurist painting) by a large staircase and the avant-corps with Ionic columns and tympanum decorated with the Return of Bacchus from the Indies by Rinaldo Rinaldi. The park is characterised by a Romantic style with ruins and exotic vegetation, and it houses various points of interest, such as:
- the Jewish Catacombs, discovered in 1918. Access to these facilities must be allowed by the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome. Created between the 3rd and 4th centuries, the catacombs preserve paintings with Jewish symbols and inscriptions of offices of the Jewish community of the time;
- the Villino Rosso (1920);
- the Theatre, created by Quintiliano Raimondi in the second half of the nineteenth century: it is characterized by the large exexedra with a portico;
- the Villino Medievale, built between 1906 and 1908;
- the Amphitheatre, from a project by G.B. Caretti;
- the Casina delle Civette.
Originally, it was the Casina Svizzera, built in the nineteenth century by Giuseppe Jappelli and it was transformed into its current structure in 1916-1919 by Vincenzo Fasolo. Today, it is the seat of the Liberty Glass Museum. In addition to the original stained glass windows of the building, the collection includes other examples of decorative arts of the early twentieth century and the preparatory drawings by Paolo Paschetti, Duilio Cambellotti and Umberto Bottazzi.

The bunkers of Villa Torlonia

In the complex of Villa Torlonia there are three underground structures (a bunker and two air-raid shelters) built between 1940 and 1943 with the aim of creating a shelter (in case the Allies had carried out the aerial bombardment of Rome) to protect Mussolini and his family. The first was the air-raid shelters - in 1940 - built adapting the underground areas of the residence' park below the Fucino lake. Some scholars think it originally was an ancient Roman cemetery.
At the beginning, there was only one entrance, to which an emergency exit was subsequently added near the Campo da Tornei. Proceeding along a corridor and a staircase closed by a gas door you get inside: The environments of the real refuge are divided in short branches of the central corridor, following the typical pattern of the old wine cellars. From the little well, you get to another corridor and to the second exit. This bomb shelter was not sufficiently reinforced according to the needs of the Duce (in addition of being about 150 metres away from the residence), so in 1941, a second structure in the basement of the Casino Nobile was started: placed exactly below the dance hall, it can be reached by the kitchens.
The bomb shelter has anti-gas doors, 1.20 metres thick reinforced concrete walls and an air filtration system. Subsequently, once Rome began to be the target of the Allied air raids, it was realized a modern and avant-garde structure was needed to guarantee the security of the Duce and his family, even in the case of a targeted attack to the residence. In November 1942, the firemen began the excavations, however the estimated times were lengthened due to the inadequacy of the land. Then a 6-metres-thick reinforced concrete casting was carried out; during the excavations various archaeological finds were discovered, such as amphorae and skeletons.
Access is directly from the Casino Nobile, by a staircase in the basement, but there are also an emergency exit by a little well and a second entrance along the gallery. The plant is a cross, and to ensure greater resistance to bombardment the four branches have a cylindrical shape. The bunker was not completed at the time Mussolini was arrested after the session of the Grand Council of Fascism (25 July 1943) yet. The inhabitants of the residence used it anyway, even if without air filtration system, armored doors and external cover of the well, during the aerial bombardments that succeeded each other until the liberation of Rome, on June 5th 1944.

Visiting the bunkers

To visit the bunkers you need to book a guided tour because the entrances are not easily identifiable. Consequently, the group meets at the meeting point at the entrance. During the journey in the park, the guide will provide general information about the bunkers and the residence itself.
Inside the underground structures, there are furniture, furnishings and military objects (for example, gas masks and cases) from the previous period or contemporaneously with the construction of the air-raid shelters and the bunker: they were partly supplied by the Soratte Bunker, and partly purchased by brocantage and antique markets. In any case, they have always received the approval of the Capitolina Superintendency. Instead, the gas doors of the air-raid shelters are the original ones; they are made of iron with a system of asymmetric hinges and rubber gaskets because they had to withstand the gases and air movements of medium size; for this reason, they integrate a mechanical system with a central lever to ensure hermetic doors.
Scholars think the doors commissioned for the bunker should have had another structure and be more resistant, in any case, it is thought their supply was entrusted to the same company that supplied the antigas ones, namely the Società Anonima Bergomi, a company specialized in the built of complete air-raid shelters.

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