She is an art restorer best known for her work on Caravaggio’s The Pilgrims’ Madonna in situ at the Church of Sant’Agostino, making for the first open restoration project in Italy. He is Prince Prospero Colonna, in charge of managing the splendid Palazzo Colonna and its 700 years of history, intrigue and priceless art.
And this week we sit down with both of them, learning about Rome and what the Eternal City means to them.
Meet Valeria Merlini
GLH: Hello Valeria. Thank you for taking the time to answer a few of our questions today. Let’s start with a quick introduction. Tell us a bit about yourself and what your path has been like so far.
Valeria Merlini: My name is Valeria Merlini and I’m an art restorer and curator of cultural projects and art exhibitions. I was born in Turin and I moved to Rome when I was a young girl. I’ve lived here ever since. The first time it occurred to me to pursue a career in art restoration was when I was in high school, or more particularly, during a drawing class. One day my very strict teacher came to me, looked at my drawing and said: “You have absolutely no creativity, but you copy well. You could become a good art restorer”. At first, I was very upset, obviously, but then I started thinking about it, and at the end of the day, he was right!
GLH: That seems to have worked out wonderfully. And do you have someone who inspired you or contributed to making you the person you are today? A mentor maybe?
Valeria Merlini: My maestri, for sure. For a start, there is Maurizio De Luca, former head of the Restoration Laboratory of the Vatican Museums who was one of my teachers at restoration school and a mentor my whole career. He still is my mentor actually. Then there is Gianluigi Colalucci, who was the Chief Restorer for the Vatican’s Laboratory before De Luca and spent years restoring the Sistine Chapel frescoes. He taught me some of the most important lessons of art restoration.
GLH: Is there a well-kept secret of the city that we can get you to reveal? Or a secret address perhaps?
Valeria Merlini: In the historic center of Rome, right between the famous Piazza Navona and the Campo de’ Fiori, there’s a majestic palace called the Palazzo della Cancelleria and it’s a building with a secret that came to light during excavations carried out in the late 1930s. In the cellars of the palace, a Roman sepulcher was found submerged by an emerald-colored lake, some 3 to 6 meters deep. Throughout the year, depending on the climatic conditions, the lake creates this magical atmosphere underground. When my mentor, Maurizio De Luca, was working there restoring the Pallio Chapel once painted by Francesco Salviati, he brought me down there to show me the lake and it remains one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in my life.
GLH: And what’s the story of your connection to Rome? Why did you choose to open your studio with Daniela Storti here?
Valeria Merlini: Even if I wasn’t born in Rome, this is definitely my home and it will always be. It’s where I grew up, where I built a career and a family. When I decided to open my first studio, I had no doubts that Rome was going to be the city I wanted it to be. It all happened towards the end of 1989 when, along with a colleague, I was commissioned to restore all the frescoes and paintings of Palazzo Rondinini in Rome. After the restoration of the frescoes were done, we had to work on the paintings, and being pregnant with my first child I didn’t want to be in close contact with solvents, which we use for the cleaning of paintings. That’s when I met Daniela and we started working together. After we finished that project, we decided to open a restoration studio together and it’s a partnership that’s been going strong for 30 years now.
GLH: Do you have a project you worked on that ultimately became your favorite?
Valeria Merlini: I’ve restored so many beautiful and interesting pieces of art that it’s really hard to choose one. However, I would say that The Pilgrims’ Madonna by Caravaggio inside the Sant’Agostino Basilica was one of my favorites. It’s the first Caravaggio painting we restored in 1999, and we decided to restore it publicly, keeping the painting inside the Basilica and allowing the public to come in and see us at work. It was the first public art restoration of Italy, and the combination of the importance of the painting we were working on and the incredible experience of talking to the public about our work makes it a very special project for me and Daniela.
GLH: And if you had to choose your favourite place in Rome? What would it be?
Valeria Merlini: The terrace of Castel Sant’Angelo. It’s one of my favorite places because you have an amazing view of Rome and the Tiber river, but also because you’re standing on one of the most beautiful and iconic monuments of the city.
GLH: And finally, what does a typical day look like for you? Are there some places you go to often? A favorite restaurant maybe?
Valeria Merlini: My typical day? Well, I wake up, drink my coffee and walk to the restoration studio, passing through the beautiful neighborhood of Trastevere and the historic center. I’m usually in the studio until late in the afternoon because we are always working on so many projects at a time, and the stakes are always high as we don’t only restore paintings but we also curate cultural projects and exhibitions for various companies and groups of investors. In addition to that, we also offer a Restoration Experience in our studio to visitors who are interested in art and its various aspects. We welcome them in our studio and show them what it means to conserve artworks. In the middle of it all, we sometimes allow ourselves a nice lunch at the typical Roman trattoria Enoteca Corsi. It sits right in front of our studio and it’s been our favorite lunch spot since we moved in.
Meet Prince Prospero Colonna
GLH: It’s an absolute honor to be talking to you today. Thank you for taking the time to answer a few of our questions about Rome and, of course, the Colonna family. So, without further ado, let’s start with a quick introduction. Tell us a bit about yourself and your family.
Prince Prospero Colonna: I graduated in Political Science and worked for several years at a bank in Rome and then an industrial goods company in Tuscany. After my father’s death in 1990, I increased the access to the palace for the public and also for private visits. In 2015, me and my wife founded the “Fondazione Palazzo Colonna”. My family history dates back to the 12th century so there is a story of 37 generations to be told!
GLH: That story, as we understand, revolved around the main family residence in Rome, the Palazzo Colonna. What’s its history?
Prince Prospero Colonna: Palazzo Colonna was built by my family in different times, starting in the 14th century. We’ve always lived here.
GLH: And what’s the Colonna family’s connection to Rome? What explains this attachment that’s lasted for so many generations?
Prince Prospero Colonna: The Colonna family is one the oldest Italian families and among my ancestors, there are cardinals, one Pope, princes, senators and, in the 20th century, a 3 times mayor of Rome. You can say the Colonna family has been involved in the history of Rome from the beginning of time, particularly medieval and Renaissance Rome.
GLH: What inspired you to open your home to visitors?
Prince Prospero Colonna: Our love for art and culture that we believe must be preserved for the future generations. We try to do our best as curators and custodians of one of the most beautiful jewels of Rome.
GLH: Does a particular figure inspire you? Or perhaps someone who helped you be the person you are today?
Prince Prospero Colonna: I often think about my ancestors with gratitude…that they were so successful in so many fields. And the ladies in the Colonna family have always played a very important and inspiring role. Among them is the blessed Margherita Colonna and poet Vittoria Colonna who was a friend and muse of Michelangelo. More recently, my granny, Isabelle Colonna Sursock, and my wife Jeanne have been great inspirations to me.
GLH: Is there a well-kept secret of Rome that we can get you to reveal? Or a secret address perhaps?
Prince Prospero Colonna: I think Rome as a whole is the most impressive city in the world. I have seen many beautiful cities but, from a cultural point of view, Rome is truly special. I always recommend the Borghese Gallery, the Musei Capitolini and, of course, the Colonna Palace.Then, of course, nothing compares with the Vatican Museums but you need to give yourself enough time to admire, absorb and digest so much art history.
GLH: And finally, what does a typical day look like for you?
Prince Prospero Colonna: Everyday, before attending to my office duties, I enjoy inspecting every single room of the Gallery apartment, Princess Isabelle’s apartment and the Pio Pavilion. I supervise every detail of the daily maintenance, which I think is important to provide the best possible experience for our visitors in a family-like atmosphere. I am very grateful to my wife and staff who constantly support me. Our best reward is the appreciation of our visitors. When I have some free time, I love to walk with my dog in the palace garden up to the top terrace that offers a breathtaking view of Rome; It’s a deep and great emotion every time.
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