Since opening its doors to a group of thirty students from Syracuse University in 1959, the Villa Rossa has been a home away from home for thousands of students over the years. One of the fundamental challenges every one of these students has had to face is that of creating a sense of place and belonging in the city. Ultimately, each student forges a uniquely personal amalgamation of people, places, and things that gives meaning and substance to the experience of being in Florence. One of the places, however, that figures largely in the common experience of all the students is the Villa Rossa itself, which day in and day out serves as a unifying point of reference.
The following is a brief story of the construction of the villa and its evolution from the private residence of the Gigliucci family to the long-time home of the Syracuse University Florence program.
In 1886, the family of Mario and Edith Gigliucci, who had come to Florence just seven years earlier, moved into the Villa Romana on Via Senese (south of the city center), where they would live for the next six years. It was during this time that Mario Gigliucci began thinking seriously about building his own home in Florence. Several years prior, Mario had acquired a plot of land in Piazza Savonarola, just outside the boundary of the old walls on the north side of the city. Though the medieval walls that once surrounded the city had been demolished in the 1860s as part of Giuseppe Poggi’s reurbanization plan, the social stigma attached to the division between urban and rural life marked by those walls persisted in the minds of many Florentines, particularly among the nobility. Some of the Gigliucci’s friends openly criticized this location saying that it was too far from the center of town, out in the middle of fields. Nonetheless, this location – which straddled the boundary between urban and rural Florence – allowed Mario Gigliucci and his family to enjoy the best of both worlds.
In the late 1880s, Piazza Savonarola was little more than a field of poppies around a statue of Fra’ Girolamo Savonarola erected in 1882.
In 1892, the Gigliucci family moved into their new home.
The exterior design of Gigliucci’s villa (or villino, as he referred to it) did not follow the typical scheme of either an urban palazzino or a country villa. Its asymmetrical, three-part design reveals how it differed from the unified, monolithic form of the traditional late 19th-century Florentine palazzo or villa. The exterior presents other unorthodox elements, such as the small corner loggiato over the entrance door, the walkway decorated underneath with hanging baskets that wraps around to a side terrace, and the rooftop garden that looked out over the front of the house.
Exterior: Front View
In contrast, the interior spaces follow a more traditional pattern.
The basement was reserved for practical purposes such as the kitchen and storage spaces.
The first (or ground) floor was dedicated largely to family life with two studies (one for Mario Gigliucci and another for his wife), a large and small sitting room, and a dining room fitted with beautifully carved wood panels.
The second floor was reserved for bedrooms and guest rooms.
The top (third) floor consisted of a playroom for the children, which opened onto a rooftop terrace, and more servants’ quarters.
From top to bottom the four levels were connected by two sets of servants’ stairs, or “secret stairs” as they were called, hidden away on either side of the building.
A large, elegant staircase connected the first and second floors for the family’s use.
Count Mario put a great deal of time and effort into designing each and every detail of the villa to create a beautifully unique environment. Though the second-story and some ground-floor rooms no longer have their original tempera paint designs, the decorations in many of the other rooms remain. In some of the former bedrooms, today used as administrative offices, one can still see the ceiling borders composed of ribbons, poppies, passion flowers, wild grapevines, and other flower motifs and fanciful patterns, reflecting the immediate rural surroundings.
The wrought iron banister of the main staircase is just one example of Gigliucci’s attention to detail.
1959 to the present
Between 1959 and now, the elegant interior and lush garden of the Gigliucci villa has provided ample space for Syracuse University to grow from the first class of 30 students to become one the largest American university programs in Italy of its kind, with ca. 650 undergraduate and graduate students per year, still mostly living with host families.
Though very few of the Gigliucci family’s furnishings and effects have remained in the Villa and some changes have been made to the structure to accommodate the practical needs of the school, the spirit of the house as the Gigliucci knew it lives on. For the Gigliucci family, the Villa was the focus of everyday life and in many ways defined their ties to their adoptive city of Florence, just as it has done for Syracuse students. It is, in a sense, a place whose mission extends far beyond the boundaries of its walls as it unites the students, faculty and staff of Syracuse University in Florence with the Florentine community and the diverse foreign communities – such as the German artists at the Villa Romana – within Florence itself. Though the growth of Florence has made it more an urban villa than one straddling city and country, the Villa Rossa continues to negotiate between two worlds, uniting generations of students and their European hosts across the Atlantic.