Mission to Rome

In an excerpt from his new book on the architecture of diplomacy, James Stourton recounts the creation of the British Embassy in Rome


James Stourton

Luke White

In his new book ‘British Embassies: Their Diplomatic and Architectural History’, James Stourton tracks the parallel stories of the UK’s foreign relations and the buildings design, adopted or adapted to accommodate its missions to 26 countries, from Japan to Afghanistan. Here he recounts the move to new premises in Rome after the second world war, which were later extended by Basil Spence, and where the British Embassy remains to this day. 


Thirty-six arches of the first-century Neronian aqueduct adorn the garden

The British embassy survived the war, but during the night of 31 October 1946 it was blown up by a Zionist group; a new and more secure building was needed. One available option was the former German embassy, which, as it had been used for non-diplomatic purposes, had been entrusted to the Allied Control Commission after the liberation of Rome in 1944. This was the Villa Wolkonsky, into which the British moved in 1947, buying the freehold in 1951 for £190,000. The property is named after Princess Zenaida Wolkonsky, a most attractive figure who entertained the literary and artistic world. She acquired a large tract of land close to St John Lateran in 1830. While she built only a modest villa, she created a famous sylvan garden. Her descendants sold much of the land and built the present much larger house, which became the German embassy Residence in the 1920s. In 1938–40 they enlarged the house by adding two wings and an upper storey. The most astonishing feature of the property is to be found in the garden, the thirty-six arches of the ruined first-century AD Neronian aqueduct.

First glimpse of the Villa Volkonsky

The drive from the gates up to the Residence immediately tells you that this is different: greenhouses display a gallery of antiquities excavated from the gardens; then the great aqueduct looms into view, and finally a distant glimpse of the Residence appears at the top of a rise – a picturesque view if ever there was one. Arrival under the raised porte-cochère reveals a large, patrician nineteenth-century villa painted in the local yellow ochre, with dark green shutters. Its detailing may be a little crude, but the house has an air of splendour – and use. Internally, it has a grand set of rooms with marble floors arranged in a parade. The Hall opens up to the visitor with marble pillars, gilt furniture and old master paintings. A series of reception rooms follows, furnished with tapestries derived from the Raphael Cartoons (lent by the Duke of Buccleuch) and the most arresting painting in the house, A Boar Hunt at Persano led by King Ferdinand IV of the Two Sicilies (c.1792–3) by Johann Tischbein, in which a demure Lady Hamilton can be identified. There are even some Renaissance paintings, including a Madonna and Child by Marco Basaiti. The most characterful room is the small state dining room, in Colefax and Fowler raspberry stripes, against which hang a view of Rome by William Marlow and a portrait of the Old Pretender. The ballroom, with its yellow marble door surrounds and marquetry floor – in one of the wings added by the Germans – is in a lighter mode, and is enlivened with Piranesi prints of antique vases collected by British Grand Tourists. The drawing room, also in yellow, holds two fine paintings: Piazzetta’s Adoration of the Magi and a Schiavone Madonna and Child with St Anne, alongside a bust of Queen Victoria and a collection of British books on Roman history, starting with Edward Gibbon.


The entrance with coloured marble floor and Renaissance Portrait of a Lady by Bernadino Licino

The garden front is the prettiest, with a terrace and double sets of steps leading down to the lawn. It is in the garden that the genius of the place resides, and although reduced to a third of its size since the days of the Princess, it is still an astonishment. Where else could one find a Roman aqueduct, a view of St John Lateran, a rose garden, a scattered wealth of antiquities and a copy of the Temple of Hercules Victor? The garden has recently undergone a judicious programme of editing and planting which has brought the aqueduct into focus, and allowed its spaces to breathe.

When the British first occupied the villa they put the chancery in the Princess’s old villa (extended to become the German chancery) and used other outbuildings as temporary offices. The immediate diplomatic problem after the war was Trieste. The extraordinarily complex negotiation for the administration of Trieste under the terms of the Peace Treaty required an additional forty members of staff, who were put to work in the undamaged remnants of the chancery at the Porta Pia. Trieste was fiercely argued about among the victors.


Top: Ballroom built by the Germans in the 1930s
Above: The hall

Saving it from incorporation into the Eastern bloc may have been Britain’s greatest contribution to the story. The main fear in London and Washington during the 1960s was that Communism would take control in Italy, an anxiety that diplomats in Rome thought was exaggerated.

But it was not all politics at the villa in such a popular city as Rome – there were many fashionable visitors. One who came to stay almost every year was Princess Margaret, and her visits are sometimes cited as the inspiration for Audrey Hepburn’s escapist role in the 1953 Roman Holiday. One ambassador who very successfully played the cultural card was Ashley Clarke (1953–62). He would hold lectures and concerts at the Residence, sometimes playing the piano himself. It was Clarke who used some existing columns to create the Temple of Hercules in the garden. The obvious site for new offices was Porta Pia but it would require something extraordinary for the Italians to allow a side-stepping of the site’s protective designation as a park.

The small dining room in Colefax & Fowler wallpaper

Basil Spence, then President of the Institute of Royal British Architects, was riding very high in the profession when in 1958 he was chosen to build the new embassy offices in Rome. He was just completing his rebuilding of the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral, but was suitably awed at the commission next to Michelangelo’s Porta Pia. His original budget was £250,000 which, given his perfectionism, was always going to be inadequate. He wanted to invoke something of the power and might, as well as the layout and detail, of a Roman Renaissance palazzo. Professor Luigi Nervi was the consultant whose role it was to reassure the Roman local authorities, a collection of bodies that, given the sensitivity of the site and area, needed careful handling.

Spence was officially appointed by the FO in 1959 and set to work in 1960–1, hoping this would be his next masterpiece. His plan was for a square of sixteen sections joined ‘like a necklace’, each supported by a single column. Spence wanted it to have a classical unity and inasmuch, be part of the same ‘blood group’ as its immediate surroundings. Taking on a distinguished local architect for the planning application in Rome proved successful, but dealing with the British government turned out to be much more challenging. By 1964 the building estimates had risen to £950,000, and the squash court, swimming pool and flood lighting had been excluded from the design. There was then a long delay during the British financial crisis, when it was agreed to revisit the designs in a couple of years, but with a cap of £1 million. George Brown, then Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, had told the architect that he should take his design and ‘Throw it away! We don’t want that sort of thing.’ The Government delayed the project until 1966–71. Meanwhile, Evelyn Shuckburgh (ambassador 1966–69) stressed the importance that the Italians attached to appearances, stating that this was one nation on which the importance of building in grand style would never be lost.

The courtyard staircase of Spence’s embassy

Basil Spence’s trophy embassy still has the power to surprise and impress. Is it a palazzo or a castello? Almost square, it stands on its pillars, offering a grand formal approach into a courtyard and then up the ambassador’s staircase leading to the piano nobile with an entrance that is surmounted by the Royal arms. The enclosed courtyard is Spence’s most flamboyant stroke, with its baroque double staircase that curves around the prow of a battleship – a reference, presumably, to British naval power. In fact, the ceremonial drive up from the main gate was never used owing to demand for increased security, and the grand staircase became consequently redundant other than for special events.

Each floor of the building is carefully articulated, the first floor with bays, the second with marble ‘shields’, and above them giant eaves that not even Vanbrugh would have dared employ. Taking his references from Michelangelo (though not actually referring to the Porta Pia), Spence is using marble and stone like sculpture.

The Porta Pia facade with its canal

While the drama of building the Spence embassy was unfolding, Britain found an ally in Italy with regard to her application to join the European Economic Community. As Rodric Braithwaite wrote in 1966, ‘The British cultivated the Italians when they needed a counterweight to the French or the Germans.’ Even Mrs Thatcher, whose enthusiasm for Europe was equivocal, fell under the spell of Rome. In May 1979, Prime Minister Cossiga, whom she rather liked, gave a dinner for her. As one of her entourage, Michael Butler, recalled: ‘It was a brilliant, moonlit night, and after dinner she persuaded Mr Cossiga to take her for a walk in the moonlight in the forum, and she got home in very good form at about quarter to midnight.’ The attraction of the post for visitors took its toll on the occupants of the Villa Wolkonsky, and one ambassadress, Maria Fairweather, reckoned that in their first year they entertained 380 houseguests and welcomed 5,000 to events. Between September and Christmas they spent only two nights on their own, and she admitted ‘By the end I was almost crying with fatigue.’ She did find time however to start writing a life of Princess Wolkonsky, with whom – being half Russian – she felt a particular affinity.

A greenhouse converted for the display of antiquities found in the garden

During Ivor Roberts’ term as ambassador (2003–6), he observed ‘Mr Blair and Mr Berlusconi enjoyed such a warm relationship that bilateral problems were non-existent… Berlusconi was very enthusiastic to accommodate Tony Blair’ – he also noted that they always spoke together in French. Although the diplomacy has had its highs and lows, none of these have been dramatic, and in recent history there has been a close coincidence of interests at the European Union; the NATO partnership has been more successful still. However, in the end, the most important relationship between the two countries is still the sentimental one – two countries that greatly enjoy each other’s peoples and culture.

‘British Embassies: Their Diplomatic and Architectural History’
James Stourton
Photographs by Luke White
Frances Lincoln, 350pp, £40


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