I have lived next door to this Villa since I moved to Trieste.  Sealed off to the public by iron gates and a stone wall and video cameras with a sign warning “Military Zone – Keep Out – Armed Guards” I was of course even more curious to understand how this once beautiful villa came to be under military command. Luckily for me, the Giornata del Patrimonio Culturale Europeo (European Heritage Day) rolled around and the Villa was finally opened to the public this past weekend.

What one can see right away, is that this was, in fact, once a sumptuous villa situated in a very large park – 7.4 acres to be exact – nearly adjacent to the waterfront (back then the area now known as the “rive” had not yet been filled in). This area once lay outside the walls of the old city and was designated to become a neighborhood for the wealthy. Several large villas belonging to the premier merchant families of Trieste and members of the Austrian court sprung up nearby and the neighborhood became known as the Borgo Giuseppino (for the Hungarian Emperor Joseph II).

The villa was originally built in the mid 1700s for Franz Xavier Freiber von Konigsbraun as a country home and it boasted the first Italian garden: formal, with symmetrical plantings, making full use of adjacent landscapes. As is customary with this type of design, a “playful”  waterscape was featured prominently thanks to a small river that passed under the land — there were fountains, ponds and streams incorporated into the layout. Several follies also dotted the garden.

It was then sold in 1776 to wealthy merchant Domenico Perinello who dubbed the villa, Villa Anonima and 10 years later it was sold to the dutch merchant Ambrose Strohl del Strohlendorf who was swindled by his business partners and was forced to sell the villa.

In 1790 the villa was acquired by a new owner, the “great customs officer” Antonio Cassis Faraone (Pharoon), born in Damascus in 1745, a Muslim convert to Christianity, he was Sultan of Egypt’s finance minister, and, a rumored fugitive who moved to Trieste with all his wealth  to evade a palace conspiracy.  Renamed Villa Cassis, it was renovated both inside and out to reflect the exotic taste of the new owner who filled the house with an immense collection of paintings and works of art. Cassis delegated the garden plan to master builder Giacomo Marchini who created a spectacular garden with an elaborate Orangerie, pergolas, giant statues and more elaborate fountains and water features. His principal aim was to stun the town’s nobility by turning the villa into a dazzling and exotic residence reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights. Together with his beautiful consort Tecla Ghebara, Cassis and his 10 children would promenade through Trieste dressed in the most fashionable clothing of the time, complete with a jeweled turban and scimitar for him and his wife adorned in spectacular jewels. In Trieste he established himself as the premiere import-exporter for the middle and far east amassing an even greater fortune. To his credit Cassis did a lot of philanthropic work for the city and was a major cultural patron and the first owner of the Giuseppe Verdi Opera House in Trieste. It’s said that after each performance he would be met by his turbaned Moor footman who would accompany him and his wife home in their resplendent carriage.

After the untimely death of Cassis in 1805, his heirs rented the villa to Marie Leszczynska, Queen consort to King Louis the XV of France and her children who moved to Trieste from 1806-1811, seeking refuge after the French Revolution. Not long after, in 1819, the villa was sold to Napoleon Bonapart’s younger brother, Jerome Prince of Monfort and King of Westphalia and his wife Caterina of Wurttemberg. Once again the Villa enjoyed a period of “regalness”, as it became a satellite royal court for the Bonapartes, where they were referred to as “their majesties” and no expenses were spared.

The Bonapartes transformed the façade with the insertion of the clock in the central tympanum with a small niche originally intended for a bell and they added Napoleonic eagles to decorate the fireplaces in the main hall.  Princess Catherine, ordered the construction of a pergola to provide a view across the gulf, she also commissioned a chapel and a theater and filled the home with sumptuous furnishings, removing all traces of the exotic style of Cassis Faraone, including the gigantic statues and exotic plants.

It is here that “Plon-plon” (Prince Napoléon-Jérôme Bonaparte b.1822 -d.1891) was born,  a major figure in the unification of Italy.

In 1827, the villa once again changed hands and was purchased by the Consul General of Switzerland, Theodore Necker. In his role as diplomat, he revealed himself as a capable problem solver, intervening in commerce related maritime disputes. While in Trieste, he also became involved in banking and lending, amassing for himself several properties throughout the city. In 1849, Necker died in his home in Switzerland and his heirs then sold the villa to the Austro-Hungarian Navy which turned the villa into a command center.  At the height of the Austrian Littoral period, the villa once again played a protagonist role hosting captains and crews of visiting war ships. However, by the end of the Austrian rule over Trieste, the villa fell into the hands of Slovenian militia for a brief period, and then Italian troops soon took over and from that time forward, the villa was passed from one military command to another:

1851-1918 Seebezirkskommando Austria
1918-43 Italian Military
1943-45 German Command
1945 Yugoslavia (Titini)
1945-54 Allied Troops (UK & US)
after 1954,  Italian Military took over the villa through the period of Trieste’s reunification to today where it is now under the command of the Commando Militare Esercito FVG.

The structure, has three floors above ground. It is in the Neoclassical style,  with the facade divided into five parts. At the center of the ground floor stands a semicircular portico with columns on pedestals, which frame the three arched entrances. The upper lintel has a classical frieze decorated with metopes and triglyphs, to which rosettes corresponding to denticles correspond in the band above. This structure supports a semi-circular terrace the parapet is a balustrade in white stone with plaques decorated with floral reliefs, on which three window doors with a triangular tympanum open. There are several panduri heads that serve as water drains.

The central part of the façade is emphasized by the presence of a larger tympanum with a clock, ending with a pediment. Neoclassical style vases are placed on the top of the façade. It is said that ships coming to Trieste, would look for the illuminated clock-face to get their bearings, as one would use a lighthouse beam. Also on the property are a bunker and air raid tunnel leading to Campi Elisi on the shore.

Sadly, today, there are none of the sumptuous furnishings as many were looted in the various occupations. The terrace over the portico is crumbling and is being held up by straps anchored to the frame of the building. The gardens are overgrown with fallen trees and weeds everywhere. Few remnants and ruins of the once palatial garden fountains and follies can be found buried under the brush. Three tennis courts languish under the overgrowth and it now serves mainly as a home for feral cats…

It is a shame that this once beautiful treasure has been so neglected. At one time the City of Trieste was going to take it over but the effort got tied up in red tape. It would be so lovely to be able to restore the garden and make it available to the public – perhaps even creating public gardening spaces to be leased. Surely this green oasis ought to be rescued…who knows if there is some hope of restoring this famous garden to create a green space in the center of the city?

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