Dear Old Monte P.
Visitors, students and staff alike have a great fondness for ‘dear old Palazzola’, the Venerable English College’s beautiful villa just outside Rome, with its unrivalled views of Lake Albano and Castel Gandolfo. It is a place of rest and relaxation, of fine meals in the summer sun and excursions to the surrounding countryside. For many students, it is here that they make retreats, receive the ministries and are ordained deacon.
For generations prior to 1920, however, the name of a town a few miles away brought back similar cherished memories: Monte Porzio, near Frascati.
John Meagher, a Liverpool priest, reflecting in the mid-1920s on his student days, wrote ‘the name breathes balm and benediction; it is odorous with the perfumed memories of youth.’ (The Venerabile, vol. 2, no. 3, October 1925, p. 211). Another enthusiast of ‘dear old Monte P’ was a former rector, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman (1802–65), who said on his London deathbed: ‘I am sure it would do me more good to have a long talk about Monte Porzio than to be kept so much alone. I can see the colour of the chestnut trees, and Camaldoli, and the top of Tusculum…’ (W. Ward, The Life and Times and Cardinal Wiseman, 1898, vol. 2, pp. 510–11). Indeed, it was here, as much as in Rome, that he developed his brand of Romanità which had such an influence on English and Welsh Catholicism.
The ‘villa’ at Monte Porzio was originally a property belonging to the English Jesuit college founded at Louvain in 1614 and which moved to Liège ten years later. The English College at Liège became the chief place of formation for the English Province of the Society of Jesus (established in 1623). Among its portfolio was a vineyard at La Magliana (on the outskirts of Rome, near what is now EUR) and properties at Monte Porzio. All of these properties were looked after and used by the Jesuit administrators of the Venerable English College, which had many links with Liège. Monte Porzio quickly became the favourite summer residence for staff and students of the Venerable English College, away from the excessive heat of the city. Following the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773, the house passed into the ownership of the Venerable English College.
It would be easy for a modern visitor to Monte Porzio to walk past the old villa. Situated on the Via Giuseppe Verdi, it is today a rather dilapidated complex containing a police station, a small shop, apartments and an excellent restaurant (Cantina Romoletto). Yet, despite the entrance on a busy street and the cramped building, with its rabbit-warren of rooms and corridors, its real glory were the grounds. In the words of Wiseman:
the garden side stands upon the verge of the hilltop and the view, after plunging at once to the depths of the valley, along which runs a shady road, rises up a gentle acclivity, vine and olive-clad, above which is clasped a belt of stately chestnuts, the bread-tree of the Italian peasant, and thence springs up a round craggy mount looking stern and defiant, like what it was – the citadel of Tusculum.
This summit was a favourite haunt and rich with history – the site of an ancient Etruscan settlement founded, in legend, by Telegonus, son of Ulysses and Circe. Notable Romans such as Cicero had had villas in the area and, more recently, the medieval dukes of Tusculum had built their stronghold there.
The College decamped to Monte Porzio after Easter each year and for the villeggiatura between August and October. Students went there also to recover from illness or to shelter from epidemics and troubles in Rome. At Pentecost 1889, for example, the College community ‘escaped’ there after a statue of Giordano Bruno was erected in the Campo de’Fiori and a bout of anti-clericalism was expected.
Student diaries reveal what life was like during these times of vacation. The timetable was relaxed, although the day still began with meditation and Mass in the little chapel on the top floor, which was ‘nearly always 60° before we crowded in’ (J. O’Connor in The Venerabile, vol. 10, no.2, p. 120). The morning was supposedly reserved for study, though how much was actually accomplished in the summer heat is debatable. There was recreation after lunch and often the chance for a walk, especially to Tusculum, where students dozed in the shade, read books, wrote poetry, enjoyed picnics and even caught birds and butterflies. On other days there were opportunities for longer excursions. After dinner and night prayer, students would typically gather on the terrace where, ‘in easy chairs, the walkers rest their tired limbs, and drink in the delights of the cool Italian night’. Discussion could be lively; for A. N. Barrie, ‘a balcony argument has come to mean one which is carried on ad inifinitum’ (Baeda, vol. 3, p. 147).
Unsurprisingly, the College became well-known to locals – I remember visiting Monte Porzio twenty years ago and meeting those who remembered that there had once been an English presence there. During the villeggiatura, there were opportunities to encounter the wider community. The diary of Richard Browne, a student between 1825 and 1830, shows a particular interest in socio-economic conditions, giving details of hours of work, wages, diet and educational background of those he met (VEC Archive, Scr 122.1). The College also participated in red-letter days, such as the feast of the town’s patron, St Antonius, on 2 September.
Perhaps the greatest moments in the College’s long connection with Monte Porzio were the visits of two popes: in 1827 Leo XII (1760–1829) and, in 1864, Pius IX (1792–1878). When the former joined the College community for lunch, he remarked that ‘it is seldom that a poor Pope can enjoy the pleasure of sitting down to dinner with such a fine set of men’ (see Wiseman, Recollections of the Last Four Popes, 1858, pp. 313–322). These were highly significant visits at a time when the English and Welsh Catholic community was rapidly growing and enjoying better conditions. Plaques commemorating the visits were hung at Monte Porzio and later moved to Palazzola.
The last villeggiatura at ‘dear old Monte P’ took place in 1917. A visitation the previous year had condemned the building as unsuitable and unhealthy. More space was urgently needed. In 1920 the former convent at Palazzola was purchased and remains a jewel in the Venerabile’s crown. However, next time you see Monte Porzio on a label of Frascati wine, salute this unassuming little town, which holds a subtle and unique place in English and Welsh Catholic history and summed up, for many, what the ‘Roman experience’ was all about.