Rome, sweet Rome

Make yourself at home in the villas where popes and painters flourished, says James Hill

The villas of Rome are renaissance and baroque dollops of architectural beauty, hugged by parks and gardens situated in the heart of the city – although once they stood in open countryside. In ancient times, Roman villas were farms, but then popes, cardinals and even bankers went on to re-interpret the idea, in the process giving us some of the greatest art and architecture in the city (as well as somewhere to jog).

Villa Torlonia

Villa Torlonia is Rome's most recently refurbished museum complex, originally built in the 19th century by Rome's arriviste Torlonia family, the French banking clan which bank-rolled the Pope just as Napoleon rolled into Italy. It's like an architectural Woolworths with a fussy "pick and mix" approach to architecture, from the saccharine twee of the Casina delle Civette – a cross between a Swiss alpine lodge and a medieval church – to the neo-Palladian, neoclassical cool of the Casino Nobile (a small house rather than a gaming den), which is full of wall frescoes and whiter-than-white sculptures.

The villa became Mussolini's official residence from 1925 to his downfall in 1943 and pre-war Fascist footage often filmed him obsessing over his children in the now clipped and well-tended park which surrounds the main museum. No doubt the kids adored playing in the uncompleted family bunker he had built under the villa. You can still creep down and visit it.

Villa Torlonia (; Open Tues-Sun, 9am-7pm during the summer; shorter opening hours in winter. Admission €4.50 (£3.75).

Galleria Borghese

Built as a palace of pleasure rather than a place to be lived in, the intimate Galleria Borghese is the concoction of the then Pope's nephew, the jolly, podgy and big-spending Cardinal Scipione Borghese. In the early 17th century, he backed some of the most talented (and badly behaved) superstar artistic yobs in Rome. When they weren't getting into trouble, Caravaggio and Bernini produced some of their greatest work for him. Here you'll see the pick of the former's paintings and the latter's early sculptures including Caravaggio's Madonna dei Palafrenieri and Bernini's theatrical Apollo and Daphne.

After a breathless two-hour slot in this packed gallery you can walk, meander, run, bike or even take a little toy train around Rome's largest central park. It was once a hard-edged formal renaissance garden but in the 1770s, Sir Jacob More smoothed out the edges and sculpted an English-style park in the heart of Rome, with plenty of umbrella pines and architectural folly to play hide-and-seek behind.

Galleria Borghese (pre-booked tickets only from 00 39 063 28 10 for bookings or visit Open Tues-Sun, 8.30am to 7.30pm. Admission €10.50 (£8.75).

Villa Farnesina

This was once the pad of the Bill Gates of early 16th-century Italy, Agostino Chigi, a papal backer, publisher, alum-oil exporting business mogul and renaissance squire. He built his villa in what was then countryside on beside the Tiber, and which is now the slightly passé district of Trastevere.

Known for throwing his best silver plate into the Tiber after a lavish meal just to impress his guests (he had a net at the bottom of the river ready to retrieve it later), Chigi hired the greats of the time to decorate his villa. These included Raphael, who famously couldn't get round to finishing the job so Chigi moved his girlfriend into the house. Today, most of the garden has been chewed off by a busy Tiber-side road but the villa contains jaw-dropping frescoes, busy with the narrative of Cupid and Psyche, in the loggia overlooking a once pristine renaissance garden. Upstairs are the first trompe l'oeil architectural perspectives in Rome. Best of all, this is one of the most cro wd-free museum experiences in the city.

Villa Farnesina (00 39 066 80 27 267; Open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 1pm. Admission €5 (£4.10).

Villa Doria Pamphili

Further westwards, beyond the Gianicolo hill and Vatican City, scrolls of French-style box parterre lined with lemon pots have remained pretty much as they were when they were laid in the 17th century by the Pamphili family in the Villa Doria Pamphili. Naturally there's a little family villa to go with it all, but more importantly this is prime running and bird-watching space, the city's largest park. Most of the baroque splendour – the symmetrical alleyways and trickling fountains – has been swept away but there are still surprises such as a little Doric temple.

Villa Doria Pamphili. Open daily, from dawn to dusk.

Villa Ada

Another large park, north of the city centre and just off the ancient Via Salaria. Villa Ada has more activities than any other in the city. Suburban Romans hire bikes, canoes and ponies, and even take part in free gym lessons which the council puts on around the little lake on a Sunday.

Villa Ada. Open dawn to dusk.

Villa Giulia

When a certain Ciocci del Monte pipped Cardinal D'Este (he who then built the Villa D'Este at Tivoli) to the papal post to become Pope Julius III in 1550, he didn't envisage his renaissance villa as one of the top archeological museums in the world.

One of Rome's great Renaissance villas is tucked away in a corner of Villa Borghese and became one of the most lusted after and copied buildings of the 16th century. The Pope didn't live long enough to enjoy his house, but today it contains one of the great Etruscan collections. This collection is a revelation to anybody that ventures out from the Via Flaminia. A 6th- century BC Apollo with his clothes on is a highlight – and there are plenty of jewels, pots and bronzes to keep everybody hooked.

Museo Nazionale Etrusca di Villa Giulia (00 39 06 32 00 562) Open Tuesday to Sunday from 8.30am to 7.30pm. Admission €4 (£3.30).

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