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The newly restored nymphaeum of Villa Giulia (image via @erybin/Instagram)

The centerpiece of a Renaissance villa in Rome, once used as a papal country retreat, has been restored to its former glory, with financial backing from an unexpected source: a group of anonymous Japanese donors. The stunning nymphaeum (a type of monument built in homage to the nymphs) of Villa Giulia, built by Pope Julius III between 1550 and 1555, now boasts gleaming mosaic and marble work, all set in a lush, sunken water garden. Designed by the Florentine Bartolomeo Ammanati under the supervision of Giorgio Vasari, it’s an oasis near what’s now the heart of the city. Today, the villa houses the National Etruscan Museum.

The nymphaeum of Villa Giulia in 2008 (photo via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

Restoration on the richly decorated nymphaeum began last September, after Italy’s culture ministry received a €25,000 (~$27,000) donation following a visit by a group from Japan, according to ANSA. The benefactors requested for their names to be withheld and asked that their generosity not be acknowledged during the official inauguration for the spruced-up grotto, whose architectural wonders were for so long hidden by wild plants and left at the mercy of the elements. The courtyard reopened to the public several weeks ago.

“Not only had it turned gray and was plagued by moss and mold, but initial structural problems had also arisen, especially with the mosaic,” Alfonsina Russo, the Superintendent for Archaeological Heritage of Southern Etruria, told ANSA. “We had been used to seeing the nymphaeum entirely of one color, since the floor had become black. But one elderly employee spoke about it having had colors and some of the ancient drawings rose doubts.”

The massive mosaic covering the floor, which depicts a muscular Triton blowing his twisted conch shell, now fully reveals a border with tiles of varying shades of green and blue. A path set with a pattern of colorful marble connects it to the central fountain, which draws water from the Acqua Vergine. The recess features caryatids sculpted by Vasari and Ammanati that support a travertine marble balcony, which wraps around and overlooks the entire nymphaeum. The restorers now realize the women actually sport different expressions, possibly to symbolize tragedy and comedy.

“We used to see them as very serious,” restorer Antonio Giglio told ANSA, “but the four in the second row are clearly laughing.”

Hieronymus Cock, “Courtyard with Fountain in The Villa Of Pope Julius III” (1582) (engraving via Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

Il Ninfeo di Villa Giulia

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...