Palazzo Albergati: Baroque Brunch is served
by Eleonora Maldina
BOLOGNA – A sunny Sunday, late morning, brunch with your family. The picture of a fairly ordinary weekend. Except that this takes place in Italy, where ordinary becomes extraordinary on a daily basis.
The “extra” to the “ordinary” in this case is Palazzo Albergati, a majestic baroque villa from the 1600s that acts as the picturesque setting for an equally lavish gastronomic experience. Commissioned and built in the second half of the 17th century, the villa belonged to the Albergati, a noble and powerful family of politicians and diplomats from Bologna. It is located in the countryside near the town of Zola Predosa (only a few miles away from Bologna), and was supposed to serve as the family’s summer country house. Only, it was – and still is – much more than that.
Designed by the renowned local architect Gian Giacomo Monti and built in about 20 years, Villa Albergati quickly acquired the denomination of palazzo (palace) because of its impressive size and its sumptuous interiors that truly reflect the Baroque flair at its finest and create a stark, yet pleasant, contrast with the sober exterior. Such contrast nicely represents the multiple functions of Palazzo Albergati: vacation residence, but also headquarters of the family’s agricultural business and – perhaps most importantly – status symbol. If on one hand on the floors of the large atrium we can still see the marks from the wagons carrying products from the surrounding fields, on the other hand it only takes one flight of stairs to be in the presence of vast and exquisitely decorated halls whose ceilings are enriched by beautiful frescos.
When walking inside the villa, one cannot only easily understand but also experience the level of prestige this noble family must have enjoyed in the 17th and 18th century. Every detail of Palazzo Albergati tells us a story of opulence and power: its impressive staircases, each featuring different designs and shapes; its magnificent Great Hall that develops on two floors and culminates in a tall cupola decorated with a beautiful clock on the ceiling; its precious – and almost entirely original – furniture, including chairs, handles, glass and marble details.
But it is only when we look up to the ceilings that we can truly admire the Albergati’s contribution to their own fame as well as to Baroque art. Three cycles of frescos ornate the walls of the Palazzo, representing mythological scenes and subjects bearing allegorical, political and moral meanings. These superb works of art were produced between the 1600s and 1700s by some of the major exponents of the Bolognese school, such as Alboresi, Colonna, Burrini, Bigari, and Valliani among others.
That Palazzo Albergati was built and “dressed” to impress becomes even more patent when the tour guide tells us some anecdotes about the villa’s grand opening party. During and after construction rumors about the family being on the verge of bankruptcy due to the excessive expenses spread among the Bolognese aristocracy, so the owner Girolamo Albergati decided to prove them wrong by having his guests sit on bags of gold coins instead of chairs. A rather proud gesture that said: we are so rich that we can sit on our money.
What makes Palazzo Albergati even more unique today is that we can now enjoy it (almost) like Napoleon, Goldoni, Voltaire and its other illustrious guests did centuries ago. After the death of the last member of the family in 1855 and a tumultuous 20th century, the villa was acquired by a company specializing in events and now hosts conferences, banquets, exhibitions and gourmet Sunday brunches followed by a guided tour of the building. Held in the fresco-decorated dining halls of the main floor, the spring brunch is a truly sensorial experience: long buffet tables covered in local delicacies occupy two of the halls, while a third room is entirely devoted to nicely displayed desserts. In other words, a feast for the eyes and for the stomach. Spacious halls decorated with pleasant rural scenes are filled with round tables where guests are seated. While enjoying a delicious antipasto and chatting with your dining companions in this beautiful setting, it is easy to feel transported back in time and relive the experience of luxury, conviviality and merriment that must have pervaded the Albergati’s baroque banquets and parties. After all, dreaming doesn’t cost a thing. Or, as in our case, it only costs the price of a brunch.