Serra Moresca, the Italian for Moorish greenhouse, remained in dire condition for decades and was reopened to the public only recently after years of renovation by the Roman Council.
Just like the other buildings populating this atypical park in Rome, it bears original architecture, dazzling decorative patterns, and optical illusions.
Boasting bright polychrome glass doors and windows and an elegant design in peperino rock, iron, and cast iron, after years of renovation, Serra Moresca conveys the same vibe and class that welcomed the guests of the Torlonia prince in its heyday.
A man-made grotto, small lakes, beautiful light interplays, and a collection of exotic plants complete the outlandish style that defines Villa Torlonia, one of the places to visit in Rome, especially if you are staying more than three days.
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History of Villa Torlonia’s Serra Moresca
Erected between 1839 and 1840 from a project of architect Giuseppe Jappelli, the same who designed Casina delle Civette in the same Villa Torlonia park, Serra Moresca is a greenhouse built and decorated in a Moorish style. Jappelli, summoned in Rome by prince Alessandro Torlonia who had the opportunity to appreciate his former English-style gardens, took inspiration from L’Alhambra, one of the highlights of Granada in Andalusia.
Before coming to Rome at the request of the Torlonia family, Jappelli had worked at Villa Saonara and Villa Treves in the northern city of Padua where he added several features considered part of the English-style gardening such as a grotto, a temple, and Gothic-style ruins.
The whole complex of the Moorish greenhouse is very original in the Roman artistic and architectural scene with only a few other earlier projects that might remind of it such as the lake of Villa Borghese where Antonio Asprucci in the late 18th century built the Aesculapius temple. Even though these became landmarks in Rome, English-style gardening never really became an established cultural feature in the city.
The first changes within the complex of the Serra Moresca were brought about already in 1905 with the creation of the house for the gardeners that in 1920 became the house for the poultryman.
Just like the other buildings of Villa Torlonia, also the complex of Serra Moresca was found in a terrible state of decay and the restoration was possible thanks to historical documents such as the description of the villa that Italian politician Giuseppe Checchetelli wrote in 1842, the evaluation architect Parisi did in 1905, and the drawings of the same architect in charge Giuseppe Jappelli.
Architecture of Villa Torlonia’s Moorish Greenhouse
Serra Moresca greenhouse
Apart from the sophisticated shapes and patterns of the Spanish Alhambra, Villa Torlonia’s Serra Moresca was built as a scenographic representation of the places Ludovico Ariosto mentioned in his Orlando Furioso.
Sometimes referred to as “stufa”, heater, because of the warm temperature necessary to grow exotic plants, the actual greenhouse of the Serra Moresca complex is a large space with a very tall glass ceiling, colorful glasses on the sides decorated with rich Moorish motifs, and a wall-mounted fountain.
The two longer walls of the Serra Moresca are framed by stone pillars carved with Moorish-style patterns and covered with fake trompe l’oeil curtains. The front wall facing the entrance is also decorated with large bright colored glass windows like the exterior, with the difference that inside, they added mirrors to increase the reflection effects.
The decorative elements of the greenhouse are the work of painter Giacomo Caneva inspired by James Canavah Murphy’s book The Arabian Antiquities of Spain.
Entering Serra Moresca felt like stepping over a secret garden rather than a simple greenhouse. The charming interplay of lights and colors and the selection of exotic plants such as palms, pineapple trees, aloe, and agave. It’s not very big so the visit won’t actually take long. There are some chairs placed there for visitors in case you want to linger a little longer in a relaxed environment.
Modern history was merciless towards this lovely colorful corner and several features and elements got lost. Originally, Jappelli had envisaged a sliding panel where a small orchestra could fit, but already in 1905, this didn’t exist anymore. In the same place was mounted the fountain that we can still see, supported by a cast-iron female figure that is now decorating a small fountain in Casino dei Principi, another building of Villa Torlonia.
Where is now the bookshop and ticket office was the space that linked the greenhouse to the kitchen on the upper floor. On top of the door is an inscription in Kufic characters that Checchetelli translated into “God’s blessing descend on Prince Alessandro Torlonia powerful in God”. This to reiterated the tribute towards the Torlonia family recurring also in the other buildings.
Tower and grotto
After the greenhouse, I suggest you take a little bucolic tour around the tower, the remains of the man-made grotto, originally built as the place of the Nymph (Nymphae Loci), the fake ruins, and the small waterfalls and lakes where you will see lotus flowers and water lilies floating.
Unfortunately, the tower is not accessible yet. I have enquired and was told that restoration works are going on so I’m hoping it will soon be accessible to visitors.
When in use, the tower was connected to the greenhouse through a passageway that led to the grotto with lakes, waterfalls, and hanging trails of which very little is left. The tower is made up of three floors connected through a helicoidal staircase.
The second floor served as a kitchen while the upper floor was a small and very elegant dining hall with large stained-glass windows and walls decorated with colorful stucco work. Here, in the middle of the room, was a large round sofa that, when needed, was lifted up to make space for a set table laden with food coming from the kitchen downstairs with a special effect that never failed to impress the guests.
Unfortunately, now none of this still exists. The sofa and the table are lost and all that remains are the signs on the wall for the runners of the machinery.
The man-made grotto built by Jappelli doesn’t exist anymore but the structure on top of it is still visible, such as the fake ruins of a medieval castle and a tower. What was the entrance to the grotto is the inscription Nymphae Loci, the place of the Nympha, and little lakes and waterfalls inside.
I always love strolling around Villa Torlonia and its several buildings. Serra Moresca is a jewel that has reopened after years of neglect, so I absolutely recommend carving some time out of your itinerary to uncover a lesser-known side of Roman culture and history.
Check out our articles for more hidden gems in Rome.
Plan your visit to Villa Torlonia’s Moorish Greenhouse
- Address: Via Nomentana 70. From the entrance in Via Nomentana, you need to do a bit of a walk, very short, and go sort of behind the Casino Nobile. You will see the signs and the park is not very big so it’s not difficult to find.
- How to reach Serra Moresca: By metro (Sant’Agnese Annibaliano and Bologna stations, B line), by bus (62, 66, 82), and by tram (2, 3, 19).
- Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10 am-7 pm. Closed on Monday.
- Entrance fee: The ticket for Serra Moresca only costs 4€, but if you want to visit more than one landmark, you can purchase a discounted collective ticket. These are the options: Casina delle Civette + Casino Nobile + Serra Moresca: €11.50; Casina delle Civette + Casino Nobile: €9.50, Casina delle Civette + Casino Nobile and Casino dei Principi (with the eventual temporary exhibition): €11.
- How to buy your ticket: The ticket offices of Villa Torlonia are only in the Casino Nobile or the Serra Moresca (which opens at 10 am instead of 9 am). In the high season, it’s recommended to book your ticket online from the official website or over the phone by calling the number 060608. Pre-sale charge is 1€.