Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Il Palazzo and La Pizza Margherita

After landing at Fiumicino, we boarded a van and headed into Rome.  A meandering drive on a busy road took us past ancient sights and eventually to a quiet neighborhood where our hotel was located.  From the Renaissance until the later part of the 19th century, this entire area was the expansive grounds of the Villa Ludovisi with elegant aristocratic residences surrounded by gardens of bougainvillea and rhododendron and bordered by towering holm oaks and cypresses.  Shortly after the unification of Italy, the area was transformed into an elegant, fashionable suburb anchored by a new palazzo on the Via Veneto erected for a Ludovisi descendent named Don Rodolfo, the Prince of Piombino.  This imposing rose-colored building is what we would come to know as the Palazzo Margherita, a predominant landmark that welcomed us back to the vicinity of our hotel after a long day of touring.

While walking or traveling by bus or taxi, it would be difficult to miss the Palazzo Margherita since the original structure along with several other buildings are now securely encircled by concrete and metal perimeter fencing with guard booths on both the Via Veneto and the Via Boncompagni where Marines are stationed.  In addition to these obvious signs, the American flag hanging from the façade identifies the entire compound as the American Embassy in Rome.  Despite the severe security measures of this contemporary government site, the warm pink brick construction and decorative cream-colored stone dividing the stories and marking the corners of the Palazzo Margherita conjure up an earlier era.  The moments spent slowly passing along its distinctive façade at the end of the day raised questions about its brief history and why the building shared a name with the famous pizza that many of us had ordered at least once. 

It turns out that both the palazzo and the pizza are associated with the queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, who moved into the building on the Via Veneto on Christmas Day 1900.  Her son, King Vittorio Emanuele III, purchased the property from the Prince of Piombino whose family had occupied the palazzo for a brief decade before failed investment strategies and swelling debts forced its sale. Securing the Piombino estate ensured an appropriately grand residence for the queen who had only recently been widowed as a result of the assassination of her husband, King Umberto I.  She would live at the palazzo that would take her name until her death in 1926.

Margherita was the daughter of the Duke of Genoa, Ferdinando of Savoy, the brother of Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of a united Italy.  She married her first cousin Prince Umberto, heir to the throne, in 1868, and became a “una grande speranza” or “a great hope” for the recently founded Kingdom of Italy.  In January 1871, Princess Margherita and her husband arrived in Rome to set up a royal court at the Palazzo Quirinale where the pope had resided until just days prior to her arrival.  As the new capital of the young nation, Rome was divided between the Black Nobility who remained loyal to the pope and the White Nobility who backed the newly crowned king.  By the time Margherita became queen in 1878, she had won over the citizens of Rome with her public engagements, charitable efforts, and commitment to the development and defense of her beloved Italy.  As King Umberto I’s consort, she came to represent the new country with her beauty, charm, and numerous athletic accomplishments, especially her prowess as an alpinist.  As a widow and queen mother, Margherita established the Palazzo Margherita as the center of social and cultural life in the capital where she played out her role as a patron of chamber music, Italian literature, and charitable events, which benefited the poor children of the city and endeared her to the Italian people.  When she visited the nearby Villa Borghese, people looked forward to a glimpse of the former queen as she passed by in her carriage.  Another peak into her regal world was possible when she entertained at the Palazzo Margherita where the warm lights of the chandeliers illuminated the queen mother and her visitors through the second-story windows of the piano nobile. With her death in 1926, the Palazzo Margherita became the property of the state and was occupied by the offices of the department of agriculture until the end of World War II.  At that time, the United States government acquired the building to serve as the American Embassy in Italy.    

How did the beloved queen of Italy so strongly tied to the Palazzo Margherita and the Ludovisi quarter of Rome become paired with a plain pizza?  A long-lived, yet flawed, legend explains the connection.  In 1889, Queen Margherita visited Naples where she was honored with three variations on the famous Neopolitan flatbread dish.  She selected the one that featured the three colors of the Italian flag as her favorite and since that time the pizza topped with tomato (red), basil (green), and mozzarella (white) has been called Pizza Margherita.  Although this backstory is likely untrue, it makes perfectly good sense that the queen who was the most adored regal representative of the United Kingdom of Italy (she was called “the only man in the House of Savoy”) would prefer a patriotic pizza. 

On more than one evening, a group of us would sigh as the Palazzo Margherita came into view halfway up the Via Veneto.   As we trudged past the fences and guards, spotted the U.S. flag decals affixed to the gates, and made our way toward the hotel, we talked about the sights, sounds, and tastes of Rome.  The prim and proper queen would likely be surprised at our casual clothing, dirty backpacks, and half-filled water bottles, but she would be delighted to know how much we love her city and a slice of simple pizza.