The Villa Borghese and an American Visionary in Rome

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By Piero Garau

ROME, Italy -- Villa Borghese is the name of the oldest and most famous city park in Rome. In Roman times, the site was known as the gardens of Lucullus ("Lucullian" is a term widely used to this day to denote very, very festive lifestyles). Later, it became a vineyard. Later still, at the end of the sixteenth century, Scipione Borghese, patron of the arts and nephew of Pope Paul V, turned it into a suburban place of leisure. He did not want to--he had to. His uncle made him a cardinal on condition he would glorify the family by erecting the most splendid residence in the city.

small.jpgIn 1901, thirty years after establishing Rome as its capital, the Italian state bought the 80-hectare property from the Borghese family and turned it over to the city of Rome to create a public park. The reason was similar to the one that had inspired Pope Paul V; this time a capital, rather than a family, wanted to celebrate itself . In 1903, the park was opened to the public.

David Lubin was a Jewish emigree from Poland who, after the usual ups and downs, had found success with a mail order company. After buying a property in California, he became aware of the difficulties small farmers had in shipping and getting a fair price for their products. He then conceived of forming an  organization devoted to the purpose of helping farmers. Turned down by his new compatriots, he went to Europe to sell his idea. Once in Italy, he thought it natural to present his plans to the king. Even more surprisingly, the king's handlers accorded him an audience.

Victor Emanuel III and his dynasty would later be dragged into ruin by accepting Fascist rule and launching Italy into a disastrous war adventure with Hitler. But in 1904 he was a young monarch, still with a sufficient sense of idealism to be fascinated by Lubin's drive, enthusiasm and ideas. What Lubin was proposing was to establish in Italy something that would give prestige to the new state: a truly international organization. So, the king agreed to help Lubin set up in Rome an International Institute of Agriculture (IIA). The Institute's goals would be collect data on agriculture, conduct studies on plants, cooperatives, agricultural credit, suggest to governments measures aimed at protecting farmers' interests and promote the improvement of their lives. In 1905, a conference of 40 states convened in Rome endorsed the idea.

And this is where Lubin and the Villa Borghese meet. In 1906, the location where the institute's building would be constructed was chosen inside the newly established park. Two years later, the IIA headquarters were complete.

villa roblisameehan.jpg

Villa Lubin, Park of the Villa Borghese, Rome. roblisameehan/flickr.

Lubin was not just a visionary. He was a man capable of turning his dreams into reality, and also a precursor. IIA lived on, and in the early fifties it transmigrated into something much bigger: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). FAO is worth visiting in Rome, but not only how its terrace one gives you one of the most stunning vistas in the world: on the ground floor you can visit the David Lubin Memorial Library.

Piero Garau is an Italian architect and urbanist who worked with the UN and taught at the University of Rome.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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