The Villa Borghese and an American Visionary in Rome

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.

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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.