It’s not every day you get to stride up to the door of a presidential palace. I show my passport, put my bag on the x-ray machine, am ticked off on a list and am waved through by smiling policemen in fancy uniforms. It’s as easy as that to get into Italy’s seat of power.
Perched on top of Rome’s highest hill, the Palazzo del Quirinale isn’t on most itineraries – tourists tend to get bowled over by the Trevi Fountain, down below, and not bother to tackle the steep hill up to the presidential palace. Not that it cares. Swaggering above the city with killer views across to the dome of St Peter’s, fronted by a vast pedestrianised belvedere complete with huge Egyptian obelisk and baroque sculptures of Castor and Pollux beneath it, it’s a bombastic entrance for even this, the capital of over the top-ness. Even the area around it is one patrician mansion and gargantuan palazzo after another. This place reeks of power, and it wants you to inhale.
No fewer than 30 popes and four kings of Italy have lived here. Napoleon picked it as his family residence when he conquered Rome. Today, it’s the official quarters of the Italian president. But these days, the Palazzo del Quirinale is rather more egalitarian in who it allows in. Every day, other than Mondays and Thursdays, it’s open for tours to the public – both in Italian and English, with the only requirement being signing up in advance and providing your passport details for security.
There are two tours – an 80-minute sweep of the main buildings and a two-and-a-half-hour marathon, which takes in the gardens, too. Rome is a city of green, fresh spaces – but I’ve heard these are particularly spectacular, so I plump for the long tour. I chose well.
The Palazzo del Quirinale is vast: the ninth largest palace in the world, 20 times the size of the White House, 1,200 rooms and 1,200,000sq ft of it sprawling over this peak of the city. Even on the long tour, we’re pushed for time. Past a corraziere (guard of honour) gussied up in a flouncy white jacket, epaulettes and horsetail-bedecked helmet, we enter the main courtyard – effectively an enormous piazza, surrounded by the buildings and wings which were gradually extended over the centuries, and watched over by a Madonna and Child sitting under a grand clock (don’t forget, before there were presidents there were popes).
Not that we can stop; urged on by our guide we’re taken through rooms chock full of porcelain, past walls draped in fine tapestries, up a monumental staircase to the salone delle feste – a riot of scarlet curtains, heavy chandeliers and gilded walls. Once the ballroom for the kings and queens of the house of Savoy, the room is now the spot where new governments are sworn in. Even here there’s a superlative at stake: the 3,000sq ft carpet is the second largest in the world.
We pass through rooms whose names say it all: the Corridor of the Busts, the Staircase of Honour, Room of the Tapestries from Lille, Hall of Mirrors, Napoleon’s Lounge. We see chandelier after chandelier; some made of Murano glass, one 20ft long with a 13ft diameter. There’s even a peek at the Cappella Paolina, built to the same proportions as the Sistine Chapel. Outside, down a level, we visit a collection of sumptuous carriages parked up in what used to be the old stables.
And then there are the gardens. They’re simpler than I imagined, but it’s a simplicity that makes them seem more special, after all the glitz. Everything has been laid out for maximum privacy, here – politics until the end. So instead of acres of lawn, they’re split discreetly up with a hedge here, a line of cypresses there. There’s the odd sculpture, a small fountain, a summerhouse, a supermodel-tall palm tree, but nothing too outré. It’s as if the VIPs of the Quirinale used this as an escape when it all got too OTT inside.
One of the last stops is a terrace overlooking the city. You can see the whole of Rome from here – not just the famous city centre hills but the rolling landscape of Lazio, beyond. Squaring off against us is the dome of St Peter’s. It normally looks so big, but from up here it looks almost insignificantly tiny. Two hours at the peak of Rome’s power will do that to you.
Tours of the palace are free, or the extended tours including the garden cost €10. palazzo.quirinale.it