When in Rome

Do as wealthy Romans do and head up the coast to this marvelous 17th-century villa hotel, once the home of Jean Paul Getty.

I could never imagine J. Paul Getty cozying up to anything but an oil well. Which is why La Posta Vecchia—once the tycoon's seaside villa and for the past 10 years an elegantly eccentric hotel—took me by surprise. The hotel, with Getty's furnishings left nearly intact, reveals a certain depth of passion in that wintry titan of industry—specifically a lust for Roman antiquities.

Mind you, this was accompanied by visions of empire. Anyone who has ever seen the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, modeled after a first-century Roman villa, knows Getty venerated antiquity—and bought as much of it as he could (as long as the price was right). Norris Bramlett, his personal assistant, has been quoted as saying, "He wanted to make sure his name would be perpetuated as long as there was civilization." But in his own mind, Getty went even further: According to biographers, he was convinced he was the emperor Hadrian reincarnated.

Well, everyone to his own delusions, especially if they lead to something as utterly disarming as La Posta Vecchia, a mid-17th-century villa retreat in the decidedly unaristocratic town of Ladispoli, located a mere 40 minutes northwest of Rome. It is as fascinatingly contradictory as Getty himself. Throughout the three-story house are swaths of marble and stone, noble tapestries, and imposing pieces of 16th- and 17th-century Italian and Spanish furniture—all with a heavily ecclesiastical bent. Such an ensemble should make a guest feel the urge to confess in a whisper (or to make a quick detour to Capri), but after just a few minutes, quite the opposite happens: You sink into the hotel's arms. By the time you've spent a day at La Posta Vecchia, the idea of venturing out to see the glory that was—and is—Rome seems superfluous, as there's quite enough to explore within the villa's walls. The ground floor alone is bursting with Gobelin tapestries, 16th- and 17th-century paintings, inlaid marble, and pietra dura tables—plus a surfeit of downy velvet couches and chairs so you can curl up and steep yourself in history.

The sense of aristocratic entitlement begins as you pull up to the door and find a staff member outside waiting for you. Frequently it's the stylish young manager, Harry Charles Mills Sciò (pronounced Show), the thirtysomething scion of industrialist Robert Sciò, who in the 1980s bought La Posta Vecchia as a weekend getaway for his family before turning it into a hotel. (The elder Sciò had already made Il Pellicano in Porto Ercole a mandatory summer stop for the terminally chic.) Harry's imposing name belies his exuberance and humor, qualities that immediately defuse the sometime solemnity of the surroundings, such as the bust of the emperor Vespasian staring you in the eye in the spacious foyer. But just beyond, a series of doors opens to the terrace, the sun, and the sea. Just stepping out into that Mediterranean air erased all thoughts of the packed-to-the-gills flight the previous night. To the right of the terrace, the 15th-century Odescalchi Castle poses prettily. And it's more than a prop: Its owner, Prince Ladislao Odescalchi, who was an acquaintance of Getty's, introduced the oil baron to this spot of land and sold him La Posta Vecchia. I might as well admit it right now: Show me a stone terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, the merest scattering of umbrella pines, and a terra-cotta facade sun-bleached and peeled to perfection, and like any hopeless Italophile, I'm a goner.

The appeal of La Posta Vecchia is unlike that of any other high-toned, high-priced hotel. In true aristocratic fashion it doesn't strain to impress, in spite of the treasures it holds. The look is restrained, rather than overdressed. The mood is laissez-faire and low-key. In the towering library bookcases the latest John Grisham dog-eared paperback shares shelf space with priceless leather-bound volumes of Diderot's Encyclopédie. If you want service and advice, it is there for the asking, and offered gracefully and expertly. The hotel captures its full share of boldface names, but the atmosphere is more Country Life than W. The latest Pradas and Armanis surely fill the closets of La Posta Vecchia's clientele at home, but here tweeds and blue blazers are more the rule.

This is no faux-country house extravaganza. A hotel this comfortable in its own skin doesn't happen overnight. It matures and mellows, much like the innumerable Persian rugs set on highly glazed terra-cotta floor tiles that run in different patterns throughout the villa. Not one inch of the hotel appears as if an interior designer had just tiptoed away after placing a pile of unread coffee-table books at just the right angle. Many of the bedrooms and suites have televisions that sit forthrightly on oak tables instead of being coyly secreted in armoires. The villa's bathrooms still have their fanciful tiles and irreplaceable aging brass fixtures, and there is no attempt to disguise old electrical outlets and a homey confusion of plugs. The upholstery here is on that comforting cusp between worn-in and worn-out. When the hotel closes from November to April for annual upkeep, the greatest burden is to make sure nothing repaired looks too new. (When the facade was recently repainted, its imperfections were intentionally left intact.) As Sciò explains, "We don't want it to look like a hospital!"

Although there is evidence of ancient life strewn everywhere about the countryside and along the shore—the magnificently restored Ostia Antica is 20 minutes away—the town of Ladispoli itself hardly evokes splendor, ancient or modern. It is an unprepossessing, low-rent neighborhood for such a high-class hideaway. I'm sure I'm not the only guest who was dismayed by the drive through town, and who sighed with relief when the electronic gates opened to reveal the hotel's parklike precincts.

What first attracted J. Paul Getty to this highly unlikely spot? Echoes of ancient Rome: Julius Caesar and Tiberius are believed to have had villas along this coast, so it was only natural that Getty chose this spot to fulfill his fantasy of embodying the spirit of Emperor Hadrian, Ladispoli notwithstanding. By the time Prince Ladislao Odescalchi sold Getty La Posta Vecchia in 1965, the villa had been empty for nearly 50 years and had gone to seed. Its rebirth was a five-year project that involved meticulous restoration, a Greco-Roman art expert, several of Getty's mistresses, and the discovery of two Roman villas from the second century b.c. beneath the foundations.

Money and sex always ran a close race for preeminence with Getty, if his biographers are to be believed. Even if some of what they've written is fiction, they captured the image the oil magnate chose to propagate. He publicly accessorized himself with handsome women. Penelope Kitson, described by Russell Miller in The House of Getty as "tall and slender, striking more than beautiful, intelligent, and the epitome of a well-bred Englishwoman," was at the time his court favorite. When they met she already had a husband, three children, and a job in a London art gallery, but she left it all to devote herself to Getty. He admired her eye for design, so he had her redo the interiors of his fleet of oil tankers. Miller quotes him as stating: "There is no earthly reason why a tanker should be any less attractively decorated than one's home or office." It's hard to argue with that. (In his will, Getty decreed that the responsibility of the interior decoration of the villa go to Kitson; a rival mistress was granted maintenance of the exterior.)

Over the years, the Roman art historian Federico Zeri educated Getty, feeding his passion for antiquities, and catalogued his growing collection. Their bouts of acquisition were a collaborative effort, although Getty was already rather accomplished in this field. In The Great Getty Robert Lenzner writes of Getty's plan in the 1930s to "become a man of culture . . . indulging his newly developed taste for oil paintings and antiques." In the 1940s he began gobbling up Gobelins, remarking in his diary that "prices are the lowest of the century." That was Getty's style. His attention was just about equally divided between the top of the line in art and the bottom line. Never mind. The guests of La Posta Vecchia are the beneficiaries of all those buying sprees.

The rooms on the first floor of the hotel still bespeak the majesty of the Getty days: intricately coffered ceilings in a dark wood akin to walnut, the same wood in the doors and very tall working shutters, broad-shouldered fireplaces with surrounds of carved stone, the wonderfully old-fashioned (but fully functional) bathrooms with robes by the new Italian producer Piedersoli waiting to envelop the bather, big beds with excellent mattresses and piles of pillows, comfortable couches and armchairs mostly in mustards, blues, and greens that reflect the dominant colors of the tapestries, and iron lamps in all heights made from church candlesticks and topped with maiden-aunt lampshades. About half the rooms overlook the sea.

As I toured the villa with Harry Sciò I tried to envision J. Paul Getty in residence (which didn't happen very often; second- and third-generation Gettys made better use of the homestead). We started our inspection with the Getty Suite, which exudes power. Nonetheless, it is a rather dour setup: a massive oak wardrobe and a 13th-century Gothic loo—the hotel's oldest wooden antique—used as a chair. When I said it was a room that I couldn't settle into with a light heart, Sciò understood immediately: "It was never a family room—even when we were here."

But it is a window into J. Paul Getty's life. Open the wardrobe door and you will find another door, a connection to the Medici Suite, which is as grand as its name implies, although a lot friendlier than the Getty Suite. The bed is covered in a regal blue that matches the painted (as well as heavily gilded) headboard, which was once part of a baptistry. The step-down bathroom stars a pink Carrara-marble bathtub that Cecil B. DeMille would have loved. The suite was named for one of the house treasures: the carved and painted Maria de' Medici dowry chest, which sadly had to be banished to a first-floor public room because its resemblance to a coffin made hotel guests uneasy. The two suites reminded me of nothing more than Shelley's "Ozymandias": "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

But that is certainly not the message in the rest of the hotel. The small Olive Suite, for instance, has a Della Robbia terra cotta of the Madonna and Child; the Colonna Room has a bed surmounted by a Pompeian-red baldachin like a whimsical crown. I didn't get to see the Castello Suite (named for its view of the Odescalchi Castle) because the people occupying it were never out when I went exploring, but it's a great favorite with return guests. The Park Suite has a painting of the Madonna and Child that Getty, despite the Uffizi's opinion to the contrary, was convinced was a Raphael. Though he took pains to prove its provenance, it was finally deemed an excellent 17th-century copy (claimed to be the only copy in the hotel).

My room, the Garland Suite, was altogether irresistible. Over the fireplace, opposite a bed that was carved with garlands, two fleshy little putti half-reclined naughtily in an oval frame. The Spanish baptistry in the sitting room was a Baroque symphony of gilded garlands, foliage, angels, and cherubs. It's the finest example of the hotel's hallmark: the use of massive furniture to make rooms of epic scale seem almost cozy.

The third-floor rooms at La Posta Vecchia, which are smaller and have lower ceilings, were carved out of the original children's quarters. When I was at the hotel, this series of guestrooms was done in bold circus colors—a "designer" look that seemed a bit at odds with the rest of the property; but since my visit I understand the colors have been toned down somewhat. Also on the third floor is a meeting room (there have been a few pre-G7 conferences here).

I left the embrace of the Garland Suite reluctantly, the hotel even more so, forcing myself off the premises on two occasions. One day I went to the Vatican Museum— about 40 minutes away down the Via Aurelia—and joined every other nationality on the face of the Earth in squeezing into the buffed and brightened Sistine Chapel. Then I was torn between visiting the Etruscan towns of Cerveteri and Tarquinia and the Ostia Antica, said to be the best-preserved Roman town after Pompeii and Herculaneum. I opted for Ostia Antica, which at its height, 1,600 years ago, was a sprawling and vivid Roman seaport. The sun bounced off the remains of mosaics, temples, warehouses, baths, and rooms as I wandered in the company of groups of Italian schoolchildren wearing the universal uniform of baggy jeans and backward baseball caps—American Empire meets Roman Empire.

Actually, I needn't have left the hotel to encounter ancient Rome: It's in the basement. Just down a flight of stairs from the bar are the remains of two ancient villas unearthed during Getty's restoration project, along with displays of Etruscan oil lamps, urns, and sculpture. The basement museum houses an ongoing restoration and recovery project, being carried out with the advice and consent of the Italian government (sometimes, as you can well imagine, snail-slow in coming). The villas most likely were the property of prosperous merchants trading in this part of Italy, which was, through a link with the Tiber, once Rome's main outlet to the sea. There is a sense of joy and celebration in the rare, sophisticated geometrics of the mosaic floor, and in the trompe l'oeil patterns in marble that line the walls. As Harry Sciò remarked, "Marble is as plentiful as Formica around here."

The basement museum became a touchstone during my stay at La Posta Vecchia, though more worldly, but no less aesthetic, attractions vied for my attention. In the sitting room and library, which has a massive stone fireplace, I gazed at self-important carved chairs, golden draperies pooling on the floor, great, exuberant wood sconces, a footed bowl bursting with purple irises, and tapestries overflowing with wildlife and flowering trees. The only thing that was missing, related Sciò, was the Raphael tapestry, which was out being mended by the Vatican's experts.

In the dining room, tall windows look out to sea. These windows once had magnificent Fortuny draperies, but they made the room seem too much like a cocoon. They've been replaced by billowing, white curtains that seem to echo the open air. It's one example of the subtle changes and additions that have been made by the Sciò family to successfully lighten the look and atmosphere of La Posta Vecchia; another is the use of celadon porcelain throughout the establishment. Still another example is the menu, which instead of the usual luxe ingredients concentrates on heightened, deliciously straightforward home cooking. La Posta Vecchia's chef, Pino Redaili, prepares terrific pastas, risotto with ever-changing ingredients, vegetables from the hotel garden, sea bass, squid, and clams from nearby waters, and grilled chicken and meats.

In between morning and midnight coffee, sitting seemed the ideal activity—and the ideal place, no matter the time of day, was La Posta Vecchia's lovely terrace. From here, canted back in a smartly striped navy-and-white chair, I stared out at the sea, at the fishermen spreading their nets, and at the Odescalchi Castle.

The modern world sat like a mirage on a point of land far off to the left. One late morning a couple right out of Love, Italian Style (he with mustache, she with flowing auburn hair) sipped orange juice between impassioned kisses, then rushed right back to their room. I saw them checking out a half-hour later, and I drank a silent toast to their ardor.

Way To Go

GETTING THERE La Posta Vecchia is just 40 minutes from central Rome by car. Limo service to and from Fiumicino Airport is available through the hotel and costs $100 each way.

RATES La Posta Vecchia's room rates range from $400 to $515; suites range from $800 to $1,230. (Prices include service, 19 percent tax, and breakfast.)

SEASON The hotel is usually open from the beginning of April through mid-November, but this year the season has been extended through January 2001.

RESERVATIONS Contact La Posta Vecchia, Palo Laziale 00055, Ladispoli (Roma), Italy; 39-6-994-9501; fax 39-6-994-9507;
Web site: www.lapostavecchia.com.

Ila Stanger, a New York-based writer and longtime contributor to Departures, is the managing editor of more magazine.