Roffredo Caetani (1871–1961) loved music from an early age, thanks probably to the influence of his father Onorato, Duke of Sermoneta. The latter, born in Rome on 18 January 1842, was a lover of music and a musician himself. He met Wagner in Bayreuth and worked to promote the first performances of his works in Rome. From his father Michelangelo, Onorato inherited a close friendship with Franz Liszt and made him godfather of Roffredo, his second son. Liszt played a considerable role in Roffredo’s life, being the first to recognize his musical talent and to influence him to study the piano.

Roffredo Caetani’s work as a composer and performer was concentrated in a few years, reaching a peak in around 1909. From 1887 to 1904, he limited himself to instrumental music, composing not only 20 works for piano but also chamber and symphonic music. Later, between 1910 and 1940, he wrote two operas. All his work was published by the prestigious Schott publishing house in Mainz, Germany.

The first public performance, in a concert organised by the Società del Quintetto, was his Quartet Opus 12, with Giovanni Sgambati at the piano. It was given to critical acclaim at the Sala Dante in Rome in 1888, and led to his work being performed at national and eventually international level – for example in France, England, Russia and the United States.

Roffredo’s work was to some extent ignored in his own country, in the context of an uneasy relationship between full modernism and the 19th-century style of his musical forbears. Italian musical taste of the early 20th century was largely indifferent to chamber music, to which Roffredo was dedicated. ‘He should, however, be credited with having been among the first to uphold a return to instrumental music, so long neglected but which in fact had always sustained the predominance of Italian musical melodrama over all other forms of musical expression’1.

Exceptions to his concentration on instrumental music were his two operas: Hypatia and L’Isola del Sole. It is highly probable that this turn to a medium that embraced a literary dimension, or libretto, was due to Marguerite Chapin, who became his wife in 1911. Her early interest in culture was to become a lifetime commitment to the literary arts. In 1924 she launched the first of two literary reviews under the name ‘Commerce’. It lasted eight years and was directed by Marguerite herself who published the works of established and emerging authors of the first 20 years of the 20th century. Her second review, Botteghe Oscure, was published from 1948 to 1960 and was co-edited by Giorgio Bassani. In it there appeared, in their original languages, some of the finest examples of poetry and prose, contributed by an array of new talents soon to establish themselves as cornerstones of 20th-century literature. While Roffredo was never seen as a protagonist of this intense cultural fervour, he lived all its various phases and influences.

1 B. Origo, «Caetani Roffredo» in the Biographical Dictionary of Italians, pp. 225.

Isola del Sole, or The Island of the Sun, is a musical novel consisting of two Acts and an Epilogue, set in Norbia, Salerno, in the late Middle Ages. It tells the story of a wandering singer, Roario, and his love for Musella, daughter of a wealthy landowner. Their love is at first contrasted, then resolved on the island of the sun, Capri. The opera was performed in 1943 at the Rome Opera House.

The death of Roffredo’s son Camillo in 1940 was one of the reasons why Roffredo turned his back on public performance, and why his inspiration appeared to dry up. The last period of his life was therefore devoted to the rearrangement and classification of scores, manuscripts of published and unpublished works, concert programmes, correspondence and the filing of critical notices and reviews. These materials are kept in the Palazzo Caetani archives in via delle Botteghe Oscure, Rome.

Roffredo Caetani was always reluctant to communicate his feelings in writing, which is why today it is particularly important to perform his long-neglected works, leaving it to experts to study them critically and in context.


Lelia Caetani, painter and gardener, died in 1977 and with her one of the most colorful Italian dynasties.

Anatolius of the 9th century, Lord of Gaeta (south of Rome), is the first of the Caetani to gain visibility. The Gaetani flourished in Gaeta before spreading out significantly to the north and south of their native city at the beginning of the 11th century. In the 12th century the name Caetani appears to indicate an influential family from Lazio, known for its strategic links with other powerful dynasties such as the Orsini, the Conti, the Annibaldi.

In 1118, Giovanni Gaetani, a Benedictine monk from Monte Cassino, succeeded Pasquale II under the name of Pope Gelasius II.

Benedetto Caetani (1235-1303), whose family settled in Anagni, was elected Pope with the name of Boniface VIII. A competent canonist and patron, Bonifacio founded La Sapienza University of Rome. His pontificate was characterized by constant disputes with Philip IV of France. His provocative Bull Unam Sanctam (1302), an extreme affirmation of papal supremacy, led to his humiliating arrest at Anagni in September 1303 and the sacking of his palace. During his life Bonifacio increased the power of his family through territorial expansion.

In 1298, he acquired the papal fiefdom of Ninfa and the neighbouring estates which he then passed to one of his nephews in 1298. Ninfa was well fortified although not enough to save it from the brutal sacking of 1381, which occurred against the backdrop of papal war and intra-family disputes over the properties.

A brooding rivalry between the Caetani and Colonna families followed, in 1499, the confiscation of all the Caetani properties by Pope Borgia, Alessandro VI, then returned in 1504 by Pope Giulio II Della Rovere.

Despite this turbulent climate, the Caetani increased their influence, especially in the Pontine region, south of Rome. The impenetrable Caetani Castle at Sermoneta is a lasting monument to this great family, no less than the nearby ruins of the town of Ninfa with its 30-metre-high tower, a ducal castle and a town hall, seven churches, two convents and many houses – ruins of a once busy religious, civic and military centre.

In the 16th century there were two cardinals Caetani – Niccolò (1526-1585), appointed when just 14-years old, and his nephew Enrico (1550-1599), both of the family Sermonetan branch. Onorato IV Caetani, (1542-1592), the nephew of Cardinal Niccolò, was captain general of the papal infantry in the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and was on board the La Grifona, the first Christian ship to be attacked by the Turks. On his triumphant return to Sermoneta with his wife Agnesina Colonna, sister of the Admiral of the Spanish Pontifical Fleet, Onorato, in giving thanks, built the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Sermoneta. Pope Sixtus V appointed him 1st Duke of Sermoneta. His marriage to a Colonna was a further effort to reconcile the two families after such a long and mutual animosity.

In the late 17th century, Francesco Caetani (1613-1683), 8th Duke of Sermoneta, viceroy of Sicily, a prince ‘no less good at governing flowers, as men’, made efforts to restore Ninfa and bring it back to life. He is remembered for the propagation of tulips, at that time very fashionable.

While the Via Appia, following the western side of the Lepini Mountains, was one of the most important military and commercial routes of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, the territory itself was very rich. This lush land of the Caetani, practically the territories of Sermoneta, once had a boundary of over 100 miles. Since ancient times, however, there remained a colossal topographic challenge, the marshes. These had the periodic effect of rendering the Via Appia unviable. For centuries, the Roman emperors themselves, among them Trajan, tried in vain to drain them; then, with the papal purchase of Ninfa, the popes played their part, including Bonifacio VIII and Sixtus V, who died of malaria in 1590 after visiting the marshes. It was only in the twentieth century that an attempt succeeded, and the genius behind it was Lelia’s uncle, Gelasio Caetani (1877-1934) fourth son of Onorato. Able and resourceful like his father, Gelasio became Italian ambassador to the US ambassador and his face appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in April 1924. Passionate about the history of his family, he compiled the Domus Caietani.

He used the engineering skill and practical knowledge he had acquired during the war with Austria, between 1915 and 1917, to reclaim the marshes. The project, which included the use of explosives to create a series of drainage channels, was carried out with the collaboration of the work provided by the Italian State and completed in the early 1930s.

Palaces and strongholds associated with the Caetani remain – for example in Rome, Cisterna, Sermoneta and Fondi. Looking back, however, the history of the Caetani is not just about power and supremacy.

The twentieth century produced a Caetani generation steeped in academia and the arts. Suffice it to mention two of Gelasio’s brothers – Leone, a famous Islamist, and Roffredo, the father of Lelia, a gifted composer. Gelasio, who died in 1934, is especially remembered for the restoration of the ruins of Ninfa and for having had the vision, with his English mother, to prepare the ground for what would become a garden idyll that would one day capture the imagination of musicians, artists, poets and horticulturists from all over the world.

The Foundation, named after Lelia’s father, Roffredo Caetani, owns and manages the Garden and the Castle together with agricultural properties.