Villa Aurelia, property of the American Academy in Rome, from the time of its construction has assumed various names accompanying changes in ownership: Villa Farnese, Villa Borbone, Villa Giraud, Villa Savorelli, Villa Heyland.
The Villa was built by Cardinal Girolamo Farnese (1599 – 1668/69) atop the Gianiculum, along the Aurelian walls close to Porta San Pancrazio. The property had belonged to Pope Paolo III as part of the Farnese family vineyards.
The exact date of construction is unknown, but assumed to be between 1650 - when Girolamo Farnese became governor of Rome - and 1667, the date of his nomination as Cardinal. In 1670 there was a documented inventory of the assets of Cardinal Farnese. Carlo Cantari, the papal inspector, offered an accurate description of the property. He stated that the original structure, conceived as a lodge, was built above one of the ancient towers of the city. It was only during construction that the building plans became those with the character, dimensions, and for that matter, cost (40,000 scudi) of a villa. A short distance from the Girolamo Farnese contstruction, according to Cantari, was the "simple habitation of the elder Cardinal Farnese (Paul III)", which the younger Farnese had painted and restored.
The Carlo Cartari description corresponds roughly to the central body of the Villa that remains today. The ground floor was composed of three large rooms and several smaller spaces, the latter being directly above the Aurelian wall. A spiral staircase in peperino led to the upper floors: the mezzanine composed of three rooms and the top floor of two large rooms and one smaller environment, believed to be the summer bedroom of the Cardinal. Of the large salons upstairs, one had windows facing both St. Peter's and the city below. Off the grand salon was the long, narrow gallery which faced the Porta San Pancrazio, where Via Garibaldi is today. Cartari also described the decorations of the building which, while not furnished, had richly painted & stuccoed walls and ceiling vaults painted by the Lauri and Schorr schools.
The Villa remained in the hands of the Farnese family until 1731 when, after the death of the last duke of Parma, the possessions of the Farnese family passed to the Borbone of Naples. The Borbone, however, never used the Villa, preferring to rent it to various ambassadors, dignitaries, cardinals and, in 1774, to Count Ferdinando Giraud.
After the death of Ferdinando Giraud a lengthy contestation between his heirs and the Borbone family ensued regarding fees due for the rental and conservation of the property. The issue was not settled until 1841 when the Giraud family agreed to purchase the Villa, paying a nominal sum due to the dilapidated state of the structure. That same year the Giraud family sold the entire property to Count Alessandro Savorelli of Forlì. Savorelli, heir to a noteworthy fortune, was the owner of a candle factory which he moved to the Villa grounds. To accommodate operations Savorelli undertook numerous projects to enlarge and restore the buildings, contracting the services of the architect Virginio Vespignani.
In 1849, during the French invasion of the Roman Republic, the Villa, with its advantageous position, was used as the headquarters of General Garibaldi. The property, as a result, was heavily bombarded. The roof and southern façade were almost entirely destroyed. It is also likely that the original home of Paul III was destroyed as well, as many images from after the war demonstrate.
With the return of the Pope, Savorelli reassumed his commercial activity. All signs indicate that he received state compensation to cover repairs to the property, reconstructing the south façade and the spiral staircase. Savorelli's fortune in the 1850s did not match his earlier success, and after his death in 1864, the Villa changed hands again, passing to the Monte di Pietà.
In 1885 the Villa was purchased by Clara Jessup Heyland, the American wife of an English officer who had been injured at war in India. Under the care of the Heylands, who lived year-round in Rome, the property was named Villa Aurelia and extensive restorations both to the buildings and gardens were completed.
In 1909, in accordance with Mrs. Heyland's will, the property was bequeathed to the American Academy in Rome. At the same time, the Academy, lead by J. P. Morgan, one of its founders, purchased a large piece of land close to the Porta San Pancrazio with the intention of building new facilities for the institution.
Immediately after the Second World War, in 1946 – 1947, the Academy started restoration work on the property, managed by the Academy director, Laurenze Roberts, and by the architect Bruno Zevi.