I first read about Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne and its owners (above) in Roman Mornings by James Lees-Milne: "The Massimi are a family of the greatest antiquity and claim descent from the patrician Fabius Maximus who in 202 B.C. had led the armies of Rome against Hannibal. Of their origin they have long been exceedingly proud and about its authenticity correspondingly sensitive. When Napoleon interrogated one of the Massimi with that brusqueness which intimidated most people: "Is it true that you are a descendant of the Roman general?" he received the curt retort: "I cannot prove it, but the tradition has been current for over a thousand years in my family."
Their earlier palace on this curving street (formerly known as the Papal Way and now called Corso Vittorio Emanuele) was destroyed during the Sack of Rome in 1527. Rome's first printing press, established and maintained by the family, was also lost with that house. Baldassare Peruzzi replaced it with the present building, completed in 1536. Among architects and scholars Peruzzi's portico across the entrance with its six Doric columns has become a model of refined detailing in the service of perfect proportions.
When I arrived at Palazzo Massimo I could definitely hear the voice of James Lees-Milne reaching me from the 1950s. "To step from the pavement straight into the portico for the first time is an unforgettable experience of good architecture," he was saying.
Out of "a relentless inferno of roaring traffic," Lees-Milne continued, any passerby can freely enter "one of the most exquisite creations of the European Renaissance."
My own favorite feature was the row of built-in travertine benches (below), "whose cabriole legs and pawed feet are marvels of carving in a most intractable material."
For the past five hundred years people have been wandering in off the street to take a little rest in a small space "decorated in the grandest manner conceivable to civilized man" – a gift to the city from the ancient Massimi, whose descendants still live in the house. The interior is opened to the public on just one day every year, to commemorate the miracle in 1584 when a young member of the clan was raised from the dead by St. Philip Neri. I intend to schedule my next trip to Rome to coincide with this solemn occasion.