Remembering Desideria Pasolini Dall'Onda, who battled to protect Italy's ecology and cultural heritage

Writer, translator of Virginia Woolf, and historian of gardening and farming she became a champion of conservation by co-founding Italia Nostra

Desideria Pasolina Dall'Onda is made Cavaliere di Gran Croce, Italy's most prestigious civilian award, by President Carlo Ciampi, 2001 Courtesy of Italia Nostra

Desideria Pasolina Dall'Onda is made Cavaliere di Gran Croce, Italy's most prestigious civilian award, by President Carlo Ciampi, 2001 Courtesy of Italia Nostra

Desideria Pasolini Dall’Onda was a co-founder in 1955, and later the president (1998-2005), of Italia Nostra, the association for preserving Italian cultural and natural heritage set up in the face of property speculation and unbridled redevelopment in the years of the Italian “economic miracle” and by the revival in 1951 of an old Fascist party plan to build a new road through the centre of Rome. Pasolini's co-founders included Elena Croce, daughter of the philosopher Benedetto Croce, the novelist Giorgio Bassani, author of The Garden of the Finzi Contini, as well as enlightened members of landowning families such as Filippo Caracciolo and Hubert Howard, custodian of the miraculous gardens at Ninfa, south of Rome.

In the 66 years since its foundation, Italia Nostra has grown to protect landscapes such as the park which buffers the suburban stretch of the Via Appia Antica, on the south side of Rome, a notable and symbolic achievement. Where Italia Nostra is public in scope—holding property developers, landowners, local government and museum curators to account, with regional officials across the country—the Associazione Dimore Storiche, founded with Pasolini's support in 1977 by her brother Niccolò, a distinguished lawyer, represents the interests of privately owned historic houses.

A woman of great energy, determination and charm, Desideria Pasolini was a member of a family that has been prominent in politics and agriculture in Ravenna and Rome since the 12th century. For the past two centuries the family has looked beyond the presumptions of its caste and country to political and cultural ideas of other lands. Pasolini’s achievements were in line with her family’s traditions of liberalism, pan-European culture and a commitment to the preservation of the arts and nature. Her great grandfather Count Giuseppe Pasolini was a proponent of Italian Unification while her grandparents, the historian Count Pier Desiderio Pasolini and Maria Ponti Pasolini—an early champion of women's rights and suffrage—were at the heart of the circle of Anglo-American writers in Florence and Rome, including Vernon Lee, Edith Wharton and Maurice Baring.

Desideria Pasolini was the second, and eldest surviving, child of Count Guido Pasolini, an historian and member of the Italian Senate, and his wife Maria Borghese. Another of her brothers, Pier Maria, spent the war as a combatant Partisan, while their mother hid anti-Fascists in Palazzo Pasolini, in Ravenna, and Jewish neighbours in Rome—for which she received a medal from the Italian Resistance. Desideria studied English literature at the University of Rome with the celebrated art historian and literary critic Mario Praz—originator of the study of interior decoration—and her family's historic connection with the English-speaking literary world determined her choice of the Aesthetic Movement as the subject of her thesis.

Pasolini’s friendships and collaboration with fellow intellectuals generated both early literary projects, and the civic campaigns that galvanised the formation of Italia Nostra. In 1950 she contributed a short story, "Mita", to the sixth volume of Botteghe Oscure, the international literary journal founded in 1948 by Marguerite Caetani, which published writers including WH Auden, Giuseppe di Lampedusa and William Carlos Williams. (The poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, a distant cousin, also published poetry in Botteghe Oscure, but he and Desideria did not know each other.) In 1950 Desideria Pasolini translated into Italian and wrote the introduction to Virginia Woolf’s The Haunted House, and later contributed articles on garden history to scholarly publications. She was a prodigious correspondent, and her letters to Henry Kissinger—they remained friends after she had participated in his Harvard International Seminar in the 1960s—are part of his archive at Yale.

Pasolini was dedicated to her family and their properties in Ravenna and Rome. Her commitment to both tradition and nature can be seen in the historic garden she maintained at Montericco, near Imola. Under her great grandfather Giuseppe Pasolini, the villa had been a centre for scientific research and the study of botany. This tradition continued with Desideria’s work to preserve the parterre of Bengal roses, flower-beds containing four species of lavender and the orangery, all set in ancient farmlands. In 2001 she was made Cavaliere di Gran Croce, the most prestigious civilian award available to the Italian state.

A striking woman in her vitality, fine good looks, and warmth, Desideria Pasolini never married. Her determination and force of will armed her for repeated campaigns to preserve both the urban and rural cultural fabric of Italy. “If there are battles to be fought," she said, “I will fight.”

Desideria Pasolini Dall'Onda; born Rome 27 April 1920; co-founder Italia Nostra 1955, President 1998-2005; died Rome 30 October 2021