Canada's official residence in Rome up for sale

The federal government has put Canada's official residence in Rome on the market despite an outcry from some who say it's linked to Canada's sacrifice in the Second World War.

Government says exorbitant mansion was 'excess'

The Canadian government is selling Villa Grandi, a mansion near Rome that has been used as the residence for the Canadian ambassador to Italy. (Colliers International)

The federal government is pushing ahead with a controversial sale of its official residence in Rome despite an angry backlash from some who say it has symbolic links to Canada’s sacrifice in the Second World War.

The property has been listed for sale through the Foreign Affairs Department’s commercial vendors, Colliers Inc. There is no set asking price, so it will go to the highest bidder in a tender that closes Dec. 1.

Adam Hodge, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said the residence was "far too large, and far too costly for Canadian taxpayers." The government maintains that Villa Grandi, as the mansion is known, has no links to Canada's war effort.

"This exorbitant mansion on a four-acre lot in the heart of Rome is four floors, over 13,000 square feet (almost seven times the size of an average new Canadian home, according to the Canadian Home Builders Association), has more than eight bedrooms and cost over a quarter of a million dollars per year to operate," Hodge told CBC's Power & Politics.  

"The former residence was filled with chefs, butlers, and a gardener who was reported to have made between $250,000 and $500,000 per year. We believe that our operations abroad can be just as efficient and welcoming to guests without the excess, and while keeping hard-working Canadian taxpayers top of mind."

An interior view of Villa Grandi, one several international properties being sold by the Canadian government. Some say the Italian property was initially offered to Canada as an acknowledgement of Canada's sacrifice in Italy during during the Second World War. (Colliers International)

Hodge said the property sat vacant in a "state of ruin" for 34 years after Canada bought it in 1950. Canada paid $186,000 at the time, but the government says the bargain price was not reparation from Italy for the war.

Others insist there is an absolute and deliberate link.

Jeremy Kinsman, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Italy and then to the United Kingdom more than a decade ago, called the sale "sad."

"It is the eve of Remembrance Day. We did get this house because of the sacrifice of 26,000 casualties in the war — 6,000 dead when we had a population of only 11 million people. There isn’t any question about that, and certainly that’s how Italians see it," he told Power & Politics host Evan Solomon.

Villa Grandi, located near some of Rome's most ancient areas, was bought by Canada for $186,000 in the early 1950s and is now estimated to bring in about $40 million. (Colliers International)

Kinsman said it is a well-known fact that bestowing the home of Italy's former foreign minister to Canada for a low price was to express appreciation for Canadian losses in the war.

He said he is not opposed to unloading properties that carry no sentimental, historic or symbolic significance, but this is a house of "national standing."

"It's getting right into the face of Italian pride and into the face of pride of Italian-Canadians and Canadian veterans for something that really isn’t going to save that much money. The message it sends? Small time."

The government announced in 2012 it would be scaling back its inventory of official residences abroad to shed high cost, oversized or poorly located housing and replace it with smaller, appropriately sized and located properties. Last year Macdonald House in London sold for $530 million and in May, Canada's official residence in Oslo sold for about $18 million.

The government says the downsizing has no effect on the status or the importance Canada attaches to its relationships with host countries.