Vincenzo Vela (1820-1881) was one of the greatest European sculptors of the nineteenth century and an important spokesman of the realist movement. He commissioned a Villa from Cipriano Ajmetti which was built between 1862-65 with the triple function of residence, studio and private museum for his collection of plaster casts at Ligornetto, the village where he was born.
The Villa was donated to the Swiss Confederation in 1892 by Vincenzo's son, the painter Spartaco Vela (1854-1895). In 1898 it became the second federal museum and the first in the Ticino area.
The park is a perfect example of a refined dwelling designed by the artist himself on a hillside which marked the edge of the town and the beginning of the countryside in the nineteenth century. Its function as a link between plain and hillside has been resuscitated by the recent improvement of the park in 2001 which emphasised the juxtaposition of a structured aristocratic garden, very visible from the town, with a more natural, less rigid, hidden space.
Today a stroll in the park reveals elements included by the artist: the formal Italian garden with its geometric layout, and the romantic English landscape containing a pond, citrus trees and ornamental plants. Particular attention has been paid to the recovery of botani- cal species present in nineteenth century gardens: evergreens (box, yew and bay) and ornamental plants (roses, camellias and peonies). The citrus collection is particularly varied, including the conspicuous Bushukan (“Buddha's hand”), a variety of Citrus medica. Contempo- rary art exhibitions are held regularly in the park.