When I first saw Villa Ada I was seeking refuge from a particularly incendiary Roman afternoon in August. Most of the natives had fled the infernal city for the sea or mountains, but I was left to contend with the heat.

Italian friends had told me I lived near this villa, once the home of Savoy kings, that's now a public park. Hoping at least to find a postage-stamp patch of green, I climbed to the top of my street and walked through an unadorned gate in the 14-foot-high stone wall. It was a door to another world. Across a small valley spread a pastoral landscape of hills and ponds, grazing horses and long lanes lined with columns of leggy pines, as if I had indeed stumbled into King Victor Emmanuel III's back yard, all 150 acres of it. (The king was the last Savoy ruler to live there.) I settled under a palm tree, lay back on the grass and left the heat on the street.

From that day on I looked at the map of Rome in a different way. Beyond the antiquities, my eye was drawn to the green swatches of park land scattered among the red-tiled roofs. I began to explore the old villas and aristocratic estates that were turned over to the public when the noble families went broke -- or, as happened in the late 1800s and again after World War II, the aristocracy was in decline and the egalitarian public mood called for expropriation of their titled property.

Of the more than 150 Roman villas built from the Renaissance through the 19th century, 61 have been destroyed and 87 are still privately owned; but 15 of them are open to the public. They range from expansive estates to tiny treed squares, but when I want to sit next to a pond or wander through palm groves, I keep returning to four in particular: Torlonia, Sciarra, Doria Pamphili and Ada. To me, they are the most characteristic and enchanting of the city's parks.

Unlike Villa Borghese, Rome's best-known park for tourists, these four estates are a wilder, more unruly lot, loved by Romans but not given top billing in the tour guides. The secret of their open sp;aces is worth knowing. When the Roman heat or crowds or traffic or baroque cherubs or the accumulated weight of more than 2,000 years of history press in on the traveler, the villas provide sanctuary.

The villas are noteworthy, if only as places to picnic, for kids to run around or for a pickup soccer game. Many of the parks have new playgrounds and a few have other diversions, such as merry-go-rounds and buggy rides. But they are not city parks in the sense of Washington's Rock Creek or New York's Central Park. They were not roped off for public use, but for private splendor. They were built, long before they became public, by the richest aristocrats of Europe as playgrounds for royalty, and some of them remained in the same family for hundreds of years. Though the splendor is long gone, traces of the families' stories survive in the once-grand palaces, the winding paths by whimsical fountains.

Villa Torlonia was perhaps the most ostentatious villa of its time. The Torlonias regaled 18th-century Europe's highest society with medieval jousting toiurnaments and grand balls. Now think vines are dragging the abandoned palaces to the ground, but the park is still beautifully clipped and groomed. The rise and fall of a noble family is circumscribed by its walls. The crestfallen villa, with its ghostly old buildings and rich vetetation, could be the setting fo Gabriel Garcia Marzues' "One Hundred Years of Solitude" or other idle fantasies.

The villa lies along Via Nomentana, an ancient Roman road that's now a busy city street and a short bus ride northeast from the center of Riome. Entering through the 15-foot iron gates, you are confronted by a gentle rise covered with a stand of 50-foot palm trees that guard the largest palace in the villa. Its heavy marble columns and grand stairway suited Benito Mussolini, who lived in the villa from 1925 to 1942 while he ran Italy's fascist government. nt. Mussolini's tenure at Villa Torlonia ties a poetic knot in its history, because after he fell from power the villa was opened to the public.

The tale begins with Jean Torlony, a Parisian junk dealer who won the contract for providing supplies to French troops during the Napoleonic French troops during the Napoleonic Wars. He moved his business to Rome, where he ingratiated himself with the French ambassador, married a wealthy noblewoman, changed his name to Torloni and opened a bank. As he became one of the richest men in rome, he scaled the aristocratic ladder from marquis to duke to principe. To entertain his rich clients from across Europe and England, he bought the villa in 1800, hiring the best architects in Europe to design parks, palaces, aviaries, greenhouses and theaters for the grounds.

After Torlonia died in 1829, his son Alessandro remodeled the entire villa in the romantic, nostalgic style of the day, with an arena for jousting tournaments, a pair of obelisks, an amphitheater, a greenhouse and a separate smaller palace for his children, Under Alessandro in the 1850s, Villa Torlonia's popularity reached its peak.

The family's fortunes plummeted after Alessandro's reign, and the estate gradually disintegrated until Mussoilini expropriated Villa Torlonia in 1925.

What's left for today's visitor is a majestic example of decay, set in a sumptuous park of palms, pines and magnolias. The grand buildings are boarded up behind the stately columns, their frescoes fading into phantasms. But the city has begun to staunch the destruction. Recent appropriations have paid for restoration of art that covers the palace walls and ceiling, and theceramics inlaid in its floors. Now restoration experts are touching up treasures obscured by layers of dust. City officials hope to complete the project by the end of the decade.

The Torlonia family was as attentive to the villa's landscaping as it was to its buildings, but the lush vegetation has stood up better against time. The gardens and trees definitely relieve the melancholia of the estate. Deep pink bougainvillea clambers up the side of the main palace. Stands of chestnut, oak and maple trees shade the grounds. Bamboo shoots, fig and olive trees and flowering hibiscus make the villa a botanists's heaven and a marvel for the visitor.

If Villa Torlonia is a forlorn, haunted spot, Villa Sciarra is just the opposite: high, airy, playful, warm and intimate. Its location on the southern flank of the Gianicolo Hill overlooking Rome makes Villa Sciarra a good place to begin a trip to the area, since it provides a view of the city along with its baroque statuary. the compact villa, with its sheltered walkways and manicured shrubbery, is a natural mood enhancer. I have walked its lanes on hot summer afternoons and raw winter mornings. The visit never fails to lift my spirits.

The most interesting way to get to Villa Sciarra is to ascend the Gianicolo, a hill above the ancient alleys of Trastevere -- an old Roman quarter across the Tiber River from the main part of the city -- by bus or by foot. At three points along the way as the road loops up the hill, a vista opens across the entire Tiber River Valley stretching out to meet the foothills of the Appenines, with the domed Roman skyline spreading across the valley at your feet. From the crest of the Gianicolo, where Garibaldi rides his gallant steed through his piazza, you walk south down a lane of oak trees, through the Porta San Pancrazio, along the wall and into the Villa Sciarra through a low, unmarked passageway.

Villa Sciarra has a simple history. It was built and owned by the Scarras in the 15th century, just before the Renaissance. When the noble Roman family lost its money in the middle of the 1800s and the beautiful villa suffered from neglect, the heirs sold it to the American diplomat George Wurts. Wurts had a passion for baroque sculpture and the wealth to fulfil his fantasy for restoring the villa. He reconstructed Renaissance buildings, commissioned artists to sculpt baroque statues, bought a Milanese villa and transferred its 18th-century fountains to Rome. He planted a dozen varieties of trees and shrubs and designed walkways covered in grape and rose arbors. In 1932 Wurts died and his wife gave Villa Sciarra to the city of Rome "in the name of Goethe."

At first the villa's grounds seem too baroque, as if a group of artists decided to lampoon the already overdone style of the era. But the rich mix of fountains and statues succeeds in blending with the landscape. The result is lighthearted and romantic.

Because the gardens are thick with trees and bushes and covered walkways, the villa is divided into separate, intimate environments. In one, an amphitheater is created by a 12-foot hedge that is 20 feet from end to end; 12 grooves are scooped into the solid hedge for 12 life-size statues signifying the months of the year. The statues seem to be conversing with each other as they look out over a series of boxwoods that are sculpted into abstract forms, one with disks at odd angles, another a 20-foot spire piled with rings like a giant toddler's toy.

The main palazzo is a squat, ocher structure that houses the Italian Institute of German Studies. In the adjoining piazza there's another bizarre baroque play on symbols, this time in the form of a fountain. Four sphinxes lie at right angles, haunches to the center of the fountain. The female halves are voluptuous, bare-chested baroque goddesses; the lion sections are menacing.

There are other fountains and sculptures tucked away in nooks throughout Villa Sciarra. Though some of the most delicate structures no longer exist, off in a place by itself there's a single standing gazebo constructed totally of wisteria vines, a single love seat set in the center. And though Villa Sciarra covers a relatively small area, the little love nest seems as if it's in another part of Rome, rather than a hundred yards away from a new children's playground and aviary inside the villa walls.

Where Villa Sciarra is small and intimate, Villa Doria Pamphili is rambling and rambunctious. It's a mile west of Porta San Pancrazio on the Aurelia Antica, again through a high, six-foot-thick wall, again unmarked. Spread before you is a wide vista that takes in a pond and a series of large, solitary fountains. If it's a sunny weekend afternoon, there will be joggers, pony-drawn buggies (for rent), dogs, babies, soccer games, Frisbees, volleyball sans net, families strolling, kids chasing around the formal gardens -- but no tourists. The villa is so large there are places for solitude even when it's packed.

This villa's history is intertwined with the Catholic Church. Buried in that tale is the answer to a question that's been bothering me for years -- why are so many statues decapitated amputees?

Cardinal Pamphili established the villa in 1635 at a time when Roman Catholic potentates lived like royalty. He commissioned the Bolognese architect and sculptor Alessandro Algardi, a contemporary of Gianlorenzo Bernini, to design buildings, fountains, sculptures and gardens. The villa and its grounds became an artistic showcase.

When Pamphili became Pope Innocent X in 1644, he gave the villa to his nephew Don Camillo. Now Don Camillo was a young, impressionable man when he took possession of the estate, and he considered following his uncle to the clergy. He wanted to join the Jesuits and was ready to give up his worldly possessions for the church. One day a group of Jesuits came to visit Don Camillo at the villa, and they were appalled at the amount of nudity in the paintings and sculptures. They ordered the young nobleman to pain over the works of art and smash the offending sculptures, which he did.

Don Camillo quickly realized the extent of the destruction and changed his mind, both about wrecking his art collection and about joining the church. Unfortunately, a beautiful statue of Venus and dozens of paintings were destroyed. During the next two centuries the villa was gradually sdually sold to the church, and what remained became public property in 1971.

Unlike some of the other public villas, the main palazzo at Villa Doria Pamphili is totally restored. It lies below a hillside planted with regular rows of tall pines. The palazzo faces a formal Italian garden the size of a football field and covered with low-cut boxwoods wound into an intricate maze. The building itself is a study in pale shades and elegant geometry: The walls are pastel yellow, the shutters gray. Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi uses the palazzo for formal state visits.

Exploring the villa is a good balm for the senses after the cramped quarters of downtown Rome. In a place the size of Doria Pamphila you can really see the variety of palm trees: palms that go straight up 50 feet and puff out delicate fronds, palms with metallic gray skins that rise to a tapered point like a missile and then blow out fronds from the tip, palms that dispense with trunks and simply sprout fans from ground level.

But the greatest pleasure for me at Doria Pamphili is coming upon an oversized baroque fountain in the middle of a large open field. Here, sitting alone, not in a museum or in a cluster of fountains, the sculpture seems at home. There are a number of these solitary fountains in the villa. My favorite has four creatures -- two half man, half goat; two half woman, half goat -- holding up a 12-foot disk. There's an outer ring of 12 short posts with faces on three sides. Water flows from 40 mouths. For good measure, there was a cherub on top, but all that's left are the feet.

Villa Ada, the villa near my home, is different from all the others. There are no fountains, no sculptures, o hugh palazzos. The main structure on the property is a small castle where the Savoy descendants once lived. It,s now the Egyptian Embassy. But Villa Ada is beguiling simply because it's a wild spot in the city. There were fox and deer living in the villa 50 years ago.

Originally, Villa Ada was owned by local nobelmen who have the property to the Savoys when the royal family became a major force in the unification of Italy in the mid-1800s. It was called Villa Savoy and King Victor Emmanual II lived there. When he died, the villa was bought by a wealthy Swiss, who named the villa after his wife Ada, but the Savoys got the property back when the monarchy was again in vogue at the beginning of the 1900s. When Victor Emmanuel III abdicated for the last time after World War II, Villa Ada became a public park.

Once again, the entrance to the villa is obscure and unmarked. The first of two along Via Salaria is across from a small street named Via Nera, where there's a stoplight. You'll know you're in the right place if there are two black horse heads mounted on either side of the entrance. Inside and down a lane to the left, the trees open up to a view across a small valley. The near hillside is dottd with large palm trees, there's a small pond feeding a waterfall at the foot of the hill, and the opposite hill is thickly covered in pines that carpet the ground in brown needles.

Over the far hilltop there are paths for exploring the ridge and walkways through groomed gardens down to a flat valley floor that's dark and cool and perfect for about a half-dozen soccer matches at once. There will be joggers and couples at any time of the day. At a boat house next to the large pond at the end of the field, kayaks are for rent and kayak polo is the game.

Villa Ada is a natural, simple park that will take care of itself with a little help from the ground crew. But the other public villas -- Torlonia, Sciarra, Doria Pamphilia and others -- are badly in need of restoration or at least upkeep to save the remaining art from vandals, moisture, dryrot and time. Unfortunately, the city cannot or is not willing to devote funds to keep all the villas from crumbling.

Three people manage the public villas. Dottoressa Alberta Campitelli is responsible for Villa Torlonia. "All we can do is work on a few of the frescoes anand the best ceramics," she laments. "It would take about $17 million to restore Villa Torlonia. We had $170,000 last year, so at least we have stopped the destruction."