In the western waters of Lake Bolsena, in the central Italian region of Lazio, there is an uninhabited island called La Bisentina. Measuring just 17 hectares, it’s home to a Franciscan monastery, a handful of small churches and temples, and gardens long since gone to seed. There is also a small Farnese mausoleum, built at the apex of the Renaissance, when that illustrious aristocratic family owned vast tracts of the surrounding countryside, across which its various scions erected palaces designed by architects such as Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Giacomo Vignola – each of whom, it is said, authored one of La Bisentina’s magical churches.
“I think it’s one of the most beautiful and singular places in Italy,” Claudia Ruspoli told me one night in early April, as we dined on tagliolini and roasted romanesco broccoli beside a glowing hearth in the kitchen of Castello Ruspoli – one of the aforementioned Farnese palaces and her ancestral home – about 30 miles from Bolsena. Our dinner companions murmured their assent: “Ah, La Bisentina – posto meraviglioso.” We discussed how the late prince Giovanni del Drago – a well-loved bon vivant who lived in his family’s castle (also a Farnese palace) on Bolsena’s eastern shore, and had inherited the island as a young man, made it his labour of love, overseeing the restoration of the church’s crumbling frescoes and hosting picnics, concerts and parties there. And we discussed how, two millennia before the Farnese reigned supreme in these parts, La Bisentina was the preserve of the Etruscans, home to several tombs and said by some historians to have been a sacred meeting site for them. “Si,” my dinner companions all agreed again, La Bisentina is surely one of Italy’s cultural gems.
Hmm. Until that evening I’d considered myself a modest authority on the Italian peninsula, having completed my education at one of its oldest universities and travelled much of its length and breadth for two decades. But I’d never heard of La Bisentina before Ruspoli had shown it to me the previous day. And of Tuscia, the region in which it is secreted away, I had only a vague notion.
To be more precise, I knew about the northwest part of Lazio, nestled in the broad crook formed by the border of western Umbria, that corresponds roughly to the modern-day province of Viterbo. I knew all about Etruria – the land once dominated by the 12 Etruscan tribes that ranged throughout central Italy before the ascendancy of the Roman empire (and the name from which Tuscia derives). And I knew all about how various Farnese princes and popes had asserted their families’ primacy across Lazio’s sylvan hills in the form of those palaces – Villa Caprarola, Palazzo Orsini, Castello Ruspoli, Ischia di Castro – whose vast classical proportions and ornate gardens, rich with mythological allegories and visual symmetries, have attracted enthusiasts as eminent as the Prince of Wales.
But I somehow hadn’t twigged that all of these things added up to Tuscia, the place. In my defence, I haven’t been alone. For all its orphic beauty and rich cultural patrimony, outside Italy Tuscia isn’t really discussed in the same terms as, say, the Salento in Puglia or Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia. This isn’t because it’s less beautiful than they are, though it’s certainly wilder and more esoteric. In its northernmost reaches is the Valle dei Calanchi, the valley of the canyons, an otherworldly topographic anomaly where the earth is riven into chasms hundreds of metres deep, elms and hazelnut trees furring their gullies and clinging tenaciously to their sides. Crowning the summit of Mount Cimino – at just over 1,000m above sea level, Tuscia’s highest peak – is the faggeta, a dense, haunting beech wood said to be where the Etruscans saw off Roman regiments keen to bring Tuscia under their control. But in fact, its quiet richness has been seducing visitors for centuries.
Besides the preponderance of Roman weekenders with princely surnames, there is the multitude of artists and thinkers who have been enraptured both by the mysteries of Etruria and the grandeur of all the aristocratic houses and gardens. Handel, who enjoyed the patronage of the Ruspoli family in Rome, arrived in Vignanello in the first decade of the 18th century and stayed three years at the castle. (Two-and‑a-half centuries later, Prince Alessandro “Dado” Ruspoli, a card-carrying playboy and Fellini protégé, hosted the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Truman Capote, before selling the castle to his brother, Claudia Ruspoli’s father). Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed here in the 1960s and acquired a medieval tower in the village of Chia in the early 1970s, in which he lived on and off until his death in 1975. Likewise the French-Polish artist Balthus, who was so taken by the minuscule Tuscian village of Montecalvello that he bought its castle around the same time; it is now the part-time home of his son, Prince Stanislas (Stash) Klossowski de Rola. The American painter and sculptor Cy Twombly, who moved to Rome in 1957, shared an estate near Viterbo with his wife, Baroness Tatiana Franchetti; his son, Alessandro, also an artist, now lives in a restored farmhouse there, its limonaia stacked with his enormous canvases.
I’m introduced to Alessandro by Paola Igliori, a descendant of the Lante and Della Rovere families, and a writer-filmmaker-poet. As a girl, she watched her parents entertain the great and good of the Italian 20th century at Villa Lina, the Lante estate not far from Twombly’s house that she inherited from them. Its 100 or so acres are planted with vines, olives and, rather unexpectedly, kiwis, and are home to intriguing metaphysical gardens commissioned in the 18th century. Igliori has brought her own countercultural world view to Villa Lina’s patrician landscape: she produces natural skincare and remedies in a disused shed and hosts yoga retreats in a renovated barn. She has rehabilitated several other large buildings as accommodation, most recently Torre del Falco, a six‑bedroom villa she lets to paying guests. The house is an artfully wrought fantasy of Neapolitan tiles, textiles from India and Persia, family antiques and a smattering of drawings by the Italian neo-expressionist artist Sandro Chia, to whom she was married for several years. Its third‑storey bedroom is ornately tented like a Raj pavilion; its wide, moss-furred stone patio overlooks a thick wood in which Igliori’s ancestors long ago discovered pre-Etruscan cave dwellings.
Torre del Falco’s setting has an undeniable magic, but it’s not for everyone. Being on a working farm, it isn’t remotely a landscaped sort of place, and while the house is set well away from the other accommodations on the estate and has exclusive use of a lovely infinity pool, Villa Lina’s character and charms are, by design, far more wabi-sabi than white-glove.
But these days Tuscia does offer a handful of elegant private villas and small inns, well positioned for exploring, and at which all manner of whims – aesthetic, culinary, cultural – are met. (None are in a castle, alas; the grandeur of the Farnese palace experience does not, in most cases, extend to providing comfortable sleep facilities, even sometimes for its owners.) A couple of miles from Castello Ruspoli’s daunting crenellations and beautifully maintained Giacomo Vignola-designed parterre hedge gardens is La Commenda – a former lodge of the Knights of Malta, converted neatly into an opulent three-suite inn by its ebullient and lovely owner, Nathalie Pignatelli di Montecalvo. The beds are vast havens of down and linen; the bathrooms are enormous; breakfast is served in a kitchen whose walls are lined with porcelain plates produced decades ago by a now-defunct Borghese family ceramicist. In Tuscia’s far north, at the edge of the Valle dei Calanchi, is Villa Tirrena, a private winemaking estate dating from the 16th century. Its six bedrooms, spa, knockout indoor pool and private wine cellar are now complemented by a stunning, recently restored 13th-century watchtower, set just across one of the canyons, with its own pool and gardens. The owner’s taste is faultless: Moroccan rugs mix with English antiques; entire floors’ worth of tiles have been reclaimed from Sicilian palaces, and artworks by Anish Kapoor and Igor Mitoraj punctuate the garden. But it is the view across those spectacular canyons to the tiny medieval village of Civita di Bagnoregio that mesmerises: clinging to the summit of a karst peak, Civita di Bagnoregio can only be reached via a vertiginous footbridge extending across a 700m-deep canyon, and must be one of central Italy’s most photo-ready places – and certainly Tuscia’s best-known cultural site – with a permanent population of what was informally estimated on my visit to be between seven and 10 people.
Down in Tuscia’s south, the landscape softens and flattens out under a wide sky, with tracts of sea pines and olive groves painting ink-green and silver paths all the way west towards the sea. Here, outside the town of Vetralla, is Tenuta di Paternostro, an equestrian farm renovated two years ago by Olivia Mariotti, a fashion marketing executive who inherited it from her racehorse-collecting father and grew up roaming its acres. The villa is formidably stylish, a reflection of a lifelong nomadic collecting habit; there are carpets from Kyrgyzstan, relics from Senegal and a collection of white ladders whimsically displayed throughout (the spoils of a Valentino ad campaign that Mariotti commissioned British fashion and fine-art photographer Tim Walker to style and shoot).
Paternostro is a place for people who are happy to get their boots dirty during long visits to monumental gardens and mysterious canyons, as long as they return to serious creature comforts at the day’s end. The floors are all heated; the bathrooms, with tadelakt plaster walls, are stocked with beautiful fragrances and amenities. There are various indoor-outdoor dining and relaxing spaces and a gleaming stable complex (anyone who lets the estate from Mariotti can bring their own horses, or ride hers). The house chef, who has worked at the royal palace in Riyadh, is brilliant. But for all its 21st-century elegance, Paternostro is still firmly of Tuscia. It’s eminently private, immersed in olive groves, and 10 minutes’ drive from the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre and an Etruscan necropolis at Sutri, one of Tuscia’s loveliest small towns.
Mariotti, too, extols the singularity of La Bisentina, which she visited often for concerts and parties when Giovanni del Drago was still alive. The day I leave Paternostro, rather uncannily, a local paper announces that the island is being offered for sale by del Drago’s ageing sister. There’s a minor speculative kerfuffle: will a Russian buy it? An Arab? Wouldn’t it be marvellous if it became a cultural retreat, or a wellness destination? Within days, though, the Bolsena council appears to issue a coy prevarication: no retreat, no hotel, and it’s no longer clear if La Bisentina is even on the market. Shhh, seems to be the subtext. But it’s hard to imagine keeping such a beautiful place a secret for long.