Renaissance masters

A sleepy, sheepy valley in southern Tuscany is being revived by a few canny hoteliers creating beguiling fantasies of rural Italian life. But how do these sit within the region’s rustic charms? Stephen Bayley reports

The pool at Castiglion del Bosco, Montalcino
The pool at Castiglion del Bosco, Montalcino | Image: Matteo Carassale

Ecco: an ancient part of Tuscany, layered and romantic even by Italian standards, is changing. The Val d’Orcia is beginning to appear in property ads. Its lonely farmhouses, once bereft and neglected, are now described by Knight Frank as “iconic”. Its deserted villages are being translated into dream factories.

The Val d’Orcia is entirely different to the lush Chianti and civilised Florence in the north, just as it is different to Lazio, with its high proportion of Nissan dealers, in the south. It is agricultural, and the population of sheep far outnumbers the population of tourists. On my first visit to the area 25 years ago, I was struck by its strangeness and wonder. Can these be retained in face of change?

“There’s no plan. No partners. No budgets.” I am sitting in the fading violet-pink light of a rapidly darkening salone listening to Michael L Cioffi, a Cincinnati-based lawyer, painting his vision of a new medieval community (for paying guests) in the all-but-abandoned village of Castiglioncello del Trinoro (population: about 20). The “Little Castle of the Thieves” was built in 1127. Now it is getting a makeover. Through a programme of cautious but determined acquisition, Cioffi largely owns it. “We’ll buy a few more farms and source everything from within 5km,” he says amiably. Already, it includes an archaeological dig and a chapel where concerts are held. I mention that the Harvard art historian Bernard Berenson liked to think of his own Florentine academy, Villa I Tatti, as a “lay monastery”, a community of the like-minded. “Exactly so,” Cioffi says.

The evolving parts of the village have become Monteverdi: the reference to the 16th-century composer (in fact from Cremona) is a deliberate nod to high culture, but also a bit of a misnomer – like Cape of Good Hope. So far from being green, much of the Val d’Orcia’s landscape is notably austere. The vistas are sometimes spectral, harsh, unyielding, almost lunar in their otherworldliness. Nearer to desolation than cultivation, if also shockingly and thrillingly beautiful. In her haunting autobiography Images and Shadows, Iris Origo, the presiding genius of the area, writes of her arrival on a gusty day in 1924: “It is a wide valley, but in those days offered no green welcome.”

Villa Amiata, Monteverdi
Villa Amiata, Monteverdi | Image: Cheryl Ungar

The landscape is unchanged, but the benvenuto is new. Monteverdi will include, besides artfully refurbished villas, a swimming pool, a yoga instructor, an on-site chef and a discreet hotel with hammams in some of the bedrooms – none of these notably medieval or monastic features. But such conflicts and ambiguities are familiar here in the land of the Renaissance. Scholars argue whether the famous explosion of culture was a sudden event or a continuation of an existing process. Never mind; something wonderful considered in Cincinnati is being realised with style and authority here in southern Tuscany. (It is a compelling curiosity of contemporary life that so many visions of Italy were not formed below the Alps, but across the Atlantic.)

As for Cioffi’s partners and budgets; their professed non-existence is an elegant half-truth. The master plan of Monteverdi is being administered by bright young architects, relations of Richard Rogers, no less. And the interiors of the villas and hotel are by Ilaria Miani, a designer from Rome who was among the first to bring the civilisation of fabric swatches and Pantone charts to the area, which she originally explored on a motorbike more than 30 years ago. Budgets? Throughout our conversation there is the continuous background noise of shuffling mini backhoe loaders, the groaning of a tower crane and a stonemason going tap-tap-tap to (re)create a medieval roof. The “no budgets” declaration simply means that this private venture can spend as it pleases to realise a dream.

Accommodation at Monteverdi includes the fastidiously restored “villas”, in fact peasant houses whose bedrooms share common kitchens and living areas. The hotel, which will open at the end of July, is conceived more as a range of suites than a traditional hospitality mechanism with liveried flunkies and minibars. The aim is to offer guests the certain promise of isolation with the prospect of connection, if desired. Rather like a monastery, in fact. And all of this bathed in soothing reflections of real and imagined Tuscany.

Strict conservation rules mean that the external envelope of existing buildings and their daylight openings cannot be changed, so a pleasingly ramshackle exterior aspect is maintained throughout the village. Inside, Miani works in the sort of muted shades of browns and greys that immediately suggest, at least to modern glossy readers, cosmopolitan sophistication: two densities of undyed linen cover windows.

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Monteverdi visitors should not know “what is new and what is old”, thus a room is a miniature of the village as a whole. A detail from Giotto’s great fresco cycle in Assisi inspired the iron-framed beds. “I copy a lot,” Miani says in grand explanation. New doors are made of old wood. Interestingly, she says, the local artisans who were once such an important feature of the Italian economy (and sustained a lot of designer-y caprice with their ability to manufacture whatever was sketched) are disappearing. Carrara marble-cutters and local blacksmiths remain, but some of Monteverdi will be coming from China.

Miani travelled from Rome to show me the hotel. We slid on stones, dangled off scaffolding poles and grasped wet render to peer around curious internal angles to find exciting surprises. “Every room is different. Has feelings. It must be like opening a cabinet.” She has changed levels, invented spaces and created unexpected views.

The concept of a real village with permanent residents as well as temporary guests is important. Walking around, she says, the sense of protection given by a cluster of ancient lived-in structures is essential to the feeling of wellbeing. She’s right. At breakfast I learnt that our cavernous room was recently only 2m tall and occupied by sheep. And Miani agrees that Monteverdi is a metaphor of shifting meanings: “You have so many Tuscanies!” Yes, you do, and they are all beautifully designed.

But even before it is finished, Monteverdi has rivals. You take a strada di montagna to all of them: neighbouring La Bandita, in Montichiello; Castiglion del Bosco, set within the national park of the Val d’Orcia; or travel a little further to Castello di Velona at Castelnuovo dell’Abate, near Montalcino. A sensation, always, of ascent, rolling textures, wind, exposure and the underlying whiteness of it all.

A bedroom in Villa Muri Antichi, Monteverdi
A bedroom in Villa Muri Antichi, Monteverdi | Image: Bernard Touillon

La Bandita, which opened in 2007, is not a village but (in essence) two farmhouse buildings: less obviously charming than Monteverdi, it is protected from the ancient winds by natural mounds, semantically halfway between industrial spoil and Etruscan tomb. Inside, it is white, bright and hard hipster with a fantabulous collection of black vinyl. The rooms? At the harsh end of 1990s modernismo. Its owners are planning a new venture: La Bandita Townhouse will open in the exquisite Renaissance town of Pienza in April 2013. A converted nunnery with a giardino segreto, this will be less modern, more traditional than the original.

Castiglion del Bosco, between Buonconvento and Montalcino, is a hyper-project of Massimo Ferragamo, a New York-based heir to the Florentine fashion fortune. His wife, Chiara, says, not intending irony, of her interiors: “What isn’t antique is handmade.” Restoration began with gusto in 2004 and teetered to a state of climactic double-take wonder, before rapid progress into an imagined past was stalled by, among other things, the financial crisis.

The development is now on the move again: new villas are appearing, old ones being refurbished, and a gasp-makingly incongruous and alarmingly green championship golf course is now finished. Meanwhile, great pains have been taken not to identify it as a new development. There are no signs advertising it as a resort, a restaurant; it is known only as Il Borgo. Taxi drivers cannot find it, although the maître d’ of London’s Ritz and Dublin’s Shelbourne had no such difficulty: he works here.

Castiglion del Bosco is magnificent, sumptuous, but weirdly disconnected from authentic Tuscany (wherever that might be). The suites in its hotel component reveal a conception of luxury that seems based on long periods of philosophical reflection in airline first-class lounges: Ferragamo speaks of recreating a communità, but it is a community of Platinum cardholders, not reflective monks. And a suite so rambling and large that you can lose your belongings is not necessarily a suite where it is easy or even possible to relax, let alone contemplate the cheese and the worms. Recreations on offer include “trufflunting” and the use of a Ferrari for €600 per day. (You do not need to be a puritan to consider the use of a delicate 200mph supercar on a potholed strada dissestata a ridiculous abuse of resources.)

La Bandita, Monticchiello
La Bandita, Monticchiello | Image: Jade Loop

The ancient Castello di Velona was first restored in 1997. It now has all the signals-passed-at-danger that worry urbane sophisticates seeking a raw peasant experience. It belongs to a chain called Exclusive Hotel Collection, so there’s a clause with an internal contradiction. It reopened after a second, more ambitious refurbishment in 2011; a feudal castle with 46 rooms and a 1,500sq m thermal spa. The website is available in English, Italian and Russian, revealing a target audience not, perhaps, in search of la vera cucina casalinga.

Then there is the minatory spectre of Castelfalfi, some way to the north. Here is a potentially frightening example of what is possible when demand for genuine Tuscany exceeds supply. At Castelfalfi, the German holiday company Tui will, when it has finished restoring the medieval village to a state of imaginary perfection (with restaurant and cookery school), build three new villaggi for visitors who want to go on organised hunts for wild boar and read Poliziano while they chew on sanguineous sausage. It is the property equivalent of quantitative easing, and as morally dubious.

The last war in the Val d’Orcia is remembered by a plaque on the façade of Monteverdi’s church recording a Nazi atrocity. Now there is a new war in the Val d’Orcia: a subtle conflict between staying the same and needing to change. The region has passed from agriculture to agritourism into extreme designer-led self-consciousness.

I asked Ondine Cohane, who with her husband John Voigtmann owns La Bandita and La Bandita Townhouse, where it would end. The future of the Val d’Orcia is secure, she says, because there is simply very little old property left to develop, and strict planning means no new properties are going to be built. Besides, Brits and Americans who busy themselves with these projects do not want to spend Tuscan downtime with too many other Brits and Americans. We’ll take comfort from that.

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In the meantime, it is a question of how much modern low-voltage lighting you are prepared to let in on traditional magic. What will we have here in Monteverdi, La Bandita Townhouse and Castiglion del Bosco? Fantasy, pastiche, illusion, collage? All of those, but great beauty too. As Origo realised, putting in drains and electricity, the whole business of the “real” Tuscany is a fugitive matter of images and shadows. Still, the sceptical should never forget, art and artifice are only a few syllables apart.

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