Tuesday 22 November 2011

King of a castle at Palazzo Santiterzi

Thanks to Tony Blair and the Islington set, the summer holiday in Tuscany is probably doomed forever to the realms of cliché. But there is a way to escape the clutches of caricature. If the boutique hotel in Florence has become too predictable and the rustic villa in the countryside beyond parody, then why not defy every chattering class convention - and shack up in a palace.

Committed republicans may be put off by the very word, so perhaps we should speak instead of the palazzo. Ours was in the village of San Gemini, roughly half way between Rome and Perugia in Umbria, which, as everyone knows, is the new Tuscany. Or rather not in it, but towering over it: this palace was so palatial it had its very own tower, complete with belfry.

It was so vast, the natural impulse each time we headed up the narrow village streets towards the front door was to dissolve into giggles: surely all this cannot belong to us. The thrill of a spell of palazzo living is the sheer absurdity of it. You step through one of those doors-within-a-pair-of-wooden-gates on to a courtyard expecting to find a dozen neighbours, only to discover it's just you. You're like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, scampering from room to room marvelling at the lunatic extravagance of space.
It turns out the Palazzo Santiterzi, recently restored by the Grandjacquet family, could just as easily have been split into three capacious apartments. Instead they have kept it intact as a house, complete with ancient stone staircases and enough room to get genuinely lost. Navigating your way around requires serious orienteering skills, and more than a few self-created landmarks: if that's my beach towel on the landing, this must be the way to the kitchen.

Actually, there are three kitchens, to serve the seven bedrooms. (Or is it eight?) To prevent confusion, the best way to view the palazzo is in zones. There's the outside zone, complete with garden and swimming pool: small and shaded under stone arches, it's less a place to turn laps than a Roman bath.
Just around the corner there's a deck - also sheltered - featuring a hammock and, best of all, a long, long dining table. It could only mean one thing: the perfect space to re-enact those countless olive oil adverts British TV has sadistically taunted us with for decades. You know the kind of thing: sun-kissed, leathery-faced elders with grandchildren clambering joyfully on to their laps, gesticulating wildly as they sip red wine on a warm Italian evening - and served steamingly delicious rigatoni by the gorgeous young woman purporting to be their daughter. At last, that would be us! We would be that teeming, warm-hearted family dining alfresco night after night! (Sure enough, we pulled it off - once).
Of course, the outside zone has its own "summer kitchen" and bathroom. If the weather's good, you could stay there all day and forget about the rest of the pile that's yours, all yours.
To get to it, you have to walk through a kind of indoor courtyard-cum-cavern - which the Italian conservation authorities ruled must stay unaltered - before heading back inside the house proper. There you'll find the living room zone (enormous, with two bedrooms adjoining) or the kitchen zone (superbly appointed, with three bedrooms nearby) or the upstairs, TV-room zone (another mini-home, with its own kitchen and two bedrooms). It's less a holiday hideaway, more an Umbrian Millennium Dome.
Of course, the only way to make sense of such a laughably generous place is to share it. Don't invite one set of parents, invite both. And their friends. Soon you understand why the aristocracy went in for those month-long house parties ("We're summering with the Santiterzis this year"): unless they're full of people, a palazzo feels echoingly empty. These big houses need big crowds.

And if the family do come, it will be like no gathering that's gone before. Instead of the usual Christmas psychodrama - rows in the kitchen, tempers fraying in the queue for the bathroom - suddenly everyone will be getting on. Why? Space. In a palazzo, no one crowds anyone else. Everyone has a place they can retreat to - usually complete with its own shower, bath and reading room.
It makes the perfect venue for an extended family - or a Big Chill style adventure for a large gang of friends. The first people to rent out the Palazzo Santiterzi were a dozen Scottish women, for an extended hen night. Now that's the idea. (It makes financial sense, too: bring 12 people and the Palazzo costs about as much per person as a motel). There are other plusses to palace living, too. Unlike the classic Tuscan/ Umbrian holiday (remote villa, garden, pool), a palazzo comes with a village attached. If you're holidaying with young children, that counts as a major advantage: an afternoon gelato does not involve a trek down a dirt-track in the car, but a mere stroll with the push chair. Fresh bread or a quick top-up on the vegetable supply do not entail a day's outing but a morning errand. And you never forget which country you're in. "The house can't become England," says Simon Ball, one member of the Anglo-Italian family which runs the holiday rental firm Tuscany Now. So often villas become sealed-off little embassies of Blighty, but that's not an option if you're in the heart of a village. "You're surrounded by Italians," says Ball. "You walk out and it smells Italian."

You need to be careful, though. It's all too easy to start swanning around town like the local laird. Shopkeepers, promising to deliver groceries, ask where you're staying. When you whisper "palazzo" it's hard not to see a tiny bow of the head, and a move to the back room to unfurl the red carpet.
After all, you are, if only for a week or two, heir to centuries of history. The Palazzo Santiterzi has a rich lineage, dating back to the early 17th century. The great Canova used it as a summer residence - even doing the odd bit of home improvement: the cornices on the windows and towers are still said to bear the artist's signature. He sold it to the Santiterzi family who held on to it until the last war - when their aviator son Alessandro was shot down. Broken-hearted by their loss, the boy's parents bequeathed their home to the air force widows' association as a summer residence. When there were no more widows left, the Grandjacquet family bought it, restored it - and made it available to vacationers like us. But they left the bust of Alessandro by the front door, a reminder of a son who will remain "forever young". So to stay in the palazzo is to be at the heart of San Gemini. The present owners are the power behind the product that made the village famous - San Gemini mineral water. They are also the benefactors who restored one of its great treasures, the splendid 11th- century Abbey San Nicolo - whose stone interior, crafted in part from Roman ruins, now serves as a wedding venue most weekends.

That's not the only draw. San Gemini itself is a charming place, where the afternoon can be whiled away on the piazza as teenagers gossip in huddles and their grandparents do the same. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the "slow city" movement - aimed at curbing the hectic madness of modern urban living - came from here and the town has clearly taken his teaching to heart. Any slower and San Gemini would go backwards.
The ancient city of Carsulae is a short drive away, with ruins still visible, if mercilessly exposed to the baking heat. Do a quick tour there and you can reward yourself with lunch at Antica Car sulae - a gem of a restaurant, disguised as a roadside caff. The whiz behind their delicious bruschetta and mouthwatering fagioli? One John Paterson, a Brit brave enough to have come to Italy to open up a cookery school. But put aside the selling-sand-to-Sahara gags and sample his cooking: in a fortnight his was the best Italian food we ate.

The geography is kind, too. You don't need to be in the car more than an hour to reach a pristine little village like Montecastello di Vibio - which boasts the Teatro più piccolo del mondo, the smallest functioning theatre in the world - or a jewel of a city such as Todi. And Perugia remains one of those Italian delights, a university town of good restaurants, fine shops and world-class coffee. Even Rome and Florence are reachable (just south or north on the A1). And when you return from a hard day's tourism, you can always take a glass of cool white wine from the palatial fridge in one of your palatial kitchens, head to the top of the belfry and watch the Umbrian sunset - master of all you survey.

Friday 18 November 2011

We have launched our new website

Hello, and thank you for taking the time to visit our blog. Today, we at Abode are proud to have launched our new look website.  It was important for us to have a new site. Our feeling is that our website is not only a place where you can find out about us and our Italian properties, but also an important communication portal for our clients. Again, thank you for stopping by the new www.abodeitaly.com We hope that you will come back again and always find new beautiful houses.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Together forever... lovers holding hands for 1,500 years discovered in Rome grave

Laid out side by side and holding hands, these 1,500-year-old male and female skeletons are surely a sign of eternal love if ever there was one. The lovers were probably even ‘looking into each other’s eyes’ when they were buried in the 5th century, during the final days of the Roman Empire.

The extraordinary discovery was made by archaeologists excavating an Ancient Roman palace in the Italian town of Mutina, known today as Modena. Anthropologist Vania Milani said:  ‘It was a very touching and beautiful sight to see.

‘The woman’s head is turned towards the man and they were holding each other’s hands. ‘I suspect the head of the man was also turned towards the woman at the time of burial and that it was probably resting on a cushion which then decomposed over time and caused it to roll away. ‘They would have been looking into each other’s eyes at the time of burial in a sign of eternal love.’

Although not much is known about the couple, a picture is emerging. A bronze ring found among the  woman’s bones, for example, suggests they were married.
And they were probably also of noble birth as citizens of Mutina – famous for its pottery centre which made lamps for the Empire – were usually wealthy.

With the number of plagues that ravaged Europe during this period, it has also been suggested that the couple died close to the same time. Their remains will be displayed in a museum near the town next year. The tomb was one of 11 found at a depth of around 10ft. Another one housed three male  skeletons, all horribly mutilated – one was a teenager found with his skull between his legs.

It has been suggested the trio were slaves executed by their master. However, Mrs Milani said evidence of slash wounds suggested they were victims of murder. It is not the first time ancient multiple burials have been discovered in Italy. In 2007, a couple were found dating back 5,000 years, also near Mutina.

Friday 4 November 2011

Ben-Hur, La Dolce Vita, Cleopatra... All were filmed at Rome's legendary Cinecittà Studio. As it opens its doors to the public, we tell the story

 There's a scene in nhis 1987 film Intervista, where Federico Fellini is describing to a Japanese film crew a dream-sequence scene he is about to shoot. "I found myself in a dark place," says the renowned Italian director, "unsettling, but at the same time familiar, with never-ending walls." Perched on high, he watches as lights fire up across the landscape in front of him, wisps of dry ice and wind sound effects accompany an aerial view of ochre buildings and pine trees that spread out. "Is the territory below a prison, university campus or nuclear bunker?" asks Fellini, before answering his own question. "It's Cinecittà."
Pronounced chee-nay chee-TAH, which translates as "cinema city", the subject of Fellini's film is a sprawling 40 hectare (99 acre), 22-studio complex, located 9km south-east of Rome. Since it opened in 1937, it has established itself as Europe's largest, most iconic film studio - a place that has inspired cinema legends, from the 1950s neo-realists to today's Hollywood greats, including Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen; and where over 3,000 films have been shot, 48 of which have won Oscars.
This month, film fans are in for a rare treat. To mark the 74th anniversary, the studio is opening its doors to the public with a host of exhibitions and shows. Until 30 November, visitors on the Cinecittà Si Mostra tour can move amid epic sets and diva's wardrobes, and wander between 1930s pastel villas, cavernous soundstages and atmospheric sets - including a fibreglass Broadway and an Ancient Rome.
People talk about the golden age of Italian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, when films such as Fellini's La Dolce Vita won world acclaim, cementing Rome's status as a buzzing city full of beautiful people. The studio was at the centre of this movement, but it wasn't only Europe's finest directors and actors who flocked to the hallowed gates on Via Tuscolana. Cinecittà also attracted American film makers, which is why it became known as "Hollywood on the Tiber".
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck whizzed around the city in Roman Holiday (1953), hanging out with Sophia Loren and Errol Flynn. William Wyler shot MGM's Ben- Hur there in 1957, with a then record-breaking $7m budget: shooting Charlton Heston's Circus Maximus chariot race took over five weeks and involved 15,000 extras. Cleopatra (1963) was a money-haemorrhaging, 30-month saga (budgeted: $2m; actual: $44m) that spawned Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's boozy love affair.
It's all a far cry from the origins of the studio. In the 1930s, Italian futurist artists were embracing the new dynamic medium of cinema and then prime minister, Benito Mussolini, recognised it could be a powerful ideological weapon. So, in 1936, he decided to build a studio. The new Cinema City had everything for film making - theatre studios, technicians, artists, a cinematography school - and, headed up by politician Luigi Freddi, the complex began to churn out propaganda films at a rapid rate. This went on for several years until, in September 1943, as World War II approached its peak, the studio was closed after Allied bombing reduced it to near ruins. By then, some 300 Fascist films and historical dramas had been shot.
But this wasn't the end - in fact, in many ways, it marked a new beginning for Cinecittà. In the aftermath of the war, and with no studio to shoot in, a new wave of Italian directors hit the streets instead. This inspired the neo-realist movement, where film makers such as Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti shot documentary-style films depicting the harsh reality of post-war Italy. The success of these films helped sow the seeds for a new film industry; and when, in the 1950s, the studio was rebuilt, Fellini and a number of other directors were on hand to take advantage, ushering in what become known as the golden age of Italian cinema.
It was during this time that Franco Mariotti would regularly cross Rome to visit the studio, for a chance to catch a glimpse of a film being shot - or even gain a small role. Today he is Cinecittà's cultural ambassador, but back then he was one of many people drawn by the allure of the studio. Cinema was a potent escape from the harsh post-war realities for the people of Italy, and while Fellini was filming the Oscar-winning La Strada in 1954, Mariotti got a bit part in Carmine Gallone's Casa Ricordi.
In between his ceremonial duties at the recent Venice Film Festival, we caught up with Mariotti, who recalls Fellini's spiritoso (witty) side and an obsession with hair loss. "'Mariottino,' he would say (Fellini loved the diminutive), 'when did you lose your hair and how did it happen?'" Mariotti also waxes warmly about Fellini's impact. "He went around observing humanity, then painted pictures on the screen, inventions so vivid they became reality."
Indeed, Fellini relished the on-set circus. In Damian Pettigrew's illuminating documentary Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (2002), Donald Sutherland describes the director on the set of Fellini's Casanova (1976) as "a martinet, dictator, Tartar, demon… tormenting everyone. The first five weeks of shooting were hell on earth. He was the medium and I was the mannequin."
Behind-the-scenes footage shows Fellini's hands-on approach and brusqueness. He would shout instructions hysterically and manhandle the actors and extras. Fellini said, "Puppets are happy to be puppets, if the puppet has a good puppeteer."
Today, Fellini's presence is everywhere on the Si Mostra tour. There's Venusia's colossal crowned head - seen emerging menacingly from the Venetian lagoon in Casanova - plonked by the pavillion Palazzina Presidenziale. Inside are more surreal props and sculptures, made by members of the De Angelis family, who have been working here for 70 years. Historic costumes in nearby Palazzina Fellini include Sutherland's dandy Casanova garb and Anita Ekberg's La Dolce Vita dress. Nino Rota's emotive soundtracks, which captured Fellini-esque magic and nostalgia, chime around every corner. Fellini's reconstructed office from Teatro 5 - the legendary 2,787m2 soundstage that was most favoured by the director - has his hat, scarf and coloured pens.
For production director Maurizio Sperandini, the artisan ingenuity at Cinecittà lives on through today's impressive sets. "Life at Cinecittà is always frenetic," he says. "There are sometimes four sets being built simultaneously by a group of 50 full- timers plus temps. For the Rome TV set we had 200 workers, including carpenters, painters, scaffolders and painters." Building a 19th-century Broadway for Scorsese's Gangs of New York was "the most challenging", but one of Sperandini's career highlights came on the set of The Life Aquatic (2004), when the director, Wes Anderson, asked him to demolish the wall of Teatro 5 so his new lens, shipped from LA, could film the entire cross-section of a 50m-long ship.
"I said it wasn't possible. Not even Fellini would have asked such a thing. There was panic. I proposed that we move the ship back five metres, but it seemed impossible without dismantling it - lights, fittings…" Then, using a special system of hydraulic pistons usually employed for raising bridges, Sperandini's crew shifted the ship 10cm at a time. "In less than 48 hours, we managed to move it five metres. Wes Anderson and the American producers were amazed."
Of course, these days times are tough, even in the multimillion-dollar film industry. However, Cinecittà hopes tax breaks will woo more international film makers back - Woody Allen and Bertolucci have both just shot films here. In the meantime, the studio can cherish its position as the birthplace of Italian cinema and the place where Fellini plied his trade. "For me, every journey starts and ends at the studios of Cinecittà," the director said. "It's my ideal world. The cosmic space before the Big Bang."