Within the Tuscan Countryside, a 15th-Century Monastery Turned Beloved Household Dwelling
When RENÉ CAOVILLA, the 82-year-old Venetian shoe designer, first showed the Tuscan villa he bought in 1977, he immediately fell in love with it. He was not only delighted with the house, a red-brick monastery from the 15th century that had slowly turned into a strict private house with 20 bedrooms in the 17th century, but also by the Chianti countryside – the entire classical story mentions a lightning bolt. Even now, the approach to the 1,200-acre property is as it must have been centuries ago: a long, winding drive through pale, undulating fields that leads to a worthy hilltop retreat. The three-story ivy-wrapped building is surrounded by 20-foot-tall, obelisk-like cypress trees – a private citadel entered through a wrought iron gate. Beyond the view of olive groves, another fortress-like outcrop can be seen in the distance: the mottled rust-red city of Siena, three miles away.
“All the great Italian painters of the 14th and 15th centuries – Leonardo, Michelangelo – were born near here,” says Caovilla’s 49-year-old wife Paola Buratto Caovilla on a warm September day. “When you come to this area, you breathe in everything they left behind. There is a special light. “When her husband first saw the house, she said,” It made him dream of the paintings he had seen since childhood. “
Buying a piece of Italy’s famous artistic past was a sign for Caovilla that he had finally arrived. His family came from a humble background on the Riviera del Brenta, an area 20 miles west of central Venice known for its huge Renaissance mansions and, since the beginning of the 20th century, high-end shoe making . His father Edoardo founded his own company in the hamlet of Fiesso d’Artico in 1934, producing slippers and elegant pumps for the Italian bourgeoisie. In the 1950s, René took over the cultivated jet set and produced whimsical evening shoes for the designer Valentino Garavani and later for John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld from Christian Dior at Chanel. In 1969, Caovilla designed what has become the label’s signature: the Cleo, a high-heeled sandal with jewels and a strap that winds over the ankle like a Roman snake bracelet. René Caovilla’s son, also known as Edoardo (43), has been the company’s Creative Director and Chief Operating Officer since 2011. He focused the brand on developing its own designs and visibility, and cultivated relationships with stars like Rihanna and Bella Hadid.
LIKE THE COMPANY, the house that Edoardo Caovilla visits as often as possible with his own wife and children (their main residence is four hours north in Milan) has evolved over time. It was originally built for an order of monks in Siena known as the Jesuati (not to be confused with the Jesuits). Its patron was Giovanni Colombini, a patrician businessman who renounced his fortune and spent the rest of his life serving the sick. The sect, known for its strict suicidal practices, was referred to as the “Aquavitae Fathers” because of the alcoholic medicinal waters they brewed and distributed to heal the villagers.
The property has a private chapel as well as fields for grazing sheep and a large pond where herons fly in the early morning. The family believe it was bought by an Italian-Russian aristocrat named Anita Stross in the 1940s. During the course of the Second World War, she enlisted the help of the radical landscape architect Pietro Porcinai, who had contributed significantly to the magazine Domus, which was founded by the architect Gio Ponti and for which he designed the gardens of the Brion family cemetery in Treviso, for the Venetian modernist Carlo Scarpa. Porcinai has made some minor changes to the interior – for example, an exaggerated white stucco fireplace in the living room – but mostly focused on the gardens. Near the house there are discreet beds of irises, dahlias and camellias on paved paths, but as the hill slopes down, the vegetation in the fields disappears, a stark contrast to the Italian tradition of high-cut, secured labyrinths and topiaries. “The garden is wild,” says Paola, who has added a vegetable patch and a patch for medicinal plants such as the monks probably grew: valerian, thyme, mint. “It’s not an injury.”
Inside, the family prefers to live in the midst of a burnished past. The antiques and furniture are not tailored to a specific period: in an entrance area with floors made of local green and white diamond travertine, which the monks have laid, hangs a tapestry by the Flemish artist David Teniers II from the 17th century, whose pastoral influence is evident in the rococo work of the French painter Antoine Watteau. Nearby is a curvy, Art Nouveau wooden rocking chair, the seat of which is covered with mustard linen and appliquéd with white swirls of fabric. In a salon, an 18th century painting shows the Battle of Montaperti, the clash between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines in 1260, in which Siena defeated Florence, as Dante described in his “Inferno”. In the hunting lodge, an outbuilding with a room several hundred meters from the main house (the family hunts pheasants twice a year and keeps a kennel with trained dogs for this purpose), there are vintage campaign chairs and books on antique coffee tables pistols, Wall-mounted ram horns and dioramas of taxidermy pheasants from the 19th century.
In addition to shooting parties, the family’s social life has long revolved around the Palio, a historic horse race that has been held in Siena on July 2 and August 16 since the Middle Ages. Ten jockeys ride bareback, dressed in city colors or guards. The caovillas have become an integral part of this local celebration where each of the old families in the area – the Frescobaldis, the Antinoris – have a big party. Your event will take place on the day of the race. Paola decorates the tables in the colors of the winning team. As if to preserve these fleeting moments of summer, Paola transformed the cells of the former monks along a long hall into a series of guest rooms, each adorned with antique velvet banners – embroidered with animals such as unicorns, eagles or owls – with a certain Riding were related to the crew. The banners in dark umber and olive tones reflect the warm and lively landscape outside as well as a deep sense of family pride. The fact that relative newcomers like the Caovillas have become part of the landscape and history of the ancient region is certainly proof of their infectious joie de vivre, but also of their commitment to adopting Tuscan traditions in their homeland and their hearts. “Over the years, the people here have become very respectful of our family,” says Edoardo, “and of what we’ve done.” And so the lush emotional terroir of an ancient European aristocracy continues in a small but meaningful way: A piece of land is yours, but you also belong to it.