So, this is how it feels to experience a medieval Tuscan village that has existed on a hillside in some form for almost 1000 years! My view from the courtyard of Castel Monastero encompasses a string of buildings that meander along the edge of a quaint piazza. The bricked courtyard is paved in a herringbone design, which radiates toward a well that sprouts an antique ornamental wrought-iron frame. Were it not for the glass of rosé and pickled caper berries on the table in front of me, which is being lorded over by a contemporary canvas umbrella, the illusion that I have time-traveled would be hard to shake.
The ring of stone buildings includes a diminutive church where mass is still heard on Sunday mornings. The façades of each of the buildings show their different eras: some are built from orderly ashlar masonry, others are made of over-grouted stacked stone, and the newest are slathered in terracotta-colored stucco. This is likely because the historic property has had a number of lives since its inception in 1044 when it was founded as a monastery. During the twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries, it was a private residence for the Berardenghi family. The Florentines tried to take it from them without success in 1208, though it was captured by Guido di Montfort in 1270 to be used as a bastion against the city of Siena.
Prior to the historical restoration carried out by the resort’s current owners, it belonged to the noble Chigi-Saracini family. They used it as a country house for hunting and for making wine from the vines that flourish on the hillsides within Castel Monastero’s acreage. I spied their leafy rows as I was driven into the compound to carry out an assignment for a magazine. I am to interview the popular Chef Gordon Ramsay, who heads up the cookery program for the retreat. My first event is an early evening press dinner in the La Cantina restaurant, and I am taken aback as I enter its vaulted tunnel because the period character of the space continues the irresistible ruse that I’ve stepped back in time.
The barrel-like room was once the workspace where casks were filled with crushed grapes, the thick stone walls perfect for keeping the cellar cool and the sloped floor made of stone pavers ideal for rinsing the spillage out when each workday drew to a close. The meal is phenomenal, the entrée of local venison prepared in the Tuscan style a particular treat. Listening to the international contingent of journalists gathered around the long table, I marvel at the variety of languages I hear floating up to the apex of the arched tunnel. The Europeans disappear en massefor a smoke and I realized I’m quite tired from a full day on the train.
Mellow after the delicious food and wine, I excuse myself early and hurry back to my room. As I open the window to let the crisp October air flow into the space, I am surprised that the field of ragged sunflowers I see in the distance is just as magical in the moonlight as it was when the afternoon sun lit the petals of the flowers. They glow heartily even though they are far past their prime and I drop off to sleep reminded that Mother Nature’s color palette is the most powerful there is. I awake refreshed and the interview with Chef Ramsay goes well, his thoughts about the tiny village mirroring my own.
He had asked me if I’d heard the church bells that morning and I said I had; that I had moved to the window as they began to chime, watching as the parishioners filed into the courtyard. Among them were several nuns, their starched pale habits glowing brilliantly in the early sunlight. “I suppose no matter what happens after me, after you, this place is still going to remain the same,” he had said. “It is steeped in history and still part of the village. They make those who live here as important as the visitors so that the locals can hold onto their rituals, like the church service on Sundays. The personality of place is being nurtured and preserved.”
Having transcribed the lively back-and-forth between us, I decide I can let the article steep, and I know just the exercise that will help it marinate—getting lost in someone else’s story. I have with me several biographies on Vittoria Colonna, who represents the perfect complement to Ramsay’s words as I aspire to capture the personality of place through history. I was led to her through her close friend Michelangelo. When I first learned of this trip, I actually thought I would be delving into his story because he is one of Tuscany’s most famous sons, though he’s not thought of as such since he was only a resident for a few weeks. He was born in Caprese on the eastern edge of the region, which is about an hour and a half to the north and east from where I am sitting. Several weeks after he entered the world, his family moved back to Florence where he was raised, which is about the same distance to the north and west of me.
But the more I learned about Vittoria, I saw that she was a stronger fit for channeling the history here. Born near Rome, she crisscrossed the Italian peninsula in proximity to my locale again and again during her adult life. Significant in her history were the nearby towns of Viterbo and Orvieto where she stayed in convents with similar attributes to Castel Monastero early in its existence. She was a poet and a member of the aristocracy whose title was the Marchesa di Pescara through her marriage to Francesco Farrante D’Avalos. Their wedding took place on the island of Ischia in December of 1509. Early on, she resided there, attending the court of Costanza D’Avalos, her new aunt by marriage.
She flourished in the intellectualism that played out in Costanza’s salons, exposed to avant-garde ideas that inspired her creative pursuits in which she fully immersed herself. She was free to do so because her husband left for battle in 1512, after they had been married for just three years, and was rarely around. He had joined Vittoria’s father, Fabrizio Colonna, in the imperial league that fought against the French, choosing to be a full-time soldier until his death in 1525. Vittoria was rushing to him when she learned that he had died. As soon as the news reached her, she made haste to the convent at the church of San Silvestro di Monte Cavallo at Capite in Rome in the hope that it would be her new home.
She sent letters to her brother Ascanio, who was the head of the family, and Pope Clement VII to ask that she be allowed to take her vows. They rejected her request, intending to use her as a potential match in some future powerful alliance. Though vows were denied her, she would pass even more time in monasteries once widowhood gave her greater independence. In her book Vittoria Colonna and the Spiritual Poetics of the Italian Reformation, Dr. Abigail Brundin says she would spend the years after her husband’s death shuttling between Costanza’s court on Ischia and various convents, which she entered as a secular guest.
I’m this far into her story by late morning when the outdoors beckon. I make my way to one of the comfortable chaises beside the infinity pool so I can soak in the Tuscan sunlight while I read. Knowing that at some point in her life she likely reveled in the same natural beauty I am experiencing thrills me to no end. It is warm and I have an excellent view of the resort from the pool—the collection of buildings from my vantage point illustrating how they sprung up on the hillside like mushrooms, close to one another but at differing heights that emphasize their purpose once upon a time. The quaint bell tower of the church rises above them near the center of the complex and I wonder how many tolls Vittoria heard as she frequented convents during her lifetime.
Of the books I brought to the pool, Publishing Women by Diana Robin seems the most enticing so I pull it from the stack and turn to the chapter that explores one of Vittoria’s times in residence at Monastero San Paolo, a Dominican convent in Orvieto about an hour away from me, which began on March 13, 1541. The author explains that for independent noblewomen such as Colonna, the urban residential convents in Italy represented safe houses that provided “protection without restriction” and spaces for movable salons. Once settled into their convent lodgings, these aristocratic intellectuals came and went, receiving guests as they pleased. In return, they contributed generously to the daily upkeep of these establishments.
Robin notes that Vittoria had “her familiar hostels” that included the convent of San Silvestro in Rome, the Dominican convent of San Paolo in Orvieto, the convent of Santa Caterina in Viterbo, and the Benedictine convent of Santa Anna in Rome. It is from her base in Orvieto that she navigates a tricky time in hopes of avoiding a complete meltdown of her family’s relationship with the church, the flashpoint, more taxes, imposed by Pope Paul III and opposed by Ascanio. The string of incidents, which unfolded during the spring and summer of 1541, was the last gasp of the Salt War. The most contentious battle had already been fought (and lost) in Perugia, but Ascanio thought he had an ace up his sleeve in loyalty from Emperor Charles V. This turned out to be a dangerous case of wishful thinking.
During Vittoria’s five months in Orvieto, her brother and the Pope duked it out over townships held by the Colonna family, which were highly coveted by the pontiff. Some twenty well-placed properties, a few within striking distance of Rome, that included castles and fortresses were on the Pope’s “wish list.” I study the exterior of the monastery that unfurls along the hillside above me and wonder if she spent any contemplative moments scrutinizing the warm colors of the stone from the grounds of San Paolo. I doubted she had many hours free from anxiety during that particular visit given the urgency she felt in negotiating on behalf of her family’s standing.
Robin describes her “high-stakes diplomatic” efforts as a job similar to that of a secretary of state. Letters are flying between her and her brother, whom she assures she is keeping abreast of all the latest rumors circulating in Rome, and between her and her allies scattered around Italy and as far afield as France. Unfortunately, the diplomacy doesn’t work because the Pope is unleashing a clan-based vendetta against her family and is utterly determined to have their properties. When Ascanio is quashed by the thousands of papal troops he sends to defeat him, the Colonna family’s wealth is taken with his trouncing.
From the convent, Vittoria wrote of the debacle to her friend the Duke of Ferrara on June 28. She wished to tell him not to worry about her; that she felt consoled even though she had lost “the goods of fortune” because she had been concentrating on acquiring those of the soul for quite a while. She added that she felt safe because she was “in a holy place.” Once the Pope succeeded in confiscating the extensive landholdings of the Colonna family, he made certain their fortresses were razed to the ground. Looking up at the tangle of buildings of Castel Monastero, I think about what a recurring theme it is that architectural history suffers when humans are at war. I am thankful in that moment that this little outpost was able to survive and will continue to thrive for the foreseeable future.
I have been so engrossed in Colonna’s story I hadn’t realized the sun has moved close to the horizon. With a shiver, I retreat to my room, blaming the chill as much on the thoughts of war and architectural ruin as I do on the cooling air. I ease into a roomy wingback chair and pull a soft throw over my legs to find out how Vittoria managed after her family’s fortune had been destroyed. By early fall, she has followed Cardinal Reginald Pole, one of the most powerful personalities during the Reformation, to Viterbo. She moved into the convent of Santa Caterina where she would stay until the summer of 1543.
Her presence there and her involvement in explorations that would fly in the face of papal doctrine would strengthen any case that might have been brought against her when the hunt for heretics began in earnest. Historians say she would likely have been tried and convicted if she had lived but she did not, and Cardinal Pole is one of the people at her bedside when she died at the age of 55, a short six years after the war she hoped to avoid had ended. Her death was felt keenly by her friends. There is a touching painting of Michelangelo leaning down to kiss her hand as he says goodbye, painted by Francesco Jacovacci, that illustrates how poignant her passing was to those who adored her.
Among Vittoria’s legacies are a collection of poems written for him and a book of sonnets titled rime spirituali. I tuck a beautiful edition of a selection of the sonnets in my purse as I go down for dinner my last evening at Castel Monastero and choose one to read in the piazza afterwards. A stiff breeze stirs the pages as I mouth the words she wrote:
If this little music, stirring the frail air,
can gather up the spirit,
open it and melt it as it does—
If this mere breeze of sound, this mortal voice,
can lift the heart so,
heal it, startling thought and firing our resolve—
what will that heart do when,
before God in the first and ancient heaven,
it hears the music of all being?
When, struck by truth, it steps forth
in the great wind of that singing?
Reading her poetry has made me feel deliciously mellow and I sleep deeply in spite of the chaotic era I have been immersed in throughout my stay. I feel regret as I pack to leave the next morning, though I am so happy I have been able to explore the story of a remarkable woman who gravitated toward settings similar to the one I’ve had the great fortune of enjoying for the past several days. I imagine my experience was more luxurious in some ways, but the slightly monastic feel of the décor at Castel Monastero created a strong echo that made it easy for me to lose the present as I learned about a meaningful past. We can thank Vittoria for being one of the crusaders who championed the religious freedoms we have today. I wonder how they would feel about what we’ve done with them.
The Modern Salonnière and The Personality of Place© Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose booksinclude Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.She is the co-founder of Sharktooth Press. You can see recommendations for books from many of her posts on her Amazon Influencer page and find her essays on Medium.