Appleton Circle visits Siena and Florence, Italy

Nov 4, 2011

While historic preservation is at times a community effort and even sometimes the work of governments, private effort remains at the heart of successful preservation around the world. Especially in the realm of preserving homes, farms, landscapes, and gardens, family and individual efforts are often the source of preservation activity. Private funds are often the majority or even the only means of support for preservation initiatives.

In fall 2011 Appleton Circle travelers visited Siena and Florence, Italy, with special attention to the preservation of domestic buildings and landscapes, whether town houses, palaces, villas, country estates, vineyards, or gardens. During a week that saw only warm Italian sunshine, Appleton Circle members absorbed the earth-tone splendor of Siena, a city that had its Golden Age in medieval times, and where the major buildings that survive are Gothic-style. Located on a series of hills, the highest crowned by the elaborate Duomo, the Cathedral, red-brick Siena remains a city of neighborhoods. Allegiance to your Contrada, the neighborhood organization that sponsors participation in the famous annual horse race, the Palio, is at the center of the life of many citizens. Historic New England members visited the Civetta Contrada clubhouse, symbolized by the owl, and met with the secretary of the organization to discuss many questions, including inquiries about the role of women in the traditionally male medieval organizations, and to witness a traditional flag-throwing display by members. 

A Siena family with Boston roots welcomed us to their private palazzo, noted for impressive ceiling frescos. Conversation included many shared memories and acquaintances across New England, and “Happy Birthday” sung by our group for the youngest member of the family. A luncheon at the Palazzo d’Elici was a highlight of our stay in Siena, with windows open overlooking the Palazzo Publico, one of the world’s grandest and most historic squares. The palace appears in ancient prints nearly exactly as experienced today. Our hosts shared comments about the role of families over many generations in caring for historic places, and how families live with young children amidst art and architectural treasures. Tours of the Cathedral, Academia Musicale Chigiana, and its art collection with the director, and of the Monte dei Paschi Bank archives and art collection made for a very full schedule of private visits in a city that is frequently overlooked or just briefly explored. The Siena stay concluded with a sunset visit to a nearby vineyard where the family maintains a classical villa that retains original eighteenth-century paint, wallpapers, and furnishings. After touring the kitchen gardens and landscape features, our evening included samplings of wines from the vineyard.

En route to Florence, our tour took us through the Chianti region, and a stop to see a medieval town that is well preserved in its current use as a vineyard. The entire village of stone buildings is devoted to wine production, with wooden casks stored in the cellars of the former churches, and with production facilities connected with underground piping to the many small buildings that make up the ancient village. Our hostess, the owner of the vineyard, treated us to an extraordinary luncheon in the garden, under grape arbors and among terraced gardens. Views to the distant hills competed with the art and book collections for attention, and made for an idyllic afternoon. Traveling on to Fiesole, Appleton Circle members were welcomed by a New York antiques dealer who makes her family home in an art-filled house with an expansive view of Florence. After settling in to the Excelsior Hotel, with balcony rooms overlooking the Arno in sight of the Ponte Vecchio, our travelers walked to the nearby private palace of the Corsini family for a lively evening exploring family history and collections.

The Corsini are among Italy’s most distinguished families, pre-dating the Medici and producing both saints and popes. The large garden of their palace, viewed over glasses of champagne from a terrace above, has geometric parterres, huge terracotta pots, and statuary in a walled setting in the middle of the city. A long candlelit dining table set with historic family china and silver made for a very elegant dinner.

From a visit to the Antico Setificio Fiorentino historic silk manufactory to the restoration studios of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, where semi-precious stones are created into mosaics, to textile conservation studios with spectacular views from atop the Palazzo Vecchio, the Old Palace that serves as Florence City Hall, preservation and artistry were themes of every stop. Another lunch in the sunshine was with Torrigiani family members from grandfather to toddler in their garden, which is the largest private garden in Europe. The visit offered discussion of the challenges faced by families today, where ownership and resources can be divided, and where new businesses must be established to ensure the survival of buildings and landscapes that have been in a family for centuries. Visiting a villa outside the city, believed to have been designed by Michelangelo, and today the home of one of Italy’s foremost preservationists, provided opportunity to explore recent history such as how the house survived during Nazi occupation of the city in World War II. 

A dinner with the head of the family at Palazzo Ginori, another of the great city palaces, offered further discussion of the same themes. Collections of Ginori-made ceramics are found throughout the sixteenth-century family home, but the family today has sold the ceramics company and is developing holiday cottages and making wine on estates outside the city in order to ensure that the resources needed to sustain the family heritage are available for future generations. 

The final day in Florence featured a garden visit with a family dedicated to the work of the Italian National Trust, and a luncheon in an elaborate dining room overlooking the walled green space. A brief stop at the eclectic Stibbert Museum featured arms and armor rivaling the best collections in the world, before preparing for an evening with the Frescobaldi family at their Nipozzano vineyards. Wine expert Burton Anderson led the group through tastings of family wines as the sun set on the surrounding Tuscan countryside and on the 2011 Appleton Circle international travel experience.

View a photo gallery of the Appleton Circle Adventure in Siena and Florence.