Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Castello di Montegufoni and the Sitwell family

Of all the castles in Tuscany, the one to which I am most attracted is the Castello di Montegufoni which is situated near Montespertoli, 20 km south of Florence.

Castello di Montegufoni
Castello di Montegufoni

This attraction is evoked both by the castle itself, as it was when owned by the Sitwells, and its literary associations, the first of which is Sir George Sitwell himself. Sir George was an English aristocratic eccentric on the grand scale who bought Montegufoni in 1909 and spent the rest of his life - he died in 1943 - restoring and decorating it. He, like I, was a garden nut whose finest book was On the Making of Gardens, a product of his extensive knowledge of gardens, and of Italian gardens in particular. Its style is lush and over-romantic, even by Victorian standards, but I don't find that to be especially a problem. His reflections are valuable and the book can still be read for both pleasure and profit.

The Sitwell family
The Sitwell family

Sir George's wife, Lady Ida, was beautiful, charming (in a vapid, prattling sort of way) and monumentally extravagant. Alas, she was also a stupid woman, "slightly mentally retarded" according to Harold Acton, and she was neither able nor willing to accompany her husband on his intellectual adventures. Her main claim to fame was to fall into debt and into the hands of a blackmailer, with a consequent sentence of three months in prison for fraud in 1915 - not easily accomplished by a member of the aristocracy of that period.

Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell
Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell at the height of their fame as a "team"

The second literary association is with Sir George's children, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell who dominated literary London between the wars, during the period of roughly 1916 to 1930. It was during WW I that the Sitwell siblings began to operate as a team: to be precise, at a poetry reading in the drawing room of Lady Colefax (known by her rivals - and some of her guests - as Coalbox) in December, 1917. The cultivation of a group identity turned out to be a brilliant ploy. Each Sitwell in his own way was striking, but together they made an indelible impression. For many at the time (and later), they were more entertaining and influential than the Bloomsberries and their hangers-on. Their lecture tours and performances in America after WW II were hugely successful.

All three collectively and individually ridiculed their father for his eccentricities while inexplicably sparing their mother - well, Edith disliked her mother intensely and with good reason. In fact, Sir George was clever and alarmingly energetic. Both his Derbyshire home at Renishaw and his Tuscan palace at Montegufoni were rendered immeasurably more beautiful by his activities. His only significant error was to turn down an arrangement made by Sacheverell for Picasso to paint the frescoes at Montegufoni. Sir George chose Severini instead and the work was carried out in that annus mirabilis of Modernism, 1922. The results are not too bad!

Severini fresco at Montegufoni
A Severini fresco at Montegufoni

Edith, the eldest of Sir George's offspring, has been the most celebrated with her many volumes of poetry and the perennial success of Façade, an entertainment in verse with music by William Walton. However, as memories of her public readings fade, so too does her claim to fame outside the diminishing world of poetry aficionados.

Osbert was a homosexual of a masculine, repressed type. In youth, as an eligible bachelor, he had had a "nasty fright" when he was briefly pursued by the predominantly lesbian Violet Keppel, later Violet Trefusis: "By Jove, I wish he'd accepted her!" her husband, Denis Trefusis, remarked when told of this incident many years later. In 1924, Mrs Keppel, Violet's mother, bought Villa L'Ombrellino, a large and beautiful villa overlooking Florence and where Galileo once lived. After her parents' death in 1947, Violet Trefusis lived in Villa L'Ombrellino until the end of her life in 1972. Osbert reigned over Montegufoni from his father's death in 1943 until his own death in 1969.

Osbert's literary output has, in my opinion, become rather neglected since his death, and been poorly rated by members of the chattering classes who haven't actually read much or any of it. I've read most of his non-poetry books with great enjoyment, especially his five volume autobiography and the collection of essays published under the very appropriate name of "Winters of Content". I recommend them.

Sacheverell, the youngest of the three, single-handedly rescued baroque art and architecture from undeserved oblivion, most notably with his 1924 book, Southern Baroque Art: a Study of Painting, Architecture and Music in Italy and Spain of the 17th & 18th Centuries. He turned out over 100 books during his life.

Formal garden at Castello di Montefugoni
A formal garden at Castello di Montefugoni

The History of Castello di Montegufoni

Originally, Montegufoni belonged to the Ormanni, a family mentioned in Dante's Divine Comedy. In 1135, the Florentines attacked the castle and it was left in ruins until the 13 C, when it became the property of Gugliarello Acciaioli. His descendants enriched themselves enormously thanks to their bank and extensive landholdings, and towards the end of the 13 C, Montegufoni had become a complex composed of the main building and seven smaller buildings, surrounded by walls.

In 1310, Niccolò Acciaiuoli was born there, in a room that was later converted into a chapel. He later became the Grand Seneschal of the Kingdom of Naples and a close friend of Boccaccio and Petrarch. In 1348, the King of Naples, Luigi Taranto, away from his kingdom following the conflict with the King of Hungary, took refuge in Montegufoni with his prime minister. He made a habit of feasting with Bishop Angelo Acciaiuoli in the Banquet hall (now the room called the "Theatre").

In 1386 by Donato Acciaioli, possessor of the titles of Duke of Athens, Roman Senator and Gonfaloniere of the Republic of Florence, built the tower that still dominates the castle. In 1396, Donato was banished from Florence, but his assets (including Montegufoni) were saved from confiscation by the cardinal's brother. The three sons of Donato resided to the Court of Athens until one of them, Agnolo di Jacopo, returned to Montegufoni with his son (Duke Francesco) and a cousin. It was at that time that Montegufoni acquired the nickname "the court of dukes ".

the tower of Montegufoni castle
The tower of Montegufoni castle

In 1546 another Donato restored the tower of Montegufoni in the style of the Arnolfo tower of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and built the armory (the hall known today as the "Gallery") and during this period Montegufoni became the meeting place of many Florentine artists. In 1612, Cosimo II de 'Medici was invited to Montegufoni. Around 1650 Donato, with his wife, Anna Maria Altoviti, restored the castle, giving it the appearance it still retains today, by connecting the seven hitherto distinct buildings together. The castle continued to be one of the most famous gathering places for high Florentine society throughout the 17 C and during the 18 C, until the economic decline of the Acciaioli family caused it to be sold to the Baracchi family.

As we have seen, in 1909 Sir George Sitwell fell in love with the beautiful castle and bought it.

During World War II, more than two hundred very important works of art from the Uffizi were hidden in the cellars of Montegufoni to save then from damage and theft. Among them were Ghirlandaio's Adoration of the Magi, Botticello's Primavera and the Madonna of Ogni Santo by Giotto.These were stumbled upon by Eric Linklater while the castle was still occupied the Mahratta Light Infantry, the roar of battle only a mile away. It was Major Linklater who shortly afterwards drove a youthful Lieutenant Frederick Hartt in his jeep to check the paintings as soon as the Germans were out of the way.

The Sitwells made the castle an important cultural centre by inviting artists, especially Americans and British, to work there. In 1946, Sir Osbert settled at the castle. He developed Parkinson's disease and died there in 1969. In 1972, Sacheverell's son, Reresby Sitwell, pressed for estate taxes in the UK, sold the castle for a song to the current owner, Sergio Posarelli, who converted it into luxury vacation accommodation.

More about the castles of Tuscany.

Gardens of Tuscany.

Villas of Tuscany.

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