John Phillips was only looking for a villa. That he wound up with a village says something about the scale of his enthusiasms, his impetuous streak, and the curious state of the Italian countryside at the beginning of the 21st century. But really, he insists: he never intended to buy the whole town.
For two years, Phillips, a prominent Washington, D.C., lawyer, had been scouting for a house in Tuscany. He’d begun his search in Chianti, but found little that suited his needs. Finally he turned his sights to the Val d’Orcia, 40 miles south of Siena. And there, in August 2000—on seven overlooked and overgrown acres that one might call the middle of nowhere, were not the famed wine town of Montalcino just 15 minutes away—Phillips came upon the tiny medieval hamlet of Finocchieto.
For two generations the hilltop farming village (whose name means “fennel fields”) had lain abandoned and forlorn. At its pre–World War II peak Finocchieto counted 60 residents, mostly sharecroppers who worked the fields along the hillside. But postwar industrialization, coupled with agriculture’s decline, led to a rural exodus across Italy, as farmers sought new work in larger towns and cities. Finocchieto’s last holdouts moved away in the 1960’s.
What they left behind looked not so different from what their ancestors had known seven centuries earlier: a cluster of tiled-roof houses and farming sheds, connected by meandering footpaths, with a modest green and a courtyard at its heart. From the edge of the green the views stretched out for miles, across cypress-fringed pastures and vineyards and undulating hills. Finocchieto was, in short, an archetypal Tuscan village, or borgo, albeit in severe disrepair. By 2000 the footpaths were choked with weeds, the green turned to mud. Roofs had collapsed; trees were uprooted; the chapel was filled with rotting hay. Starlings nested in the 500-year-old communal brick oven where residents once gathered to bake the daily bread.
Phillips was undeterred. “The whole place was dilapidated, but there was such tranquillity,” he says. “I’d never heard quiet like that. You could see it had amazing potential.”
As was often the arrangement in rural villages, the former residents of Finocchieto did not own their property but rented from a landlord. The current owner was a wealthy signor who still lived in a castle just up the hill. Phillips made inquiries and learned that the man was prepared to sell—but he refused to break up the village. It was the whole borgo or nothing.
“So on my final day in Tuscany, in a fit of irrational exuberance, I decided to buy the entire thing,” Phillips says, sounding bemused by his decision still. His wife, Linda Douglass, did not share this exuberance. “When Linda first came to see the borgo, she began to cry,” Phillips recalls. “Not tears of joy, but tears of ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ ” Douglass now laughs at the memory. “It was as if my husband had gone to the store for milk, then came home to announce that he’d bought Safeway,” she says.
But the deal was done, and now the question was what to do with the property. They certainly did not require an entire 300,000-square-foot village for a vacation home. Phillips began to conceive a different and grander role for Finocchieto: not quite a private retreat, not quite a hotel, but something in between.
The idea of transforming derelict towns into lodgings is not new in Italy. In fact it was pioneered here some 30 years ago, by a tourism marketing consultant named Giancarlo Dall’Ara, as a means of rehabilitating a struggling village in Friuli. Dall’Ara’s notion was to convert the village’s empty apartments and houses into B&B-style lodgings, independently owned but managed as a collective. Guests would eat their meals in town, interact with residents—for some villagers did remain—and play out the age-old traveler’s fantasy of living like a local. Dall’Ara called the concept an albergo diffuso—a “diffuse” or “scattered” hotel. (His Friuli project, called Albergo Diffuso di Comeglians, is still in operation.)