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Reviving the Italian Village

Woman crossing a courtyard at Borgo Finocchieto.

Photo: Martin Morrell

A short drive away, in the Ombrone Valley, the two-year-old Castel Monastero resort was carved out of a medieval borgo that began life in A.D. 1050 as a monastery. Developers retrofitted the 13 original buildings with 75 guest rooms, a private villa, a wellness center and spa, an art gallery, and—apparently just because they could—a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. Rubelli fabrics, rough-hewn timber beams, worn terra-cotta floors, and faded 19th-century frescoes set a mood of carefully rusticated opulence. Of course, Castel Monastero and its ilk are missing a key component of the traditional alberghi diffusi: actual villagers. Giancarlo Dell’Ara’s original model in Friuli was set in a still functioning (if struggling) village, with which it was and remains interdependent. Other properties continue to follow that example. Physically speaking, the best alberghi diffusi may retain the integrity of their traditional townscapes and historical details. But without their original residents—without giving guests the sense of being in a community, surrounded by everyday people and not just hotel staff—a village hotel risks feeling like a conventional resort.

The other risk is that they wind up fetishizing the rural life, selling a sanitized brand of peasant chic. A genuine village stay, after all, would not be nearly so restorative: those crumbling stone floors wouldn’t be swept and polished just-so, the bathwater might be only lukewarm, and nonna’s handwoven blankets might not be so artfully arranged on the bed. But for certain upscale travelers, the implication of authenticity is still preferable to none at all. And few things can make a world-weary mogul feel better about himself than a week spent pretending he’s a 13th-century shepherd. Especially if he still gets turndown service.

For John Phillips, it took two years of negotiations with Italian authorities before he could begin to restore Finocchieto. The renovation itself, overseen by a local architect (with Phillips flying in every few months), took another five years. Strict local preservation laws forbade changes to the footprint or contour of the buildings—all exterior walls and fenestrations had to remain as they were. Where structures had deteriorated or collapsed, they were rebuilt according to the original village plans, which are kept on archive at the local preservation office.

Certain interior adjustments were allowed. “The second story of the main house was on all different levels, so we had to raise and lower floors and ceilings,” Phillips says. “Here and there we reconfigured staircases, shored up ceiling beams, and unbricked archways to increase flow and light.” Ultimately, 22 bedrooms would occupy the borgo’s five buildings: nine in the main house, five in the smaller house, four in the chapel, and two in each of the former storage sheds. Bathrooms were updated, but not overly so. (The guest directory devotes two whole pages to plumbing instructions.) Each of the four outbuildings has its own kitchen, dining, and living room; in the main house are two dining rooms, a parlor, a library with a vaulted ceiling, a cantina for wine tastings, a banquet and conference hall, and a brand-new, retro-modern kitchen.

From the outside, however, the borgo looks pretty much as it does in the sepia-toned photographs displayed in the library—albeit with tidier lawns. Footpaths were relaid with flagstones; flowerbeds were planted with lavender, rosemary, sage, and thyme, which perfume the breeze that slips over the hills. All the functional anachronisms—the air-conditioning system, the laundry, the 18-car garage—have been concealed underground. A sleek gym and spa were cleverly tucked into the hillside behind a nine-foot wall of glass, out of the sight lines of the village above. The swimming pool and tennis and basketball courts are likewise hidden down the hill. Stand on that manicured green, squint, and you might believe this was still a working village.

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