Villa Cetinale is a grand, yet unpretentious Tuscan country villa built in the Roman Baroque style. Surrounded by beautiful gardens and a holy wood known as the Thebaid, it is overlooked by a hermitage known as the Romitorio, which was once inhabited by monks, and forms the northern end of a long straight line that bisects the villa before reaching a monumental statue of Hercules at the southern end of the estate. The villa in its present form was completed in 1680 by Cardinal Flavio Chigi (1631-1693), who inherited it from his Uncle, Fabio Chigi, who became Pope Alexander VII in 1655. Cetinale lies some 10 kms to the west of Siena on the edge of a large expanse of wooded hills, known as the Montagnola Senese, a largely untamed region historically inhabited by bandits. The bandits have long since moved on and the remaining tenants are wild boar, deer, foxes, badgers, hares, porcupines, hedgehogs and squirrels, as well as a wide range of migratory birds and wild mushrooms.
Flavio Chigi employed Bernini’s famous pupil Carlo Fontana to design the villa, which rose from the foundations of a much more modest farmhouse, itself built on the site of a settlement dating back to Etruscan times. Flavio’s uncle Fabio had already begun to enlarge the house in 1651 but work ceased four years later when he became Pope. It is interesting that Fontana’s design appears to have paid tribute to the great architect and painter Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536) who had designed several fine villas for the Chigi family 150 years earlier, notably Villa Farnesina in Rome with which which Villa Cetinale shares a distinct similarity.
Just 600 metres away from Cetinale lies the small village of Ancaiano, which coincidentally was Peruzzi’s birthplace. The poetic symmetry of this cannot have been lost on Fontana, who would certainly have been aware of Peruzzi’s towering reputation, who was a contemporary of Raphael and one of the architects of St Peter’s in Rome.
There is a story that persists to this day that Flavio Chigi spent all his time in the Thebaid, living as a hermit to atone for the guilt he felt for murdering a rival. There is however, no historical evidence to support this version of events. Chigi, who lived mainly in Rome as a worldly and wealthy man, would visit Cetinale to escape from the turbulent politics of that city, and to indulge his twin passions of horse racing and hunting. He also had a reputation as a voluptuary, but it is probable that this was exaggerated by his enemies. What is known is that he would host lavish hunting parties at the villa, lasting up to fifteen days, where guests would shoot boar and deer with bows and arrows. The famous Palio horse race was run in the Thebaid seven times between 1679 to 1692, possibly because of rioting in Siena.
After Flavio’s death in 1693, Cetinale was inherited by his nephew Bonaventura Chigi Zondadari(1652-1719) who turned the estate into a sort of religious theme park, where pilgrims and visitors would take contemplative walks through the Thebaid and beyond, visiting the seven chapels dedicated to the sorrows of the Virgin, and take in the numerous statues of saints and animals by Bartolommeo Mazzuoli, before ascending the 300 stone steps of the santa scala (holy stair) up to the Romitorio.
The villa was bought by Lord Lambton in 1978, at which point it had been all but abandoned. Together with his partner Claire Ward, they worked tirelessly to restore the house and gardens, until Lambton’s death in 2006. The villa has recently undergone a complete refurbishment, including a new roof, as well as several new bathrooms. This has been achieved without changing the character or appearance of the house, which is now available for private rental for the first time in its history.