Villa Cetinale is a 17th century villa in the Ancaiano district near Siena, Italy. Designed by the architect Carlo Fontana, in the Roman Baroque style, the villa was built in 1680 by Cardinal Flavio Chigi for Pope Alexander VII — Fabio Chigi. The gardens at Villa Cetinale are renowned as being amongst the most beautiful in Italy. Within easy reach of Florence, Siena, Pisa, Rome, Villa Cetinale is ideally situated for sightseeing, shopping, eating out or just relaxing in the beautiful Tuscan landscape.
The history of Cetinale has a dark side; Joseph Forsyth, an English traveler, noted in 1800:
"Cetinale…owes its rise and celebrity to the remorse of an amorous cardinal who to appease the ghost of a murdered rival transformed a gloomy oak plantation into a penitential retreat, and acted there, all the austerities of an Egyptian hermit"
It is said that Cardinal Flavio Chigi was ordered by the Pope to climb the Santa Scala, (Holy Stair) on his knees each day, in order to atone for his crime. Locals suggest that Flavio, a very worldly and wealthy man, may have managed it once a year on foot, but there is is no historical evidence that such a crime was ever committed. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in the Thebaid (Holy Wood) reeks of repentance and religious contemplation.
Cetinale was originally a farmhouse, built on ruins from an Etrurian settlement in the 9th century BC. Only at the end of the 19th century, was it rediscovered by foreign visitors exploring this remote area of the Tuscan countryside. By then it had become one of the most appreciated Italian gardens. The first works of transformation of a small villa are recorded in 1651 when Flavio Chigi's uncle, Cardinal Fabio Chigi owned Cetinale. The house, a modest building surrounded by farm dwellings, was enlarged on the southern side with two wings that flanked two storeys of open loggias. The garden was enclosed by an escarped wall, along which small towers gave it the appearance of a miniature fortress.
Benedetto Giovannelli, a local architect, designed these first works completed between 1651 and 1656. After Fabio Chigi became Pope Alexander VII in 1655, the works came to a halt until 1676, when his nephew Flavio inherited Cetinale. Flavio wanted to transform the villa in Roman Baroque fashion and hired the architect Carlo Fontana, pupil of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Fontana designed the monumental stair and the marble portal surmounted by a great Chigi coat-of-arms on the northern façade. He projected the chapel, next to which is the "limonaia" (lemon house).
In front of the house stand "Spring" and "Summer", two statues by Giuseppe Mazzuoli. Behind the north front, stand two pillars containing two massive statues, 15th century copies of Trajan's column in Rome. The avenue then narrows and runs for 220 metres, until it reaches two stone busts of Napoleon and one of his marshals, commemorating the French emperor's visit to Cetinale in 1811. The theatre lies behind the statues and can be reached from the North, from the ancient road to Siena. Originally, it was surrounded by busts, which were later moved to the garden around the villa.
A small gate leads to the start of "Scala Santa" (Holy Stair), about 300 steps, ending in a stone platform. Here stands the "Romitorio", a five-storey hermitage inhabited by monks until the end of 19th century, now fully restored. The straight line that runs from the Romitorio down the avenue and past the house finishes on the southeastern side of the villa, with an enormous statue of Hercules, also by Mazzuoli.
To the North lies the Thebaid (Holy Wood), named after the desert around the Egyptian city of Thebes, where the early Christians retreated, in order to escape from persecution. Paths, avenues, statues of saints and hermits, and one of the seven votive Chapels surrounding Cetinale are to be found in the Tebaid . The chapels are decorated with frescos representing "The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin". Most frescos have deteriorated but a few are still visible such as "Escape to Egypt", on the outside wall towards Siena.
The Palio of Siena, the most famous horserace in Italy was raced seven times between 1679 and 1692 in the Tebaid, on account of riots in the city. There is no record of Palios at Cetinale after Flavio's death.
Close to the gate of Saint Anthony carved in stone, by Mazzuoli, are what some believe to be the symbols of the contradas of Siena: a winged dragon, turtles, a snail, a viper, a lion and the head of a porpoise. The alternative belief is that the carvings are of monstrous animals, personifications of the Devil in a medieval wood that is traditionally a place of unsafeness.
Cetinale was acquired from the Chigi family in 1978, and occupied by Lord Lambton, who together with his partner Claire Ward, worked tirelessly on restoring the house and its gardens until his death in 2006. The Villa has recently undergone major refurbishment, including a new roof, new plumbing, heating and wiring, as well as several new bathrooms. All of this has been achieved without altering the original character or appearance of the house, which is now available for private rental for the first time.