If you enjoy peeking into the lives of others (don’t we all?), then Ned Lambton's engaging, beautifully photographed new book - about his family's storied Tuscan estate, Villa Cetinale - is a great treat, writes Ashley Hicks.


Villa Cetinale, Tuscany © Simon Upton, Rizzoli Books 


Villeggiatura—moving to the country for an extended stay with friends or family, escaping everyday life to refresh body and soul with intellectual and sporting pursuits—it sounds like a holiday, but really, it is much more. Inspired by descriptions of their ancient Roman forebears’ habit of decamping to country estates to escape the unbearable heat of cities in summer, wealthy Italians made these extended sojourns into an art form in the Renaissance, and none more so than the princes of the church.

Villa Cetinale was built in 1678 (the date recorded on a marble slab) by one of those princes of the church, Flavio Chigi, Cardinal-Nephew to Pope Alexander VII. The estate, which the uncle had begun to develop 30 years earlier, sits some 10km west of Siena, the home city of the Chigi family. Their wealth had been earned and famously displayed by Agostino Chigi, banker to both the Borgia pope and Julius II.

Agostino Chigi had servants at a Roman banquet in 1518 throw the used gold and silver dishes into the river Tiber to astonish his guests, but not before secretly hanging nets under the water, from which they were all safely retrieved later.

All images by Simon Upton © Villa Cetinale, Memoir of a House in Tuscany


Cardinal Flavio Chigi had visited Louis XIV at Versailles and knew what modern magnificence looked like. He completed his papal uncle’s elaborate tomb in St Peter’s, an exuberant marble confection by Bernini, whose pupil, Carlo Fontana, created the designs for the villa at Cetinale. The famous arcaded façade had a balustraded, open upper loggia, presumably enclosed by a practical-minded Chigi later on (perhaps the English wife in the 1860s). It is now an indoor dining room painted as a trompe l’oeil pergola - enclosed like the loggia at Caprarola, and many others, robbing the house of its sheltered space for taking the air, so essential to villeggiatura.

The villa and its gardens are dotted with statues, but two pedestals near the house were always empty, supposedly because Cardinal Flavio liked to place upon them naked women, painted as if carved from stone, standing perfectly still until he clapped his hands, and they would ‘come to life.’ He was a man who knew how to party.

As, indeed, was the late Lord Lambton, whose fondness for a good time cost him his job in 1973 when he was photographed with very much alive naked women, and decided to move to Italy, away from the false morality of his home country. His friend, Harold Acton, suggested he buy a very run-down Cetinale from the Chigis.


Villa Cetinale interior, designed by Camilla Guinness © Simon Upton, Rizzoli


The story of Tony Lambton and Claire Ward’s time at Cetinale, which they made their home for 30 years, is told in his son Ned’s engaging new book. Ned describes first seeing it in 1977, life with his father there, and, since Tony’s death in 2006, taking it on himself. The house is beautifully photographed by Simon Upton, with Ned, Marina, and their lovely children popping up occasionally. In the middle of the book is a photo album section with snapshots of friends and family enjoying modern villeggiatura at Cetinale over the last 45 years, a glamorous but varied crowd indeed. If you enjoy a cheeky peek into the lives of others (don’t we all?), this is a great treat.

Ned and Marina have transformed the place with their brilliant decorator neighbor Camilla Guinness, who has given it a chic but cozy going-over with painted peasant furniture, Indian fabrics, lots of stripes, and beautiful elaborate beds. What Cardinal Flavio Chigi would make of it all is anyone’s guess. Still, the spirit of the place he would definitely recognize, and he would probably be quite proud that his eccentric resort-house has not only lasted but evolved and thrived for 350 years.



A version of this article, Far From the Sweltering Cities, appears in the latest issue of Cabana Magazine, Cabana Issue 20.

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Villa Cetinale: Memoir of a House in Tuscany is available at the Cabana Bookshop.

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