William Flew and ‘albergo diffuso’ Part 2

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Over a plate of something nourishingly rustic, Daniele explains that the reason Santo Stefano feels deserted is because it has been — for in Italy, he says, “you have more than 200 villages where abandonment was more than 90 per cent”. When the local wool economy collapsed in the 20th century, the locals simply left, taking their poverty and their pizza-making to the New World in search of a new life.

What the wealth of wool had built, weather and rain began undoing again, and for the past century such towns have crumbled. It was to stop this crumbling that Daniele founded Sextantio. “I want to make a Unesco for abandoned villages,” he says. To his great frustration, most Italians seem at best indifferent. “They don’t see this as something to be preserved,” he says. Under the table, Milone, like a Philip Pullman daemon of disappointment, sighs.

Italians may not care but Sextantio clearly does. Its five-year restoration has been painstaking, its results unspeakably beautiful. Whatever of Santo Stefano could be preserved, from f loor tiles to smoke stains, has been. Jobs have been preserved too: the hotel brings work for local cheesemakers, farmers, waiters and cooks.

My room is located above a medieval arch and manages to be spartan yet luxurious. Spartan because with its whitewashed walls and its iron bedstead it is extremely simple; luxurious because of the beauty of every object within it, from the warped oak door to the beautifully woven bedlinen and the famous Starck bath.

But for me its greatest luxury is the knowledge that, unlike most hotels, this one is not a means to an end but an end in itself. I don’t have to drag myself out of bed early to see Santo Stefano’s picturesque town square because I ate supper next to it. And I won’t have to hurry through the hotel breakfast to get to a local café because my breakfast room is the local café, where I eat at the same tables as the locals. Best of all, I don’t have to walk miles to see the medieval town walls; I simply open the window above my bath and see them dropping away, vertiginously, below me.

Even the smells have been preserved: the smell of woodsmoke is everywhere and f loors are polished with traditional beeswax, because Daniele feels that “odour is essential” to a successful re-creation. Not every odour has been faithfully re-created, however. I note that some of those that one might consider authentically rural have been discreetly disregarded. This recreation has definitely focused on the candlelight and cannelloni aspects of rustic life rather than the dung and dysentery.

Doubtless few tourists would advocate an authenticity that ran to open sewers, but such a (literally) sanitised approach to reconstruction invites accusations that this is less fact than rural fantasy — a suspicion strengthened by the fact that some of the furniture and fittings are so aged-looking that I can’t help wondering whether they are antiqued rather than antique.

Over breakfast I ask Marco the barman about a wall that, to my eye, looks suspiciously olde rather than old. Marco is outraged by the suggestion. “This arch was born in 1350!” he says, incensed in the way that only an Italian can be. He slaps it. “This is real!” Then he slaps another wall: “Real!” Then, for good measure, a fireplace: “Real!” He looks at me. “The walls speak!”

As I watch Marco I realise that what gives this project its authenticity is not so much the (genuinely ancient) wall being slapped as the hand that is slapping it. Sextantio has preserved the ancient f loor tiles and furniture of these villages, but it is also — more importantly — preserving the ancient livelihoods of those living in them.

 

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