The road from ruin

It is an unspoiled Tuscan valley where the wayfarers’ path is obscured by wild orchids. In the distance rises Monte Amiata, the volcano sacred to the Etruscans. And in the midst of this landscape stands Castello di Potentino.

Until 13 years ago the fortress had been abandoned for nearly a century. It still had the soaring towers, crumbling fireplaces and oversized doorways that rarely exist outside children’s books.

Charlotte Horton

With written evidence of its existence dating back 10 centuries, Potentino has historical value but fell into ruin during the first world war when the owners fled and local people began to seek shelter within its walls. The latest squatters, in the 1960s, were farmers who used the formal renaissance rooms to house cattle. By the time Charlotte Horton and her family found the castle in 1999, one of the towers was on the brink of collapse and vegetation was growing inside.

Napoleonic codes of inheritance, under which property is fragmented, created the first obstacle in the project to buy and restore the castle. Potentino was owned by 22 individuals and it took a year of negotiations before the family bought it for €1m.

The restoration cost three times that amount. Any work on an Italian heritage building is heavily regulated but exempt from tax, in recognition of the fact that private investment is in the national interest. There is little public money available for such projects.

“We have many abandoned buildings and we want to give information on the web to find new buyers, even strangers, because the most important thing is to save these ruins,” says Riccardo Lorenzi, a senior architect at Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, which is responsible for listed buildings.

However, the ministry can dictate specifications down to the materials used or insist the shape of a window is preserved. “You can change use but you cannot change the meaning of a building,” says Lorenzi.

An architect with relevant experience must be hired and detailed plans submitted. Potentino’s owners brought in Bolko von Schweinichen, an Italian-German architect with local contacts. “I have done many such projects and most of my clients aren’t Italian,” he says. “In some areas there is a bad reaction that all this is in the hands of foreign people. I think that is very stupid. The building is staying here and they are saving a lot of things.”

Plans for Potentino were drawn up with methods and materials explained in detail. Before submission, von Schweinichen took the plans to the local authority and office for listed buildings to hear their views. But once work begins, some changes are inevitable. “When you make an alteration to the plan, the authorities have 60 days to reply and the comune has one or two months to reply; that’s four months in total,” he says. “They could ask for clarification even after that.”

Working on the roof

With the project approved, 10 men spent nearly three weeks clearing the rubbish from inside the castle. Next the scaffolding went up and a crane was brought on site for two years.

The structural work was first on the list as the roof was fragile and the rainy season looming. The tiles were removed temporarily and a layer of concrete put in place, along with a waterproof membrane. Inside, most of the original chestnut and oak beams could be saved. The wood was injected with fortifying cement wherever water was creating rot, and metal joints were placed around cracks. Where beams couldn’t be salvaged, substitutes had to be sourced using the same wood and traditional rounded shape to meet regulations.

During the renovations Horton and two friends were camping in the castle, with tarpaulin for a roof and bubble wrap masquerading as windows.

“One evening there was an awful storm and the tarpaulin began to blow off. The attic was knee-deep in water and the floor was going to fall through with the weight. One friend climbed 30 metres up on to the top of the roof and tried to tie the tarpaulin, while the other bucketed freezing cold water out of the windows,” she says.

The restored sitting room

Before work could begin on the interior, the floors across the rest of the property had to be repaired. The original Tuscan tiles had mostly survived. These were removed, the beams underneath tied with iron braces in the traditional way and the utilities fitted.

Potentino’s wiring and pipework follow convoluted routes and need thick insulation to minimise energy loss as hot water gushes from the heart of the fortress to its extremities. For the utilities to cross the lower courtyard, workers lifted the stone paving and dug into the hard earth to create arteries for the pipes and wiring.

To complicate matters further, the area surrounding Potentino is of archaeological value. An extra layer of bureaucracy was added as a representative of the office responsible for archaeological heritage came to watch over the excavation – but no treasures were unearthed.

With the utilities fitted, the tiling could be replaced, treated with acid and linseed oil, and sealed with wax. For the walls, the original earth pigments that would have been used centuries ago were applied over whitewash. On the façade the plaster had washed away but a traditional appearance was crucial. A new layer of plaster mixed with yellow sand was added to create the right colour.

As each section of the castle was completed, the furniture was re­instated. Much had been stored in the chapel and the main apartment, which was filled to the ceiling. The removal men also faced a challenge in Potentino, bringing in items such as pianos and dining tables with a medieval ramp and sheer brawn.

Throughout the three years of work there was an emphasis on restoration rather than renovation, so Castello di Potentino exists today as it did centuries ago. Modern conveniences have been fitted but Horton says, “it’s used very much as it would have been”. Even now, the rooms in use change with the seasons. The sections of the castle with fireplaces were originally used in winter and that arrangement remains practical today, with the cooler spaces functional in summer. “It’s still a proper fortress,” she says proudly.

Guests can stay at the castle:

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