Lamberto Frescobaldi in the living room next to a Sandro Chia painting (once owned by Eric Clapton) © Filippo Bardazzi, Laura Chiaroni/SooS Chronicles
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature
or

The Frescobaldis first settled in what is now the bohemian Santo Spirito quarter of Florence in the 12th century, buying up plots of land, building a church and a bridge over the Arno, to create what amounted to a personal fiefdom. At that time, the family home was in Piazza Frescobaldi, where you can still see the crevices through which they would pour boiling oil on to rival Florentine factions, with whom they were usually at war.

Today the dynasty, which has been producing wines in Tuscany for 700 years, occupies a 16th-century palazzo overlooking a sun-filled hidden interior garden. Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi is “a 30th-generation winemaker”, he informs me. The Marchesi Frescobaldi group, of which he is president, produces 11 million bottles a year on its six Tuscan estates. The company employs 500 people and had a turnover of €95 million in 2015.

Garden of Palazzo Frescobaldi with the 15th-century church of Santo Spirito © Filippo Bardazzi, Laura Chiaroni/SooS Chronicles

The apartment, which Frescobaldi shares with his wife Eleanora, strikes a contemporary note. A white chandelier decorates a bright orange kitchen with a green floor. A 1960s Pop Art lamp sits alongside a sculpture apparently made from cardboard boxes. Abstract and conceptual art line the walls, alongside ancestral portraits and original chestnut marble fireplaces. Tall and lean, in a Barbour-green suit and pale blue shirt, Frescobaldi, 53, has a patrician face, with an arched nose, echoed in the portraits, as la Marchesa Eleanora observes.

Besides winemakers, Frescobaldis have been poets, artists, scholars, explorers, musicians and politicians. Their history is intermeshed with that of Florence, from Boccaccio to the Medici. In the 14th century, the poet Dino Frescobaldi recovered the first seven cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy, abandoned by his friend when forced into exile. Later, Michelangelo bartered paintings for Frescobaldi wine.

Originally, like many noble Florentine families, the clan were merchant bankers financing the wars of European royal families. They lent money to the English kings Edward I and II to pay for the Crusades, investing returns in land. “Somehow we went from being bankers to farmers. I don’t know if that was a good idea.” Frescobaldi smiles.

In his youth, Thomas Cromwell, the future adviser to Henry VIII, worked for the banker Francesco Frescobaldi in Florence. A play about Cromwell (wrongly attributed to Shakespeare), bastardised the name to “Friskiball”. Through the Cromwell connection, the family ended up supplying funds to Henry, as exchanges in the family archives show. “He never paid us back,” complains Frescobaldi.

At 10am it’s a little early for wine, alas. We sit on chequered sofas under a frescoed ceiling of a blue sky, with Renaissance-painting clouds. A long-lost ceramic model of the family crest, in the corner, was bought back by Frescobaldi at an auction in New York in 2007.

Area in front of the entrance door © Filippo Bardazzi, Laura Chiaroni/SooS Chronicles

I notice a silver crucifix, and an entire shelf of religious books, including two by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. Behind Frescobaldi is a portrait of a grim-faced ancestor, a bishop, he explains. “We’ve had bishops, priests. Never a pope. But there’s still time.” Historically the family has had strong links to the church, lending money and supplying the Papal States with wine. “In Italy wine is an important part of everyday culture and the Catholic Church,” Frescobaldi explains. “It’s the blood of Christ.”

But at times relations were thorny. A 17th-century Frescobaldi, Bartolomeo, threw a ball where guests came naked. When news reached Pope Clement XI in Rome, he threatened excommunication. Bartolomeo was obliged to build 40 chapels on his estates instead. Today a Frescobaldi Vin Santo carries the name “Forty Altars” to honour the tale.

Frescobaldi had a “rustic, romantic” childhood at Castello di Nipozzano, a family estate in Chianti. He studied agricultural science and management at the University of California at Davis, a top viticultural program. In the 1960s his father Vittorio decided the agricultural business, which produced milk and livestock as well as wine, should specialise, planting hundreds of hectares of vines.

Frescobaldi also credits his father with the purchase of land in a key terroir, which allowed them to produce a version of one of Italy’s best wines, Brunello di Montalcino. Frescobaldi’s Airedale-cross breed, Brunello, sleeps on an artisan-made blue sofa of which there are only two, Frescobaldi says. “The other was given to Prince Charles.”

In the 1990s, the Frescobaldis teamed up with California winemakers Mondavi to make one of the early Super Tuscans, Luce della Vite. Eleanora adds: “There are so many noble Tuscan families who produce things, but they don’t get beyond Florence. Vittorio turned us into a global company.”

Frescobaldi married Eleanora, the daughter of Florentine industrialists, in 1991. The couple have three children. A portrait by photographer Maria Pia Pisano shows the family crammed on a floral sofa at Nipozzano. The two elder children, Vittorio and Leonia, are studying in Paris and Bordeaux. They must get a masters’ degree and four years’ experience before they can ask to enter the business: “Then we’ll talk.” Their youngest Carlo lives at home, a budding artist. His monochrome abstract paintings fill the back sitting-room.

The drawing room © Filippo Bardazzi, Laura Chiaroni/SooS Chronicles

Eleanora’s mother, a collector of modern and contemporary art, was the source of many of the pieces in the apartment, including paintings by Italian artists Francesco Clemente and Alberto Magnelli, alongside a light-hearted sculpture of a toy train exiting a log by contemporary Greek artist Jannis Kounellis. Photographic self-portraits by Chinese artist Zhang Huan adorn the entrance hall. Alongside, a watercolour by Arte Povera artist Alighiero e Boetti shows the couple’s names intertwined. It was a wedding present.

They celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last month in an unusual setting, the prison island of Gorgona, where Frescobaldi has been producing a blend of Vermentino and Ansonica since 2012. Gorgona, off the coast of Tuscany, is Italy’s Alcatraz, its last remaining island penitentiary, where prisoners serve time for serious crimes.

The drawing room, with, on the left, an artwork by Carla Accardi © Filippo Bardazzi, Laura Chiaroni/SooS Chronicles

About 15 inmates work on the vineyard and in the cellar producing 4,000 bottles that sell at €80 each. “It’s incredibly inefficient,” says Frescobaldi. He agreed to take on the prison project, which costs him about €100,000 a year, while other producers declined. “It was a small thing of little economic interest. Only one hectare. And it was awkward because of the prison and the inmates.” He went to the island and spoke to the prisoners. “They didn’t know who I was. And the wine was not then very good. But talking with them I got the feeling I must do something for these people.”

Frescobaldi hopes to set an example to other companies, he says. “To be able to earn money with hard work and responsibility every month is the best feeling in the world.”

“One inmate said: ‘I can buy my kids a pair of shoes now.’ They don’t say ‘My father’s in prison’, they say, ‘My father makes wine for Frescobaldi.’” This is “molto bello” says Frescobaldi.

“The whole world has the same problem: how to manage people in prison,” he explains. Typically about 70 per cent of prisoners reoffend in Italy, whereas if they have work the figure falls dramatically to 30 per cent, according to the department of penitentiaries. So reintegrating former criminals is “of great benefit to society”, Frescobaldi says. He has hired one inmate who has been released and hopes to hire more. “I get tears in my eyes when I see him because he thanks me all the time.”

Sculpture of a toy train in a log © Filippo Bardazzi, Laura Chiaroni/SooS Chronicles

He is now planning to create a far bigger vineyard on the island of Pianosa, once a penal colony for mafia offenders recently reopened. And he has already begun working with another prison to produce olive oil. While working with prisoners has become a personal crusade, Frescobaldi is also expanding in more controversial fields. The company has taken on a vineyard in Crimea, he says, to take advantage of Russians’ growing appreciation of Italian grapes and a nationalist urge to boost the production of homegrown Russian products around international sanctions.

The historic company might continue to warrant the odd footnote in the history books, I remark. Posing for photographs, Frescobaldi does an impression of George Clooney in the Nespresso adverts. “What else?” he asks.

Photographs: Filippo Bardazzi, Laura Chiaroni/SooS Chronicles

Letter in response to this article:

Let’s hope the Russians never invade Tuscany / From David K Wilkinson

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.