There is no better place than Cetinale to get back in touch with unhurried time. The wide grass allée, which stretches upwards from the 17th-century villa for almost a mile before narrowing into a steep run of steps – a scala santa, or “sacred staircase”, finishing at an abandoned monastery – is flanked by ancient cypresses. The trees stand like the tips of a calligrapher’s brushes licked into shape with ink; they stripe the lawn with pin-sharp shadows as the sun draws its arc.
Cetinale must be among Italy’s finest private villas, with one of the country’s most exquisite gardens. Sequestered deep within a natural gorge just over seven miles from Siena, the villa is also now available to rent.
On one side of the house spreads a dark mantle of evergreen ilex – “giant oaks, wild, scathed, savage-looking, growing on rocky broken ground”, observed 19th-century visitor Frances Elliot in her Diary of an Idle Woman in Italy (1871), describing Cetinale’s “Holy Wood”. To the villa’s west are formal gardens, vineyards and olive terraces and to the northwest, the Montagnola Senese’s gentle folds that glow russet in the failing light.
It was this privacy and beauty that appealed to a disgraced British politician. In 1973, Antony Lambton (formerly the Earl of Durham, he had renounced his peerage in 1970 in order to remain an MP) was photographed smoking marijuana in bed with two prostitutes. His son Edward (or Ned) Lambton, the seventh Earl of Durham who inherited Cetinale on Lambton’s death in 2006, says his father loved Somerset Maugham – and in Maugham’s world, when there was a scandal, you moved abroad.
After resigning from government, the MP (who had insisted on continuing to be called Lord Lambton) acquired Cetinale in 1977 from descendants of Cardinal Fabio Chigi, who became Pope Alexander VII in 1655. It was Fabio’s nephew, Cardinal Flavio Chigi, who in 1680 had turned the former farmhouse into a Carlo Fontana-designed villa. As to Flavio’s motives for creating the Holy Wood, there are two schools of thought: the first was his affection for wild parties and hunting; the second was to get closer to God.
Both strands make sense of Cetinale, where intimations of the sacred and profane still pepper the Thebaid, as the Holy Wood is also called, encircled by a wall almost three miles long. Votive chapels occupy niches in the long rides cut through the ilex, while the secular imagery depicts the insignia of Siena’s factious districts, or contrade. Hidden among the leaf mould are limestone turtles, a snail, and the humps of a sea serpent covered in skeins of moss. Between 1679 and 1692 Chigi ran Siena’s famous Palio horse race through these forbidding woods.
Lambton, a soft-spoken 51-year-old country and bluegrass musician educated at Eton, carries a fob of keys that unlock the Thebaid’s five gates. The rides run like black veins through the trees. Wild strawberries tumble around the statues, while the Chigi coat of arms – moneybags, referencing the family’s role as papal bankers – stand on stone pedestals, which are swagged and crowned in ivy. Lambton talks of a ghostly woman dressed in black, of instruments of torture that his father found and threw back into the woods, and a Nazi helmet hanging from a tree. “There are things in here no one has found,” says Lambton: “When I start looking, I think I see faces in every stone.”
It doesn’t matter if these stories are true or false. In the melancholy light just before nightfall, it all seems possible, like the events that fill the dreamscape in Alain-Fournier’s 1913 novel Le Grand Meaulnes. Fournier’s story of a moonlit party at a lost French château could just as easily have taken place around Cetinale’s spring, deep inside the forest, where wild boar and deer will come to drink once we are gone.
“I don’t walk in these woods enough,” says Lambton, clearly enamoured of their magic: “I like to be here alone.” So too his father: “He bought this house because of the woods and gardens. He didn’t do the roof, the heating, or the plumbing. If a mattress was 50 years old, he didn’t notice.”
It was the gardens that the late Lord Lambton brought to life, says Fernando Ricci, who has tended Cetinale’s topiary for 29 years. Rita De Donatis, the housekeeper, confirms that the house was relatively ignored, remembering the seven dogs beloved of Clare Ward, Lambton’s companion, which were allowed all over the furniture. Ned Lambton says the animals peed so often on the legs of the marble consoles in the drawing room, he had to spend thousands getting them regilded as part of the three-year restoration of the villa executed by interior decorator Camilla Guinness.
Still, if it seems a treasured place with its fancy new bathrooms and 6,500ft of plumbing, Cetinale isn’t perfect – at least to Lambton, who says the house has brought him more trial than joy in recent years, as if it resists being trimmed and tamed like the 300-year-old, 150-metre-long wisteria that grows from a single stem in the garden. Lambton is referring to a two-and-a-half-year spat with three of his five sisters. Their father left £12m to Ned, the youngest son, as well as two British estates and Cetinale, the latter owned by a company of which Ned is the beneficiary. Three of the sisters argued that since their father was domiciled in Italy, they were entitled under Italian law to a share of his estate. Not until January, says Lambton, did the siblings finally agree upon an out-of-court settlement of £5m.
Whatever one’s position on primogeniture, it is clear that Lambton has done the right thing by the villa, respecting its spirit while fixing its broken bones. Unlike other more manicured rentals in this area, there are no floodlights illuminating the statues at night. The pool is pretty, but modest for a house of this stature. There is deep texture in everything one touches. The rooms hold valuable family possessions: first editions, silver ornaments, a baldachin bed canopied in gold, and a bas-relief commemorating a visit by Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici, which the late Lord Lambton found in the Holy Wood. “All I wish is to have things around me I know and like,” Lambton wrote.
There are 13 bedrooms, including three grand suites on the piano nobile. There is also a “hidden” middle floor accessed by a secret staircase, including a dollhouse-like dormitory with four child-sized beds. On the uppermost floor, the style is understated: five rooms with raw-edged linen drapes, exposed rafters, Indian bedspreads and Lefroy Brooks nickel-accented bathrooms. As to the staff, Cetinale has four gardeners, a manager, housekeeper, two butlers and five maids. Its senior cook, Giacomo Fartini, excels in Tuscan classics: a fresh peach cake for breakfast, poached sea bream for dinner, and for lunch, sautéed totani (like small calamari).
Eating beneath the linden trees, I can’t stop thinking of the party there is to be had here – a party to end all parties, of which I am reminded by the copy of a 1689 painting, “The Feast of Saint Eustace at Cetinale”, by Egidio del Monte, hanging in the house. It depicts musicians, picnics, dancing troupes and parades, as well as wild-horse races around the woods.
Love, sport and revelry are all hidden in this gorge, which leaves me thinking Cetinale was built not for God but more amorous pleasures. In the end, it is this ambiguity of purpose I find so deliciously appealing – the darkness and light, the solitude and decadence, the scandal and the retreat. I leave Cetinale with a renewed sense of affection for the area, pleased to find that even in “Chiantishire” there are still enchanted worlds where one can disappear completely and keep time by the shadows on the grass.
Sophy Roberts was a guest of Daunt Travel (daunt-travel.com) which offers a week’s rental of Cetinale from €35,000
Photographs: Manuel Zublena; Gian Luigi Scarfiotti