We are standing in a stone outbuilding at Castello di Ama, Lorenza Sebasti’s wine estate near Gaiole in Chianti, peering through a grate in the floor into a centuries-old cistern from which emanate a dim glow and the faint tinkle of running water. “We’ll climb down to look at it from inside,” she says. “But it’s important to see it from up here; the perspectives are remarkably different.”
“It” is a sculpture by the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, in blush-pink Carrara marble, of a slight girl kneeling over a small pool, as if to gaze into it – except that in place of her neck and head is a tall, spiky, suggestively turgid blossom. When we descend through a narrow passage via a rusty ladder to view it at close range, its full dichotomous power – at once achingly fragile and viscerally sexual – resonates in the damp darkness.
The effect of this artwork owes as much to its unique situation as it does to the talents of its creator – Bourgeois produced it for this very spot: this cistern, on this winery, set amid cultivated hills that appear lifted from a 15th-century canvas. The sculpture is one of 10 contemporary artworks on Sebasti’s property – by, among others, Anish Kapoor, Chinese artist Chen Zhen, the Italian arte povera hero Michelangelo Pistoletto, and the French abstract minimalist Daniel Buren. Each is created to respond to and integrate with the remarkable setting, imparting layers of future heritage to a place that’s already an architectural and viticultural palimpsest dating to late classical antiquity.
Sebasti and her husband, Marco Pallanti, winemaker and president of the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico, collaborate with Lorenzo Fiaschi of the Galleria Continua in nearby San Gimignano (with satellites in Beijing and Le Moulin, France) to cultivate relationships with artists they admire and invite them to visit the estate. If the interest is reciprocal, a commission results. The couple add just one artwork a year, in a nod to the annual harvest that begets Castello di Ama’s award-winning wines. This weekend they host a vernissage of the newest work, an installation-cum-performance piece by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. More than a private collection, Castello di Ama per L’Arte Contemporanea is the Sebasti-Pallantis’ life work, an intrinsic part of the ongoing restoration of their home. “The first time I saw Ama, I was 15,” says Sebasti, “and I’m not exaggerating when I say I immediately felt that it was my home – that there was somehow a connection that predated my arrival.” Throughout the 1970s Sebasti’s father bought up plots of land around Gaiole, including Castello di Ama, then a working tenuta that was “inhabited but not cared for or particularly loved”.
In 1980, aged 20, she moved to Ama full-time, living with an older woman employed by her family – “a sort of housekeeper/companion” – in Villa Pianigiani, one of two 18th-century villas which, together with a small borgo, the canteen, a converted olive mill, two chapels and several outbuildings, make up the estate. “I didn’t know a thing about wine – I had a degree in accounting but I wanted to work to restore this incredible place. I’ve always been very attracted to nature and nature speaks very strongly here. There is a deep relationship between the buildings, the earth, the vines, the olives.”
In 1992, having married Pallanti, a Florentine employed by her father as Ama’s winemaker, Sebasti began to cultivate an interest in contemporary art. At the same time they set to slowly renovating parts of the estate, and made themselves an apartment behind Villa Ricucci. Almost 20 years later the Sebasti-Pallantis inhabit the whole of Villa Ricucci with their children: Arturo, 13, Norma, 11, and Gemma, eight.
The renovation addressed only structural work, with minimal cosmetic interventions – the 18th-century proportions required no embellishment: tall casement windows and four-metre-high ceilings, cotto tile floors, a 2.5 sq metre hearth in the kitchen. The villa is sparely furnished with rustic late 19th-century pieces, muslin curtains and a few still lifes adorning the walls. “There’s a level at which I feel [this house] is a gift that doesn’t belong to me,” says Sebasti, “so I must honour its nature, which is quite severe but also very pure. I reject this idea of ristrutturare, this Italian estate agent’s word; I don’t believe restorations that transform buildings are a good thing.”
Over the past decade, as artists have selected sites for their work together with the Sebasti-Pallantis, bits of the property have been brought back to life to house them. “Paradigma”, a sculptural work by Giulio Paolini, resides in a small room that at the time, in 2002, was virtually a ruin and is now an austere, white-on-white haven showcasing the fractious dynamism of his work. Anish Kapoor chose one of the two still-consecrated 16th-century chapels for his 2004 light installation concealed in a recess carved into the chapel floor – a bright, humming red chasm in the earth, which seems to simultaneously reflect and challenge the sanctity of the space. When Kapoor made his prospective visit to Ama, Pallanti took him through the canteen, describing his winemaking process in detail. “Afterwards, Anish said, rather wonderingly, that he and Marco actually share the exact same methodology,” says Sebasti. “He called it half-scientific, half-empirical.” Kapoor was convinced by the Castello di Ama proposition and by the integrity of the Sebasti-Pallantis’ vision. “The idea has always been for there to be a sense of no borders between the art, the wine, the buildings, the vineyards,” Sebasti says. “We decided to make a home that transmits our passions to our friends and to visitors and to these artists. We want it to be a place which in every respect inspires.”
Visits to Castello di Ama are scheduled twice weekly, by appointment ; www.castellodiama.com
Maria Shollenbarger is deputy editor of How To Spend It magazine and was a guest of Villa San Michele in Fiesole; www.orient-express.com