Umbrian HillsCastello Di Reschio
"With farming, with architecture, with design, with furniture making – we do everything within the estate as much as we can. I think that’s what this is all about: perfecting this beautifully closed system."
In the hills of Umbria, on the border of Tuscany, among ancient olive groves, vineyards and cypresses, stretches a 1,500 hectare estate. Encircling a tenth century castle, its boundary demarcates the border between the former Papal States and Austro-Hungarian Empire. 48 old farmhouses dot its land. For the past two decades, led by architect Count Benedikt Bolza, these farmhouses have been the focus of an extensive yet gradual restoration project, transforming them, one by one, from crumbling relics into luxurious heritage properties.
A decade after he arrived in Umbria in 1984, Bolza’s father, Count Antonio Bolza, purchased the Castello di Reschio estate. Wanting to ensure it would remain under his family’s stewardship – his ancestral lands in Hungary were lost to the Communist regime in 1949 – he enlisted his son to run it alongside him. Once Bolza had moved onto his father’s new property with his wife Nencia and their young family, the renovation of the farmhouses began in earnest. To date, 26 of the 48 ruins have been completed to a stunning degree. Their ancient stone walls and tiled roofs have been lovingly restored. Around them, immaculate swimming pools, terraces and lavender gardens give way to verdant hillsides, cloaked in hectares of oak forest and wild meadows. Inside, lighting and furniture, designed by Bolza and his team, harmonise with existing and reclaimed details such as limewashed timber beams above, and pale terracotta tiles underfoot.
The transformation of these farmhouses is as much shaped by Umbrian planning constraints as by the creativity of Bolza and his team. Stringent laws protect much of the estate, from each individual olive tree, to the exteriors of the farmhouses, many of which are around 500 to 700 years old. As such, the buildings’ footprints cannot be altered, although interiors can be designed according to the owner’s wishes. Whilst varying somewhat in degrees of modernity and rusticism, each renovation is equal in its respect for the historic structure. “The existing buildings speak so much to me as an architect,” says Bolza. “I find the less I impose on them in terms of style, the better the result. We do not design for ourselves; we design for the new owners, who have all fallen in love with a ruin.”
One of the most distinctive aspects of these properties is their utter seclusion. “The land, the woodland, the vineyards – it is all so vast here, you can happily get lost on the roads through the estate,” explains Bolza. “The landscape is incredibly hilly, so only a few farmhouses are ever in view at one time. When you look back at the castello from any of the properties, it could be a distant town; it appears so far away.”
After construction is completed, the team at Reschio continue to maintain the properties on the owners’ behalf, and as some of the houses are only occupied for a few weeks each year, holiday lettings can also be arranged. Four of the properties encompass private vineyards, which the team harvest to produce personal vintages that stock the houses’ cellars. For Bolza, this ongoing relationship with the properties has a profound impact on his work. “If every architect had to manage all the buildings they had constructed for the rest of their lives, they would design very differently,” he says. “We are responsible for everything we’ve done – every decision – so we are always learning from previous mistakes. It is a beautiful situation to be in.”
Having refined their approach through this process, Bolza and the team are now tackling perhaps the biggest challenge the estate has to offer: the transformation of the immense, beautiful, dilapidated castle into a heritage hotel, with plans to open in Easter 2020. “We would never have dreamt of renovating the castle at the beginning, without having created what we have today,” says Bolza. “We were waiting for our expertise to reach the right level. In the past 20 years, we have managed all the houses, providing the staff, the cooks, the housekeeping and the gardening. Having done that, we think we know how to run a very special hotel. The building lends itself so magnificently to this purpose. It is a very organic, circular structure, with one entrance, and a large interior courtyard, with huge trees inside. It is so fitting, and far too big to be anything else. When we lived there ourselves, we used perhaps five per cent of the castle, whilst the rest remained in disrepair.”
As intuitive as the design may be, the renovation work is no simple matter. “We have had to do an incredible amount of structural work. A building of this size requires exchanging the volume of air in every room regularly, to prevent it from becoming stuffy. Normally, that would involve installing false ceilings and ventilation shafts, but in an old Grade I listed castle, with beautiful beams and rafters like this one, that was not an option,” explains Bolza. “Instead, we have lifted the roof off, and are drilling holes vertically through the massive load bearing walls, to create hollow ducts through the stone. Then, running in a circular fashion underneath the entire castle are the main air channels. It is a crazy job that no one in their right mind would have undertaken. But it’s a solution that we hope our grandchildren will be thankful for.”
This is typical of the striking temporal scale of the work at Reschio. The family introduced farming five or six years ago, but Bolza insists, “We have a 50 year learning curve before us to develop truly excellent farming.” This is clearly much more to Bolza than his life’s work; it is his familial legacy. The introduction of biodynamic farming, where all fertilisers and other products used originate from the estate itself, seems to embody a mentality that has prevailed ever since Count Antonio Bolza acquired Reschio. “It is a perfect circle,” enthuses Bolza. “With farming, with architecture, with design, with furniture making – we do everything within the estate as much as we can. I think that’s what this is all about: perfecting this beautifully closed system.”