Saturday, 7 April 2012

A villa of many names


The sale of the historic Villa Reale di Marlia

Alternatively known as the Villa Pecci Blunt, the Royal Villa of Marlia in Tuscany has recently come to the market through Sotheby’s in Rome. This important neoclassical estate of 16th and 17th century houses and gardens is one that has had many names and one that has been occupied by numerous individuals whose names have changed equally often.

The Villa Reale di Marlia (the Royal Villa of Marlia or Villa Pecci Blunt)

Built on the site of a 9th century fort, the villa was first remodeled by the wealthy Lucchese Olivieri Lelio Bears in the Baroque style who also created a garden adorned with nymphs, statutes, ponds and precise geometric symmetry.

In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Elisa
Baciocchi, Princess of Lucca and Pombino, purchased the villa for somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 francs after forcing Count Bears to sell.

Spending some 500,000 francs between 1811 and 1814, Baciocchi redeveloped the parkland of the estate in the English style and altered the façade of the villa with the help of architects Giovanni Lazzarini and Pierre-Theodore Bieanime. In their main, the stunning architecture and parkland she commissioned remain to this day.

The greatest Italian musicians, including the renowned violinist Niccolo Paganini, performed at the villa during Baciocchi’s tenure and guests such as Count Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar von Metternich-Beilstein, Chancellor of the Austrian Empire State (1821 – 1848), are said to have been hugely impressed by the house and its grounds.

When Napoleon fell in 1814, Baciocchi, in her ninth month of pregnancy, was forced to flee and then imprisoned in Vienna. The Villa Reale di Marlia passed into the possession of the Dukes of Parma and the Grand Dukes of Tuscany before coming into the ownership of Victor Emmanuel II.

Charles Ferdinand, His Royal Highness Prince of Capua (1811 – 1862) pictured with his wife, Her Royal Highness Penelope Caroline, Princess of Capua (1805 – 1882), and their daughter, Vittoria, Countess of Mascali (1838 – 1895)

Instead of occupying it himself, the King of Sardinia chose to give the property to Carlo, Prince of Capua, the brother of Ferdinand II, the last King of the Two Sicilies. The Prince of Capua had been disinherited for marrying a British commoner named Miss Penelope Smyth and the King offered the estate as a suitable residence for when they were welcomed back to Italy from exile. The villa, as a result, became “royal” and was renamed the “Villa Reale di Marlia.” Described as “romantic” but “unhappy,” the couple spent the remainder of the lives at the Villa Reale di Marlia and are buried in a chapel in the grounds of the estate.

Following the death of the Prince of Capua, his son Count Francesco Mascali (1837 – 1862) inherited the Villa Reale di Marlia. Said to have been a religious zealot and extremely eccentric, Mascali’s time at the estate was troubled and on his death the villa and its contents were sold to cover substantial debts.

Under subsequent ownership many of the trees were cut down for timber and the Villa Reale di Marlia faded somewhat into obscurity until Cecil and Anna Laetitia Pecci Blunt purchased the property in 1923. With their wealth, a full-scale renovation commenced with aplomb.

Countess Anna Laetitia “Mimi” Pecci Blunt (1885 – 1971) at the Villa Reale di Marlia in 1967

Employing the French landscape architect Jacques Greber, the Pecci Blunts created new areas for recreation that included a large swimming pool, a tennis court and a bowling green. These are said to perfectly complement the existing avenue of camellia flowers, an Arab style garden, lake and forestry for which the villa is famed.

The Pecci Blunt name and how it came about is itself intriguing. Cecil Charles Blumenthal was a member of the hugely successful F. Blumenthal & Co. family of New York, noted manufacturers of leather goods. Following the death of his father in 1914, Cecil Charles Blumenthal changed his name to Blunt after his mother married the 2nd duc de Montmorency.

Blunt became engaged to Donna Anna Laetitia “Mimi” Pecci in May 1919. The only daughter of Count Pecci of Rome, a nephew of Pope Leo II, and her husband they both took the name “Pecci Blunt” when Blunt was created a Count by his wife’s great uncle, Pope Pius XI. Their marriage produced three daughters and a son.

Operating out of first their Roman palazzo and later also at their homes in Paris, New York and the Villa Reale di Marlia, the couple became known as generous patrons of the arts and hosts of the great and the good. In 1973, for example, the Italian Prime Minister Andreotti met French President Pompidou at the villa and subsequently a conference of the foreign ministers of the European Community was held there in 1975.

Fulco di Verdura, the Duke Fulco di Verdura (1898 – 1978), and the Baronessa Lo Monaco as Fidel Castro at the 1960 "Marlia Olympics"

The  private parties of the Pecci Blunts were equally impressive. In 1960, with 60 guests in residence, the countess decided to organise them into teams for a “jovial parody of the Olympic Games in Rome that year.” The “Marlia Olympics,” involved the likes of the Baronessa Lo Monaco, the American widow of a Sicilian nobleman who was known to her friends as “La Moffa,” dressed in a beard in the guise of Fidel Castro sporting a plastic machine gun that fired sparks. Others such as the society jeweler Fulco di Verdura wore a cap to indicate his status as a referee.

Some way into his marriage, Count Pecci Blunt met a young man named Cecil Everley (1912 - 1989) reportedly at either Lillywhite’s department store in London, at a ranch in Santa Barbara with a lesbian named Alice de Lamar or at the home of the 7th Earl of Beauchamp, himself disgraced for homosexual offences in 1931. The colourful count and Everley, a former footman, are said to have earnestly begun an intimate relationship with Pecci Blunt giving his lover a home in California and another, La Rondine, on Cap d’Ail, in the south of France. Count Pecci Blunt henceforth divided his life between his male lover and his wife and as a result she was often referred to as “La Reine des Deux Ceciles” or “The Queen of the Two Ceciles.”

At one party, Everley, who later became a successful painter with the Aga Khan, Princess Grace of Monaco, Greta Garbo and Estée Lauder amongst his collectors, is said to have asked a society hostess named Daisy Fellowes who had just sold her boat, the Sister Anne:

“Do you miss your yacht?”

She curtly replied:

“Do you miss your tray?”

The relationship between Pecci Blunt and Everley continued until the death of the count in 1965. Afterwards, Everley began escorting his female patrons to parties in New York and took up with a much younger Chilean he met at one such gathering named Guy Burgos. After he left her to marry Lady Sarah Consuelo Spencer in 1966, Everley found himself an even younger African-American male hairdresser from Florida. Everley died of AIDS in 1989 and it is reported that his hairdresser heir sold the entire collection of objets d’art and antiques that Pecci Blunt had given him to a dealer unseen.

A Google search for Count Cecil Pecci Blunt’s descendants reveals that his daughter Camilla, who was married to Earl McGrath, died in June 2007. The New York Times announcement lists that she is survived by her sisters Laetitia and Viviana Pecci Blunt. There is, however, no mention of her brother, Count Dino.

The Count and Countess Pecci Blunt, Dino and Donatella, pictured at their home in Rome, the Palazzo Pecci, in October 1987

Articles on Count Dino Pecci Blunt, a man described by Montreal Gazette columnist Suzy Knickerbocker as “the Roman bachelor who travels in the international set,” also detail that his wife, Countess Donatella Pecci Blunt, published a novel, The Countess in Red, in 1989. She is described as being well known for hosting parties named “The Best” in her palazzo in Rome to celebrate “the VIPs of politics, culture and entertainment.” Elsewhere, Countess Donatella is listed as the hostess of Italian chat shows and her perfume brand, Diable Au Corps, remains widely available online.

For reasons not mentioned, the Pecci Blunt family are now selling the Villa Reale di Marlia. The 118,403 square foot property, which stands in 39.5 acres of gardens, consists of three main buildings: the 17,760 square foot Main Villa, the 53,819 square foot Villa dell’Orologio and the 19,375 square foot Villa of the Bishop. The Main Villa is spread over three levels and connected by a substantial staircase and elevator. The floors are mainly Venetian mosaics and many of the walls and ceilings are frescoed.

A price of 45,000,000 (circa £37,500,000) is quoted on various websites for the property though Sotheby’s themselves simply lists it as: “Price on application.”

When the Villa Reale di Marlia eventually sells, it will indeed be fascinating to observe the next chapter in the life of this house of intrigue.

The Villa Reale di Marlia is for sale through Sotheby’s Rome office. Contact Diletta Spinola for more information on +39 06.69.38.00.76 or +39 06.69.92.39.96: http://www.sothebysrealty.com/eng/sales/detail/180-l-682-4000017296/the-royal-villa-of-marlia-lucca-tu-55012

View the official website for the Villa Reale di Marlia, Località Villa Reale, Marlia - 55014 Lucca, Italy at: http://www.parcovillareale.it

For more information on Countess Donatella Pecci Blunt’s perfume, go to: http://www.fragrantica.com/perfume/Donatella-Pecci Blunt/Diable-Au-Corps-9105.html

4 comments:

Alan said...

What a wonderful house. It'd make a great hotel and then whole hosts of us could enjoy it.

Chris said...

I loved seeing this on Monty Don's Italian Gardens show after reading your piece. You plainly are on the same wavelength as the maestro gardener.

Matthew Steeples said...

Make sure you visit the gardens at the Villa Reale di Marlia before it is sold. If a Russian does indeed buy it, they'll undoubtedly close them to the public.

Christina said...

Write about more places like this and less about vulgar American places. Thanks, Matthew. If I had the funds, I would buy it immediately.