Villa Ferragamo

The very same family that turned footwear into artwear has restored an entire Tuscan town—including the family villa—to its medieval splendor. Laurie Werner reports.

In the best Italian feudal tradition, it wasn't uncommon for an entire town to be owned by one family. And it isn't surprising that so many would have wanted Il Borro, a picturesque and strategically located medieval hilltop 12 miles northwest of Arezzo and 30 miles southeast of Florence. Indeed, in its nearly thousand years, the town has been controlled by some of the country's biggest names: the Medicis in the 18th century; the descendants of the house of Savoy, the family of the last Italian king, in the 20th. In 1993, another prominent family took hold, this time from commerce instead of politics: the heirs of Salvatore Ferragamo, founder of the empire of designer shoes.

Appropriately, the Ferragamo put in charge after the purchase was the patriarch's namesake and grandson, 29-year-old Salvatore, who, from years of living in New York (he has a business degree from New York University), speaks perfect English. "You can understand why we would have wanted this, can' you?" he asks quickly. "Isn't this one of the most beautiful places you've ever seen?" In fact, it is a veritable storybook setting, this cluster of medieval houses of golden stone and red-tile roofs reachable only by a stone bridge, with the aristocratic apricot-colored lord-of-the-manor villa perched above them, surrounded by the verdant hillsides of the Pratomagno Mountain foothills.

The setting is art but it's also business. The 1,700 acres of the estate aren't there just to look pretty, they're there to work. The fields are filled with olive trees, Chianti grapes, vegetables such as zucchini, lettuce, and richly flavored tomatoes—products that turn up on the estate's tables or in bottles, ready to sell. Dashing through muddy lanes in his Land Rover, his dog, Brugo, by his side, Ferragamo is part gentleman farmer and winemaker, part chief executive of production. All of this business talk in the midst of such dreamy Tuscan scenery—it's an odd juxtaposition to be sure.

That dualism, however, hearkens back to the family roots, the original Salvatore. He learned the shoe business as an 11-year-old apprentice to a Neapolitan shoemaker and launched his empire by bringing unique, fashion-forward handmade footwear to '20s Hollywood. Charismatic and forceful—and, of course, in possession of sensational shoes—Ferragamo forged a loyal movie-star clientele who followed him home to the company's eventual headquarters in Florence. Given the expansion of the business into different areas such as hotels (the Lungarno Hotel and Gallery Hotel Art in Florence), it's obvious that creativity and tenacity are in the genes.

These traits must have served him well in the early years, when the family first purchased Il Borro, a period, he admits, that was not completely smooth. "Oh, there were a few letters, complaining about us taking over…" he says. Apparently these were declarations of loyalty to Amadeo, Duke of Aosta, the popular aristocrat and previous owner, who now lives in a nearby town. Other neighbors, however, welcomed the change. "We loved Amadeo, but in truth, the village was in terrible shape when the Ferragamos took over," says one resident. "The houses were falling apart, the roofs were leaking. Amadeo didn't have the money to put into it. We needed something to change."

To restore the village and the villa, which had suffered extensive damage during World War II when it was exploded by German soldiers retreating from advancing Allied forces, the Ferragamos spent six years and "too much money!" exclaims Salvatore. Since they were reconstructing from the original plans, part of the challenge was getting approval from the notoriously Byzantine Italian landmark authorities, in addition to matching the stones (which they acquired from local quarries) and finding artisans who could re-create the stonework. The 30 full-time residents of the village played a human shell game, relocating from house to house while the 40 craftsmen rebuilt their homes, the church, the streets.

When the work was finished in the spring of 1999, another mergence of art and commerce occurred: The Ferragamos opened up apartments in the ten buildings of the village and in the farmhouses scattered around the property, with weekly, self-catering arrangements (and moderate prices, $900- $2,250 a week). The premiere accommodation, however, in terms of privacy and space, hits the market this spring: the 56-room villa formerly occupied by the family, with ten bedrooms and a glassed-in pool overlooking the village. Surprisingly, the villa isn't a showplace, and despite the family's Italian design flair, its fabrics and furniture are styled in the English manner by Salvatore's mother, Amanda. It feels like a family's house, with rooms that are comfortably lived-in but no match in drama for the scenery outside. One of the benefits of staying in the house, though, are the meals prepared by Norma Castro, whose affable husband, Jesus, is the house's butler. The food is typically Tuscan, rustic and wonderful—Florentine steak, fillet of sole with white beans, salads, and vegetables from the gardens of the estate. (And for more elaborate meals, a chef from a local restaurant can be imported.)

Afternoons can be spent riding horses through the property—12 are kept in a stable on the grounds—or surveying the countryside in a glider, the property of Il Borro resident William Stoney, an Irish aeronautical engineer who welcomes any excuse to take the plane up for a flight. Or one can talk history with another resident, Don Pasquale Mencattini, the 87-year-old priest who has presided over the town's church since 1941 and protected citizens during World War II by negotiating uncompromisingly with the Nazi troops occupying the region. These days, Don Pasquale conducts services and, in some cases, weddings, as he did last October when Salvatore and fiancée Christine Maninger were married in the local church while many of the village's residents looked on.

That's one of the best aspects of a stay here—the sense of being part, even temporarily, of a town's life. (Although some features of Il Borro are clearly intended for visitors, such as the shop Oro del Borro spotlighting the work of talented jewelers David Lazzerini and Massimo Sacchetti, one specializing in antique, the other, modern designs, in precious metals and stones.) Strolling the tiny lanes of the village, you'll observe residents going about their usual routines, pausing to catch up on the local gossip.

On other afternoons, it's tempting to simply sit on the deck chairs near the pool or on the terrace's Balinese wooden bench overlooking town and the splashing fountain set in the villa's sculptured gardens. It's a mesmerizing view, especially in the morning when the fog lifts from the valley or at night, when the moon glints over the golden stones. At those moments, it's easy to understand why Salvatore rarely has any interest in going to Florence, even though it's so close and so many of his friends are there. "Look around," he says, "would you want to leave?"

Villa: $37,000 a week. 52020 San Giustino Valdarno, Italy; 39-055-977053.

Laurie Werner is the contributing travel editor of Departures.