“Can you imagine leaving Capri for this?” asks Katherine Price Mondadori as we gaze out over the primitive landscape of deep-red earth and gnarled olive trees that surrounds Masseria Lamacoppa. She’s speaking rhetorically. Today, she has a deep connection with the house, which her late husband, the Milanese publishing magnate Leonardo Mondadori, bought in 1991, and its setting, the ruggedly beautiful southern Italian region of Puglia.
Back then, however, when he acquired this grand but decrepit farmhouse at the center of a 70-acre estate, Puglia might has well have been Mars for the prominent northern Italian family. It would be more than a decade before travel writers began to refer to the region as “the new Tuscany,” before Helen Mirren and Taylor Hackford began restoring their own masseria (the Italian equivalent of a Spanish hacienda) in the area, and before Jude Law and Sienna Miller rented a villa with friends near the chic seaside town of Gallipoli.
But Leonardo Mondadori was beginning to reconsider the family’s existing holiday home, an elegant villa on one of Capri’s most exclusive lanes. The sprawling seclusion of the agricultural countryside around the city of Ostuni—whose white-washed houses have earned it the name La Città Bianca (the White City)—was the perfect antidote.
“The thing that really attracted my father to Puglia,” the couple’s son Filippo tells me, “is that he didn’t have to see any of the people he saw from Monday to Friday.” Just five years old when his parents first took him there on vacation with his older brother, Filippo remembers Puglia back then as an “old guy with a donkey in a dusty piazza” kind of place.
There’s something both forbidding and fanciful about Masseria Lamacoppa. The main villa is a high, two-story block with few windows but some rather ornate chimneys and corner finials. From the 16th to the 18th centuries masserie were built with this fortress-like style as a means of protection from Turkish raiders. In the early 19th century, Lamacoppa was bought by a well-to-do local family, who set about turning the blockish building into a patrician villa, opening up windows, adding some architectural elements on the roof, and constructing a new wing to create a symmetrical façade.
When the Mondadoris moved in, the place was structurally sound but, Filippo says, “a complete wreck downstairs. A barn, essentially.” Few walls were moved, but making changes to the rest has been a 27-year work in progress. Filippo jokes that “we like to call the house La Fabbrica del Duomo,” a reference to the organization charged with the upkeep of Milan Cathedral that was established in 1387 and has never been idle to this day.
At the beginning, the ground floor was made habitable, and the walls were covered in cool white plaster (Leonardo was no fan of the exposed-stone, rustic look). Windows were opened up, a bathroom was added, and a delightful walled citrus arbor was created as a summer extension of the living room. The floors and the stairs were made of chianche, the same cream-hued limestone tiles used in the construction of Puglia’s familiar beehive-like trullo dwellings. But upstairs, Leonardo had polished concrete floors laid—a bold choice in the early ’90s. More recently, Filippo replaced the air-conditioning and hot-water systems using solar panels to upgrade the villa, which they rent out during the warmer months.
The contents of the house—a mix of European antique furniture, Moroccan and East Asian pieces, contemporary art, and family memorabilia—are the result of decades of slow accumulation and reshuffling. These treasures include inlaid Moroccan chairs and rugs collected by Katherine, a set of Neapolitan-style vases, and a number of sculptures by the classically influenced 20th-century artist Arturo Martini. “The house has always been a bit of a dumping ground for family treasures,” Filippo says, earning his mother’s gratitude.
On the dining room wall hang two huge, dried Gunnera manicata leaves in antique frames, a present from Stuart Thornton, the former butler of Marella and Gianni Agnelli and now an artist specializing in pressed-plant compositions. There’s also a palm tree, but it’s aluminum, one of 135 made for a gallery show by the late Mario Schifano, one of Filippo’s favorite artists. Works by Vietnamese artist Ônq Quý Cong, a family friend, are dotted around the house.
In a bedroom upstairs, a signed photograph of flowery Italian writer and shameless self-publicist Gabriele D’Annunzio sits on a chest of drawers. It’s dedicated to Filippo’s great-grandfather Arnoldo Mondadori, the son of an illiterate shoemaker, who turned the company that bore his name into one of Europe’s leading publishing houses. It was the signing of literary superstar D’Annunzio in 1926 that first pushed Mondadori into the spotlight. The D’Annunzio portrait is a rare reminder in the villa of that distant, gray world of urban life.
The masseria helps keep the successful family connected to its roots. On Sundays, they open the gates of the estate and its tiny consecrated chapel to locals who once worked the land and their descendants. “We try to keep up that link with Puglian traditions,” says Filippo. “Masserie were the center of rural life. It wasn’t even that long ago.” Available April through October.