I Crumbling Italian castles
Snap up a gem in the government’s sell-off
If you have always dreamed of having breakfast on a sunkissed terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples, now’s your chance – as there’s a surprising new source of property that’s just hit the market. In times of hard economic crisis, the Italian government is trying to raise revenues from the sale of its abandoned historical buildings in an attempt to curb public debt.
And there are gems within: take Villa Nike, on chic Posillipo Hill, which is home to the Neapolitan bourgeoisie, an elegant mansion recently placed on the market at €4.9million (£4.2million). The 16,000 sq ft property has a private park, sauna, a swimming pool facing the shimmering sea, a library, patio, three terraces, four living rooms, 11 bedrooms with marble and mosaiccovered floors, eight bathrooms and two kitchens. Built in 1949, it was the residence of the Supreme Allied Commander for Southern Europe until 2013, when it passed into the hands of Italy’s defence ministry.
Villa Nike is just one of many properties that could become your very own doer-upper masterpiece. Initially launched five years ago but with poor results that brought little money to public coffers, the state has rebooted its property plan to attract foreign buyers. Laws have been approved to speed up sales and cut red tape, and there is a new online platform to make the buying process smoother.
“It’s much easier to purchase public property today than in the past,” says Patrizia Vasta of Agenzia del Demanio, the state property agency (investinitalyrealestate.com). “And while some buildings are on sale, others can be leased as private residences for a minimum of six to a maximum of 50 years through public tenders.” You can take your pick from around 1,000 state properties currently on the market including castles, military barracks, old Tuscan farms, Venetian villas, monasteries, Bourbon mansions, lighthouses and royal Savoy residences.
One property that can be leased – handy for foreigners who want to dip their toe into la dolce vita – is Podere Colombaia, a 15,000 sq ft farmhouse from the 15th century, nestled in Florence’s gently rolling hills on almost 11 acres of land. In the past, the building’s tower was used to breed doves and pigeons, the Florentines’ main protein source during harsh winters and still a local gourmet dish today. The view from the loggia stretches across the Chianti valley all the way to the centre of Florence, and on clear days the dome of the cathedral can be spotted.
The scheme means that you can snap up a piece of extraordinary history, such as a 13th-century former hospital covered in frescoes. The Ospedale degli Innocenti is considered to be one of the most prestigious architectural landmarks of Bologna. Originally a place where monks from nearby monasteries assisted the sick and wounded, it was turned into a theatre during Napoleon’s reign and still preserves a magical, surreal ambiance. Taking up a huge 50,000 sq ft, it is for sale at €10million.
It’s not just a matter of getting rid of unused property, but of giving them a second life by recovering crumbling masterpieces, says Vasta. “It’s important to restore these historical buildings to their original splendour,” while also helping to kick-start the local economies, bringing in tourists.
In Sicily, some €7million will buy you a chapter of British history: Admiral Horatio Nelson’s 17thcentury castle in Borgo Caracciolo, near the picturesque town of Bronte – renowned for its pistachios.
The estate, set in a lush park, houses the British admiral’s private residence, is now a museum. At the entrance, a gigantic Celtic cross of volcanic rock in honour of the “Immortal Hero of the Nile” greets visitors. The castle was part of Nelson’s duchy in Sicily, gifted to him in 1799 by King Ferdinand I of Naples.
It is surrounded by a ghost town, with the ruins of a rural village, a colonial villa, a medieval church and a fortified Benedictine abbey with crumbling turrets. Etna’s black fertile slopes can be seen in the distance.
The admiral invested a fortune in making the castle a lavish summer retreat. He shipped furniture from home and mixed it with Sicilian majolica, brocades, statues, paintings and archaeological wonders, many of which are still there. He also had a team of gardeners build a greenhouse and design English-style gardens with herbs and exotic plants.
But all this effort went to waste as he died before he even stepped foot on his estate. Plans have been hatched in the past to turn it into a five-star resort, and its renovation will require very deep pockets and a lot of work. But whoever snaps up the estate will own a unique patch of England in Italy’s deepest south.
Landmark: the Ospedale degli Innocenti, a 13thcentury former hospital in Bologna, could be yours for €10 million, above
On the slopes of Etna: Castello Nelson, in Sicily, is on the market for €7 million, left and right. The castle was gifted to Admiral Horatio Nelson, below, in 1799
Sweeping: the view from Villa Nike looking at the Bay of Naples