A woman at war in Umbria
If you’re not careful, buying a home abroad can land you in deep trouble. Malcolm Moore reports on an acrimonious legal battle in Italy and outlines how to play safe. And there are more tips from Spain, as Nick Southey describes how he fell foul of an es
Sarah Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte is not a lady you would expect to lose a deal. A steely-eyed and intelligent 62year-old, she has lived in Italy for more than 35 years, is married to an Italian prince, and speaks the language like a local.
However, her ongoing horror story about buying and refurbishing a house in Umbria is a cautionary tale for anyone looking to invest in Italy. “If this can happen to me, with everything I know and have been through in this country, it can happen to anyone,” she warns, sitting amid tall piles of legal papers in her apartment in Rome.
When she settled on her “perfect home”, Princess di Belmonte already had plenty of experience of the opaque and shifting world of Italian property deals. She had spent a decade renovating her husband’s ancestral hunting lodge south of Naples, fighting off truculent builders and even the grasping hand of the local Mafia.
“I converted it single-handedly into 20 apartments, sleeping over 80 people,” she says. Palazzo Belmonte is now a luxury hotel with a freshwater swimming pool. “At one point, however, things were bad enough that the local police chief gave me a gun licence,” she adds darkly.
With that project behind her, she started scouting for a new house in the summer of 2001, and found a rundown but imposing, 17th-century family home overlooking the green valley of Spoleto. The 13,000 sq ft, 10bedroom house still had its original frescoes and woodwork, as well as its own chapel, a limonaia for wintering lemon trees, a freshwater spring and ovens for baking bread and pizza.
Spoleto itself is a cobbled jewel, an hour and a half from Rome by train. The town is most famous for being the site of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Festival of Two Worlds, a music, dance and theatre event at which Allen Ginsberg and the beat poets used to perform.
The owners of the house, the Massi Benedetti family, were well-known landowners in the region. A written deal was quickly reached by the end of the summer, for 2.45billion Italian lire (about £1million).
The first whiff of trouble came just months afterwards, shortly after the September 11 attacks in America. The Massi Benedettis suddenly announced that there was a rival buyer, and that the price was now 2.6billion lire (£1.05million). Left with no choice but to pay the extra or lose the house, Princess di Belmonte reluctantly agreed.
However, as usual in Italy, the deal was far more complicated than it seemed. Nothing could be finally completed until the roof of the house was fixed. The property had been damaged by an earthquake in 1997, and the Italian government had made public money available for its restoration. However, the work was the responsibility of the Massi Benedettis.
Nevertheless, a compromesso – the most common type of preliminary contract – was signed. It stated that an agreement had been reached, and a schedule of payments was established. Princess di Belmonte put down an initial one billion lire (£350,000) deposit and began planning how to renovate her dream home. “I rented a house nearby and went about obtaining permissions to landscape the gardens and put the trees in order. I had thin terracotta tiles specially made so that we did not damage the antique doors. The house had three bathrooms, and I was putting in another seven,” she says.
“The house was so beautiful, it had charm, it had history. The drive on the way up to it was beautiful. It was thrilling to be in the garden and to discover ancient walls, or to see new views of the valley and mountains open up when we pruned back the trees. It is so satisfying when you see something that really needs some tender loving care slowly regaining its original beauty.”
She was determined to keep all the antique details of the house: “I had specialists come in and fit polystyrene protection over the frescoes while the work was being done. That is the whole point of buying a lovely old house, and keeping its character. You have that feeling of history. Otherwise, you could just build a modern home.”
The following year, when half the building had been completed, she paid a further 800 million lire, as stipulated in the contract.
The work continued apace until the summer of 2003, when a letter arrived from lawyers representing the Massi Benedettis. The letters alleged that she had breached her contract by carrying out “unauthorised” work on the building. By the time she returned from London to Spoleto in September, the gates had been closed and new locks fitted to keep her out. “I managed to get in the next day because the builders left the gates open,” she says. What she found was devastating. “They were destroying all the bathrooms, removing the main walls, repainting the outside, and totally destroying all the electricity and wiring systems,” she says. “They were even repainting the outside a ghastly pink.” All the frescoes had also been painted over.
In an attempt to save the house, she visited the town’s mayor and showed him photographs of the works. She even requested a block on building work from the public prosecutor and started lobbying the Ministry of Cultural Heritage. However, she was met with total indifference. Only a year later did the ministry eventually give the building a Grade I listing.
What she now believes is that the Massi Benedettis treated her contract as at an end and sold the house again, this time to a local Spoleto businessman. A lawyer representing the family said that Princess di Belmonte had “no foundation” to her case and that she had voided her contract by behaving “outside” the conditions stipulated.
“The businessman’s family was local, and the community closed around them and against me,” she says. She believes the close-knit Umbrian community wanted her out: “They do not like foreigners. Umbria is land-locked and the people are landlocked.” She adds that her noble family title was not an advantage in a traditionally communist state.
Her trips to Spoleto were met with increasing hostility, and the Massi Benedettis filed seven charges against her, including one that she had used bad language in addressing them.
Ablack wig hangs over the back of one of her chairs in her apartment in Rome, which she wore to move around Spoleto and gather information without being spotted. “Of course, their charges are being dealt with, but mine seem to be languishing, even though I have hired one of the most prestigious criminal lawyers in Italy,” she says.
However, her civil case to recover the house is under way. A judge will deliver a verdict in the next few months. Her lawyers are optimistic but the sluggish Italian court system is against her. “I just found out that even if I win the first round, which will with luck end later this year, I could still be in the appeal court for another three years without being allowed back on the property,” she says glumly.
The Massi Benedettis have offered to settle, and return her money minus an unspecified amount of “damages”. However, she says the terms of her preliminary contract stipulated that they would have to pay two billion lire (£700,000) if they broke the deal.
Princess di Belmonte is adamant she would never find a similar house for the money, after a property boom in the area. “I went the other day, and I saw lots of houses, but they were all charmless, and so expensive,” she says. “The point is that I am very attached to that villa. I put two years of work into it.” In the meantime, her Italian dream seems to have crumbled. “I wanted my daughter to be married there,” she says. “I think Umbria is the most beautiful part of Italy.” But, she admits, she may well be facing years of trials before a resolution.
“I am not giving up. I don’t see why I should have to,” she says. “I have even written it into my will that this case is to be continued.”
Determined: (above and right) Sarah Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte (right) and the 17thcentury Spoleto home she refuses to abandon, above and right