I have spent eleven years being irritated by an 18th century villa near my house, because it blocks the middle of what could be a perfect road running right behind Casa Nostra into the nearest town.
Despite its fancy gates, Villa Sant’Isidoro looked like a derelict building from the outside. I assumed it would fall down all by itself soon, and then my traffic jam problems would be solved.
That was before I knew it was inhabited by a very old lady called Maria Teresa de Cordova, the last member of a noble family, whose ancestor had been the Viceroy of Sicily, second in command to the king himself.
It was also before I knew that its rooms all looked like this.
And before I saw two of the 18th century oil paintings she was taking great care of, by Sicilian masters Pietro Novelli and Jusepe de Ribeira, who painted in the style of Caravaggio. They have visited a few art galleries since they were “discovered”.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not forgiving her because she was old, or posh. I just suddenly got a soft spot for her when I found out she’d owned a collection of Baroque torture instruments. I’ll be doing a blog post specially dedicated to those, so WATCH THIS SPACE!
To be fair, they were inherited from her Spanish ancestors. She had also been a raven-haired beauty with a to-die-for collection of designer dresses.
By the time I found out Maria Teresa had been a trendsetting fashionista, I was wishing I’d had the chance to meet her. She was a debutante in 1953, and her Christian Dior ballgown is displayed in the house along with photos of her wearing it on her big day. Debutantes are sent out into the world to find a husband, yet she never married.
I wonder if she had a sad heartbreak and never fell in love again.
She lived out her last years among five centuries of family history and treasures. Her family were of Spanish origin and they were among the leaders of the military offensive to expel the Moors from Spain. They also persuaded Isabel and Ferdinand to send Columbus across the Atlantic to discover America. These two acts made them one of Spain’s most influential families.
When she passed away in 2011, she left the house and its vast grounds to family friends, who founded a trust to preserve it. They have worked for the last three years to restore it to a suitable condition to open it to the public, which they did just four months ago.
Their dedication to restoring the villa, and their passion for its history, is contagious. But they need 5 million Euros urgently to restore the building.
They’re not kidding about this, by the way. I’ve had a jolly good look at the place structurally, and I can personally vouch for the fact that two Sicilians arguing at a normal Sicilian level of decibels might be enough to reduce the place to rubble. I think they urgently need a bit of crowdfunding to save this Sicilian treasure.
A collection of vintage cameras and photography paraphernalia was found in the attic, along with a set of paints for retouching photos in colour – the Victorian equivalent of Photoshop.
There’s also a hurdy gurdy in full working order, equipped with a fabulous collection of operatic music rolls, though sadly minus both organ grinder and monkey. (I am considering offering my services, as I do still need a full-time job.)
There’s a vast collection of smoking paraphernalia, including not only Meerschaum pipes and tobacco pouches from across the world, but two ingenious cigar stands, one of which has a rotating mechanism operated by a little knob on the top.
Villa Sant’Isidoro is a treasure-trove of Sicilian history and art, of intimate family memories mixed with political events that changed the course of history. This is by no means the last post I will write about it!
I once dreamed about it falling down; now, it’s become one of my favourite places in the whole world.
All the photos in this post are By Karen La Rosa of La Rosa Works. La Rosa Works organises unique and exceptional tours of Sicily, and I accompanied one of the groups to a banquet with live music in Villa Sant’Isidoro. It was the bees knees and I will be bloggging about it soon!
Villa Sant’Isidoro, Aspra
The villa is open seven days a week, from 10am till 1pm and from 4pm till 7pm in summer (May – September) and from 10am till 1pm and from 3pm till 6pm in winter (October to April).
It’s round the back of my house.
Ha ha!!! OK, seriously, here’s a map.