The cinematic castle: Villa di Ulignano

The cinematic castle: Villa di Ulignano

Sun 17 Jul 2016 8:20 AM

Picture the scene: it’s spring in Tuscany.  A man walks along a dusty track, passing fragrant fields and tranquil olive groves.  His objective? To find the perfect setting for his forthcoming film. The man is one of the twentieth century’s most talented directors, Luchino Visconti. 


Visconti’s achievements in both directing and writing earned him high accolades during Italian filmmaking’s glamorous and heady golden age. A pioneer of the Neorealist movement, he created some of the era’s most memorable masterpieces.


His meticulous search on that sunny morning took him to the countryside around the Etruscan hilltop town of Volterra. 


He climbed a collina set high in the landscape and found a magnificent seventeenth century villa amidst beautiful gardens.  Looking to the west, he marvelled at spectacular views of the sea and the island of Corsica. 


The day that Luchino Visconti discovered Villa di Ulignano launched a new chapter in its long history. The story began in the 1600s when Jacopo Inghirami (1565–1623) commissioned Florentine architect Gherado Silvani to create an impressive country residence. At the time, Inghirami was acting Governor of Livorno and a naval admiral. Upon its completion, the villa served as a country retreat for Inghirami’s family, hosting numerous illustrious guests and a succession of appropriately aristocratic owners. (Napoléon Bonaparte is rumoured to have stayed here during his sojourns in Italy, and two of the rooms still bear his name in honour of his visit).


Centuries later, the charm of the abandoned villa and its surroundings captivated Visconti, who went on to film Sandra (1965) in various locations around Volterra. His enduring fascination with the villa was infectious, inspiring the imagination of producer Franco Cristaldi. Not long after the film was released, Cristaldi felt compelled to buy the villa, purchasing it from the state at a public auction. 


Cristaldi’s decision to buy the villa was encouraged by his famous wife, Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. Together they restored the crumbling building to its former glory. Friends and colleagues were invited to stay and it soon became known as a retreat for many of the film industry’s luminaries. Sergio Leone often stayed here, a world away from the settings of his signature Spaghetti Westerns. The epic pictures of Federico Fellini may have taken a cue or two from the villa, given that Fellini was another frequent guest. No less than Francesco Rosi, Monica Vitti, Mario Monicelli, Sergio Corbucci, Italo Zingarelli, and Leo Benvenuti were some of the other regulars.


Ulignano house parties earned a reputation for fun and flamboyance; New Year’s Eve invitations were highly coveted. The first fireworks were often seen during these La Dolce Vita-esque parties.


For the rest of the year, the peaceful villa provided the perfect environment for creative minds to flourish. Early film rushes were viewed and edited and in a private screening room. Today, the villa’s cinema is preserved to look much as it always has, featuring the same same cubic Pop Art sofas and chairs. Original 35mm projectors stand alongside more modern equipment, and the owners have preserved an impressive archive of iconic 1960s movies in their original 35mm format. An eclectic collection of movie memorabilia is spread throughout the buildings.


Visitors may also recognize distinctive furniture from major movie sets. The chairs and tables in the main dining room were designed by Dante Ferretti for the Fellini film E la Nave Va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983). Several rooms still have the original wallpapers and curtains chosen by Claudia Cardinale (her private bedroom suite is one of the best examples), and many personal photos and mementos are positioned exactly as she left them.


Today, the magical spirit of Villa di Ulignano lives on. It’s still owned by the Cristaldi family, and Franco’s son Massimo upholds the cinematic family tradition. His sister-in-law Paola Stellato has been charged with caring for the villa in its most recent evolution. Her passion for preserving its history is clear: “This is not just a beautiful building,” she said, “but a coffer enriched and overflowing with endless memories from an iconic era.Now we are creating new memories and sharing the villa with people from all over the world.”



Loc. Ulignano, 56048 Volterra (PI)

Tel. 347/2328226   


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