Why you should care
Because nobility deserves your sympathy (according to nobility).
Dante Alighieri once wrote that the “real nobility is that of the spirit.” In hard economic times, that’s exactly what many Italian aristocrats are left with. Forget estates, fortunes, castles and coats of arms. Even titles lost their value long ago.
So now many fallen nobles are forced to do the unthinkable. That is, roll up their sleeves.
In a desperate attempt to raise the funds to maintain their properties and exploit the appeal of their crumbling castles, 150 nobles in northern Italy have united in a lobby that they hope will become a thriving network, ultimately including the rest of Europe’s aristocracy. Soon they’ll launch an online “Guestbook” for tourists wanting to spend a weekend in a castle, and a “royal” e-shop to sell gadgets and products of each castle’s brand.
I love riding my tractor for hours in the fields with my employees, having a direct contact with the soil. It fills me with satisfaction.
Earl Alessandro Calvi di Bergolo of Piovera Castle
“We don’t sit shut in our salons anymore, smoking cigars and drinking whiskey with our arms and legs crossed all day long,” says Earl Alessandro Calvi di Bergolo of Piovera Castle, haunted by ghosts and engraved with fascinating Knights Templar signs. “Beheaded French King Louis XVI used to say that he loved his people, but to keep them far away from him. Today, we must be inventive, become businessmen. We need to work.”
Even if that means opening their palaces to the riffraff and doing manual labor. Like working on a tractor as a peasant amid fields of cereals and tomatoes, and creating gadgets such as castle key souvenirs, T-shirts, caps, golf clothes, aprons and medals with coats of arms. Or making beauty creams and cosmetics, hosting spas and renting their posh salons for fashion catwalks, hats expositions, concerts, yoga lessons, cooking lessons and folklore courses. Or, let’s be real: Working, period.
Most have settled as hoteliers, restyling their castles into boutique hotels and squeezing the most out of their lands: wine, oil, honey, jams, rice with which they make hazelnut pies and Barbera wine biscuits. Others have turned into real estate agents, marketing their towers and fortresses for lease and for sale. Milan’s region was once the “golden land of aristocracy,” where powerful families, dubbed signorie, ran entire kingdoms and commissioned works to Leonardo da Vinci. Now they can’t even afford to repaint their walls. “Family fortunes have waned, and maintaining wide estates, what with bills, taxes and restoration works, is too expensive in modern times,” says nobleman Giovanni Ceni, who rents out the family convent for private weddings. Maintenance costs start at 100,000 euros per year. “If I had to live off the fruits and vegetables of my plot, all my revenue would go into upkeeping my property,” he says.
So it’s no surprise that some desperate descendants of ancient families have preferred to donate their medieval towers to Italy rather than pay for restoration. One broke noble has put up for sale an ancient Roman bridge running across his gardens for the symbolic price of one euro. But several others, left without a penny and ashamed to say so, still live inside their ruined, ramshackle mansions.
Italy is just exiting from a severe recession, the worst in its postwar history, and not even aristocrats have proved to be immune to economic downturns. In a bid to curb public spendings and raise additional revenue, Italy’s government has scrapped privileged property taxation for castles and historical mansions. The move has driven Italian aristocracy mad. Several government officials (who commented on condition of anonymity) said the move was one of “justice — everybody needs to pay taxes, especially wealthy people. Why should they be exempted just because of their aristocratic title?”
One thing is sure: The good old days, when servants did all the hard work in the fields to maintain the estates, are gone. “My great-grandfather spent his time chasing milkmaids and having fun with them in the barns, while his wife hit lazy servants with the back of an ivory walking stick,” says Countess Rosa Maria Scrugli.
But some aristocrats actually enjoy working like ordinary people.
“I love riding my tractor for hours in the fields with my employees, having a direct contact with the soil. It fills me with satisfaction,” says Calvi di Bergolo, who invites over schoolchildren to show them what running a farm means and lets them pick fruit. He plans to turn his stables into a B&B where guests can park their horse at the entrance.
What’s more, Italy has the greatest artistic heritage in the world, he says, “and our historical mansions need to be sexed up. We can play a crucial role in this.” There are more than 3,000 castles and 18,000 mansions scattered across the boot. The noble lobby aims to spearhead the creation of a new “European aristocracy.” Russian czars and Belgian royal descendants have been involved in the project, and Italy’s (once) Prince Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, who still calls himself “His Royal Highness,” has been named ambassador. He will tour Europe to promote the Italian nobles’ “business model,” luring other aristocrats to join forces and create a European “aristocracy route” geared toward tourists.
Similar trends are playing out elsewhere in Europe. France has created a network uniting its ancient castles, while in Spain the government has helped revamp historical properties by turning them into inns. In the U.K., castles and fortresses are put on sale almost on a daily basis. Luca Pirolo, economics and luxury wealth management professor at Rome-based LUISS University, says it’s a growing trend due to two overlapping factors: ”Aristocrats need to turn their estates into money-making activities to survive hard times, and tourists are lured by the beauty of ancient, historical mansions that offer more than a simple hotel stay.”
The lobby will also create a fund to help those nobles who are really doing poorly. Agreements have been signed with banks and insurance companies willing to support castles’ high maintenance costs. These dukes and barons believe it’s a “prejudice” to overcome, that it’s no longer true that a nobleman can afford anything he wants.
Today even dreams are expensive.