Whenever someone says, “Would you like to see the villa?” say yes!
First of all, let me clarify. The term villa has been used and abused in recent years as people have tried to attach romantic charm and elegance to contemporary houses. Well, don’t let them fool you. Even the largest and most expensive re-creations don’t measure up to the natural magic and inspirational quality of an authentic villa Italiana. Just take one step into the century-old gardens surrounding one of those gems and you’ll discover a peaceful calm like no other—just relax and soak in each delicious moment.
Several days ago, we were at Villa San Donnino just outside of Modena in the Emilia Romagna region north of Tuscany. The area is known as the bread basket of Italy, but even more importantly it’s recognized around the world as the birthplace of aceto balsamico, balsamic vinegar. If you want to see inside their age-old process, Cheryl will take you there in her story called Recharging the Batteries. But now, on to the biggest surprise of that fateful day.
As we finished our tour, Davide Lonardi, the owner/operator of the centuries-old family business uttered those magical words, “Vorreste vedere dentro la villa, would you like to see inside the villa?” We responded with a resounding siiiiiiiiiì, using our best Italian inflection—the only possible answer given the circumstances. It seemed that our already delightful day had just gotten even better.
Now, this isn’t just your everyday villa. No. It happens to be designed in the Stile Liberty, Liberty style, which was a particular Italian version of Art Nouveau architecture that began in the late 1800s. The period lasted only about 15 years, but provided an extremely creative transitional form and philosophy bridging between the previous Neo-Classicism and what was to become the Modern movement in the early 1900s. A special bonus came with this particular villa—it was the setting in 1976 for the Bernardo Bertolucci movie called Novecento, 1900 starring Robert DeNiro. That little factoid made the visit even more engaging than it already was.
So . . . in we went.
We were absolutely unprepared for the grandeur and the incredible details that awaited us. Standing in the entrance, I was speechless as the automatic shades over the sunroom windows silently raised, letting bright light stream into the dining room and entry hall (which happened to be larger than our entire house). That four-story piece of art and sculpture unfolded its fascinating tale of Italian romanticism room after incredible room.
Hours later, after non-stop conversation, we said our ciao ciaos, and slowly drove back down the tree-lined lane leading to the large cancello di ferro, iron gate, which gracefully opened upon our approach as part of that well choreographed dance. We just had one of those experiences of a lifetime, when expectations are so far exceeded that you can’t quite put it all together. Only after several days can you begin to sense the immensity of the experience.
Looking back on our Friday surprise, I’m struck by the Italian sense of family commitment that honors the rich heritage of character and quality, passed on from generation to generation . . . literally for centuries. I was moved by the honesty and passione with which Davide opened up a special part of his life, entrusting us with even a small piece of the family magic. I was in awe of the Italian sensitivity to beauty—understanding what’s possible in life when surrounded by nature, color, design and spaces that inspire, allowing us to breathe deeper and feel the intimacy of our lives with more intensity.
I was changed that day. It was like slipping through a portal into a place where I had never been before—so full of surprises and new experiences that I couldn’t help but come away a different person. Perhaps a bit more aware of how emotionally connected I am to people and this world. I found renewed energy around the importance of discovering and sharing our personal passions and callings. Through the spontaneous and generous offer on that brisk spring afternoon, I was given a rare glimpse into our shared world of deep and abundant beauty—always resting silently in the background waiting to be noticed . . . that which is often invisible, yet beyond our wildest imaginings.