Cetinale was originally a farmhouse, built on ruins from an Etrurian settlement (XI/VIII century B.C.). Only at the end of the 19th century was it rediscovered by foreign visitors exploring the remote area of the Tuscan countryside. By then it had become one of the most appreciated Italian gardens.
The first works of transformation of a small villa are recorded in 1651 when Flavio Chigi’s uncle, Cardinal Fabio Chigi owned Cetinale. The house, a modest building surrounded by farm dwellings, was enlarged on the southern side with two wings that flanked two storeys of open loggias. The garden was enclosed by an escarped wall, along which small towers gave it the appearance of a miniature fortress.
Benedetto Giovannelli, a local architect, designed these first works completed between 1651 and 1656. After Fabio Chigi became Pope Alexander VII in 1655, the works came to a halt until 1676, when Cetinale was inherited by his nephew Flavio. Flavio wanted to transform the villa in Roman baroque fashion and hired the architect Carlo Fontana, pupil of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Fontana designed the monumental stair and the marble portal surmounted by a great Chigi coat-of-arms on the northern façade. He projected the chapel, next to which is the “limonaia” (lemon house) and the long grass avenue that climbs the hill for 30 metres, sided by two large, red brick pillars and with carvings for two statues.
In front of the house stand Spring and Summer, two statues by Giuseppe Mazzuoli. Behind the north front, beyond two pillars, the avenue narrows and runs for 220 metres, until it reaches the statues of Napoleon and French marshalls, erected in 1811 when, apparently, the French emperor arrived at Cetinale. The theatre lies behind the statues and can be reached from the North, from the ancient road to Siena. Originally, it was surrounded by busts which were later moved to the garden around the villa.
A small gate leads to the start of Scala Santa, about 300 steps, ending in a stone platform. Here stands the “Romitorio”, a five storey hermitage inhabited by monks until the end of XIX century, now fully restored. The straight line that runs from the Romitorio down the avenue and past the house finishes on the southeastern side of the villa, with an enormous statue of Hercules, also by Mazzuoli.
To the North lies the Tebaide, (holy place). Paths, avenues, statues of saints and hermits, and one of the seven votive Chapels surrounding Cetinale are to be found in the Tebaide — the Holy Wood. The chapels are decorated with frescos representing The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin. Most frescos have deteriorated but a few are still visible such as Escape to Egypt, on the outside wall towards Siena.
The Palio of Siena, the most famous horserace in Italy was raced seven times between 1679 and 1692 in the Tebaide. There is no record of palios at Cetinale after Flavio’s death.
Close to the gate of Saint Anthony carved in stone, by Mazzuoli, are what some believe to be the symbols of the contradas of Siena: a winged dragon, turtles, a snail, a viper, a lion and the head of a porpoise. The alternative belief is that the carvings are of monstrous animals, personifications of the Devil in a medieval wood that is traditionally a place of unsafeness.
Lord Lambton bought Cetinale from the Chigi family in 1978 and has dedicatedly worked on restoring the house and estate. He created a new formal garden based on Roman designs and new planting and restorative works are continuous.
Villa Cetinale, clocktower
Two hundred steps - the so-called "Scala Santa" (Saint Staircase) - lead to the Romitorio, a building added in 1716