A historic Farmhouse
The structure is externally a fine and somewhat unusual example of a historic Tuscan farmhouse style, the Leopoldina. Named after Leopoldo, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, whose design it was, his innovation was to dedicate the ground level to the working of cereals and housing Oxon, whilst the farm workers and their families resided above. Apart from the requirement for safe housing for the valuable oxon (who played an essential role in the working of the heavy clay soil) came the benefit of their presence warming the upper floor of the property somewhat during colder periods. Being higher up offered better air flow to the residents on the first floor during hotter periods – the cooling effect but also escape from the ‘bad air’ or Mal Aria that troubled those living at ground level in Tuscany up until the 1940’s. Finally a Colombaio (Dovecote) was constructed upon the roof to encourage the birds into residence that they might be enjoyed as an inexpensive, precious source of meat.
Leopoldo’s innovative design is considered to have brought significantly better living conditions to the farmworkers where his design was used. The building type is found principally within the Valdichiana Aretino but with a good number present, including this one, within the territory of the Valdichiana Senese.
The house would have been occupied by roughly 5 families/20 or so individuals, all working the surrounding land, housed by and crop sharing with the landlors, a system that continued until the 1950’s. Children were schooled at Tenuta La Fratta, our ‘Home Farm’, until they started to work the land. Back in the day, when the house was part of the Tenuta La Fratta Organic Estate many head of Ox occupied the cow stall on the ground floor. There was a nursery room on the south west corner of the house where the young were born. The last calf was born in 1984 but we imagine that by that time the animals were living more or less alone at the property, as agricultural practices had changed considerably after the second world war and during the 1950’s and 60’s. Towns grews with apartment buildings and the tractor took over the work once done by the Oxon. The ‘Contadini’ or crop sharing workers and their families left the countryside and headed to the towns and cities seeking to improve their lives.
Following abandonment, the house was used as a vantage point from which to observe the hunting in the surrounding reserve for a time until during the 1990’s it was purchased by a gold trader from Arezzo and became somewhat notorious in the area; most notable for the brick and stone wall that he constructed to circle and close the entire mount, a terraced hill of about a hectare, securely.
Recently we have had the pleasure of meeting Ornelia, who knows the house well since childhood and has told us of the people and animals that lived here, the work of the house and surrounding fields. Something amazing; Ornelia told us a story of wartime; when during an oncoming air-raid German soldiers went out to the fields to recover the children (who were working away from their parents) and the Ox (whom the handlers had abandoned) and bring them to safety, leading the frightened children to safe cover within the forest tempting them to follow by offering pieces of chocolate.
Surprisingly, after our restoration; we removed all ‘modern’ additions and left only the bare bones or original rooms and divisions, the first floor of the house remains somewhat faithful to its original use with large open plan living zone and a fireplace central to 4 private corner accommodations.
The house is not only a Leopoldina, but also a casa colonica meaning colonised dwelling; more volume was constructed as more living space was required. The Leopoldina label was likely the result of the enlargement of a smaller, ancient property that is now the central part of the house. Riccardo the Guardia Caccia (Gamekeeper) at La Fratta whose land surrounds us is a great source of local history and lore and recently told us that the original dwelling place at this site predates the fall of the Roman Empire, and that the original name of this property Pietrabianca which means ‘white stone’ referred to the presence at this location of a site sacred to the Etruscans, built in white stone.
Certainly this central room of the house (shown in the image below) is the oldest ‘visible’ part of the building and was most likely surrounded by water on 3 sides, judging by Leonardo Da Vinci’s maps of this area. In paintings dating from the 12-1300’s we can see the house shown as a group of barn like structures.
The surrounding land is extremely fertile. At the time of the Etruscans, large parts of Tuscany were under water, a vast lagoon drained by the Romans. But the waters rose again in the middle ages when a pope dammed a river near Orvieto intending to flood out the vagabonds inhabiting the valley below. And so over the following 300 years the waters rose… Close by to our location large areas were still wetlands until the time of Leonardo da Vinci – who drained the waters in collaboration with the Medici family revealing vast areas of fertile land.
This area is a historic centre for beef production and the zoological origin of the Chianina (Giant White Tuscan Ox) is visible from the windows out to the North as are the largest free range organic heard of Chianina in Italy; at Tenuta La Fratta, historic breeders of this historic race of cattle, introduced to central Italy by the Romans.
La Toraia (The Bullhouse) where some of the most notable individuals in the history of the breed were housed is now a fabulous zero km steakhouse, serving this remarkable beef in the most significant and atmospheric of locations.