The noble villa belonged to the aristocratic Acconciajoco family and then passed into the hands of the powerful and influential Fusco family, who were related to the Pitti family in Florence, the D’Angiò family from Naples and the Sasso family.
Ownership of this fertile land, defended by the walls that stood down from the headland, was always eagerly sought after by the nobility in Ravello due to its strategic position and above all its large stretches of flat ground suitable for farming, which were almost unique in the area. Archival sources state that “Angellotto Fusco had the church of Sant’Angelo a Cimbrone built on the site (1301)” and that “by that time the family fully owned it”. In 1403 the King of Naples, Ladislas of Durazzo, confirmed these rights and also bestowed the benefits concerning various titles of churches in Ravello upon his cup bearer and chaplain Nicola Fusco and his descendents.
One of the most authoritative figures in this family of merchants and influential men of the cloth was Paolo Fusco, in the second half of the 16th century. He was the town’s bishop (1570-1578) and was popular and well respected thanks to his human and pastoral qualities, and his great learning in legal matters.
The Fusco family’s bond with Cimbrone was strong and intense, so much so that it owned it for over five and a half centuries. They were responsible for major work on the building and the garden, as underlined by a marble plaque dated 1620 that was found during recent restoration work and placed in the cloister. The most illustrious members of the family are depicted and exalted in a marvellous Renaissance fresco that has recently been restored and is located on the first floor, on the wall next to the old entrance to the building.
There was a clear desire by the owners to give new value and significance to the estate, which until that time had been exclusively “agricultural”, in the wake of the classical and Renaissance tastes and culture that were prevailing in the courts of Naples and Italy in general.
This period saw the creation of the Panoramic Terrace, the long access path with the pavilion at the end featuring a “dome on spherical plumes”, the layout of the marble busts and the large number of terracotta items such as amphorae and huge decorated pots. The “palatial house” also underwent changes, with the addition of reception halls with “pavilion” vaults featuring floral patterns and “grotesque” paintings and decorations.
A strong resemblance is evident between the “clipei” and fantasy scenes, which have been reanimated by the recent restoration work, and the elements in the garden. This shows the unquestioned delicacy and culture regarding landscapes of those who commissioned the work (for around 40 years in the first half of the 18th century, Cimbrone became the residence of the noblewoman Isabella Del Verme Sasso, the widow of Don Pietro Fusco).
The political and economic troubles between the 18th and 19th centuries, the seizure of the goods and possessions of aristocratic families under Napoleon, the return to their ancestral hometown of Naples by the leading members of the Fusco family, the onset of the phenomenon of “brigandage” and the powerful earthquake that hit the land around the coast at the end of the 1700s all led to a period of major decline in the entire area and the resulting abandonment of the Villa.
A run of misfortune brought about serious economic problems for the Fusco family. To pay off their debts, on 31 August 1864 they had to hand over the entire property to the Amici brothers, who were traders and pasta makers from Atrani.
Despite all this, even during those years of abandonment Cimbrone’s charms remained intact: in the summer of 1853, the German traveller Ferdinand Gregorovius wrote in his “Travel Notes” that the Villa was “incomparable…, in the well cultivated garden the most beautiful flowers imaginable grew, springing from endless plants of the South…” It provided a magical setting for the famous horse ride by Cosima and Richard Wagner in May 1880. In her diary, Cosima Wagner wrote: “Wednesday 26 May. Quiet breakfast and horse ride up at Ravello; words cannot express the beauty. In Ravello we found Klingsor’s garden… we rode up Via Santa Chiara as far as the small pavilion, stopping for a break and song by Peppino. In my opinion, the view from up there is the most beautiful of all…” (the pavilion to which she refers is the one near the terrace in Villa Cimbrone).
At the end of the 19th century, the Villa was visited by an illustrious and well educated Englishman named Ernest William Beckett (1856-1917), 2nd Lord Grimthorpe. He was one of the intellectual aesthetes on the “grand tour”, constantly seeking out the roots of Western history and culture on their travels. He fell hopelessly in love with the place and in 1904 he bought part of it (the largest section, on the west side) from the Amici brothers of Atrani. This rich banker came from a cultured and refined family, which counted among its members several prominent and renowned architects: worthy of a particular mention among these is his uncle Edmund Beckett (1816-1905), 1st Lord Grimthorpe. In addition to designing important churches, mainly in the family’s home county of Yorkshire, he was responsible for the clock mechanism that rings the chimes of Big Ben, in the tower which has become a symbol of London.
Some of Beckett’s acquaintances had advised him to go to Ravello, partly to help him recover from the deep depression that afflicted him following the loss of his beloved wife Lucy Lee, who passed away at the age of just 28 while giving birth to his only son. This small town had earned itself an excellent reputation over the years: many foreigners who had long suffered from severe inner conflict had managed to regain the tranquillity for which they yearned. It was a place to rediscover one’s soul. This was also confirmed by Beckett. Cured and spurred on by the great happiness he found here, he decided to revive the Villa and make it a real treasure: “the most beautiful place in the world”.
In making his dream reality, he received the full support of a person from Ravello that he had met in England and that he entrusted with carrying out the work: Nicola Mansi. The local man was an eclectic, imaginative and highly inventive character. He was always able to comply with the wishes and proposals of the enlightened Lord, who was an experienced traveller and a keen collector of art works. The garden was partially redesigned, although its form was to a large extent determined by certain pre-existing elements, in particular the central path that provided the main axis crossing the property from North to South. Characterized by the aesthetic concepts of English architects and landscapers such as Harold Peto, Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, it was expertly organized, with various “episodes” and trails branching off from the central path that leads from the monumental entrance to the panoramic viewpoint.
Among the rich and varied native and exotic plants, in a delightful union between English landscaping and the tradition of Italian gardens, a large number of splendid decorative elements were added: fountains, nymphaea, small temples, pavilions and stone and bronze statues. They were the result of the strong influence of classical literature and the reinterpretation of the “Roman villa”. When choosing the trees and the plants for the flowerbeds, the Lord initially used the services of a French botanist, while recent studies have confirmed that there was input in the design of the garden from the English botanist Vita Sackville West. The latter was a friend and self-professed admirer of the famous gardening expert Gertrude Jekyll, who was the author of numerous books that can be found in the Villa’s private library.
The work done to the “palatial house”, which was derelict and in a poor state, included replacing the central Byzantine tower with the current one with battlements, raising the height of the “guard” tower next to the entrance, rebuilding the largely collapsed Moorish cloister, and constructing the Gothic open gallery – known as the Crypt – and the floor above. Several decades earlier at Villa Rufolo, the Scottish gentleman Francis Nevile Reid had with great passion and dedication managed to pull the “little Alhambra” that had been the prestigious residence of the Rufolo family away from the brink of oblivion.
Lord Grimthorpe, and later his favourite daughter Lucille, also wanted to leave a permanent trace of their love for this small town. They were generous benefactors to the local people too: they had strong ties to the town and its inhabitants, who devoted their time to agriculture and raising livestock; the only ways to make a living. They financed road, aqueduct and school building projects, promoted vaccinations and medical assistance and helped the most needy families for decades. They did such good work that they were made honorary citizens. They also left the first, extremely important mark in the consciences of the people of Ravello: real wealth can be found in the conservation and respect for history and the strong, longstanding pride for being privileged in having a prestigious past.
We would recommend that tourists who want to find out about the journey and development of Ravello’s rich, historical, artistic and cultural history consult the most reliable and easily accessible sources (also in anastatic copies). These include:
- FRANCESCO PANSA, Istoria dell’Antica Repubblica d’Amalfi. Naples, 1724
- MATTEO CAMERA, Memorie Storiche-Diplomatiche dell’Antica Città e Ducato di Amalfi. Salerno, 1876
- LUIGI MANSI, Ravello Sacra-Monumentale. Ravello, 1987
- GIUSEPPE IMPERATO, Amalfi-Ravello e Scala nella natura e nella storia e nell’arte. Amalfi, 1953
- GIUSEPPE GARGANO, La città a mezza costa. Patriziato ed urbanesimo a Ravello nei secoli del Medioevo, 2006
Since the 1960s, the enthusiastic dedication and “loving intelligence” – to quote the words of Domenico De Masi, past President of the Ravello Foundation – of the Vuilleumier family has allowed Villa Cimbrone to regain its magnificence, both as a historical place and as a botanical garden.
The successful project to recover, conserve and protect one of the most important cultural heritage sites in Campania springs from a bold idea by Marco Vuilleumier at the end of the 1960s, which has been pursued with great determination.
Villa Cimbrone had experienced a period of decline around the time of the Second World War. As the owners were English, during the conflict it was seized by the Italian State and for almost a decade it was totally abandoned. The unchecked growth of trees and lack of management of the systems had seriously impaired the views featured in the original design.
Step by step, with the aid of valuable suggestions from internationally renowned expert landscapers and botanists, the Vuilleumiers have worked to return the gardens to their glorious original state. Today the restoration project is largely complete, thanks in particular to the devotion of Prof. Arch. Alberto White, the precious contributions of Prof. Thomas Wright, the agronomist Federico Weber and the hard work of Pietro Amato, part of the fourth generation of gardeners in the Amato family.
Another important recovery and restoration project in recent years has involved the Palazzo, which was paying the harmful and dangerous consequences of a number of overlapping structural works being added over the centuries, often with poor quality materials.
During the restoration and renovation, great passion for the history of these places and painstaking professional care have ensured that the atmosphere of the old aristocratic residence has remained intact. This has all led to the creation of a small but prestigious Hotel de Charme inside the old villa, allowing the rooms and gardens to continue to be enjoyed in their original manner. The delightful bedrooms with exquisite antique Vietri flooring, the frescoed halls and the warm stone fireplaces still welcome illustrious figures. Amidst the wonders of the Mediterranean, they come looking for an exclusive place, invigorating tranquillity and unparalleled beauty.
While it cannot count on the support of State funds, Villa Cimbrone is a significant example of how it is possible in Italy, with the right amount of passion and intelligence and a constructive relationship with the authorities, to privately manage a monumental site of public interest in a praiseworthy manner, treating it like a part of the national heritage.