A Brief Introduction
Many agricultural estates that date from the medieval and Renaissance periods in Tuscany’s history today function as agriturismos, providing farm-stay lodging and meals, an introduction to local products, and easy access to both agricultural landscapes and hill towns.
One of the more distinctive of these agriturismos is Spannocchia, located in the province of Siena about 12 miles southwest of the city. The estate made the 2006 Condé Nast Traveler Green List, which noted, “The Tuscan countryside may be dotted with villas, but the farmhouses and castello apartments at this 12th-century complex come with several unusual extras: an organic farm specializing in heirloom produce and almost-extinct animal breeds, a wildlife preserve with hiking trails, and an educational center whose curriculum runs from archaeology and architecture to painting, literature, and cooking—the latter taught by a chef born on the property. In 2005, tourism contributed almost $162,500 to the farm and its sustainable forestry project, both of which serve to promote ancient and earth-friendly methods among locals.”
Spannocchia has a highly successful internship program and hosts numerous educational gatherings. The description of the estate that follows (used and edited with permission) is drawn largely from Spannocchia’s website and correspondence with Randall and Francesca Stratton, who manage the property.
Making direct links between Spannocchia and Siena is difficult, but as Randall Stratton points out, “The connection between the city and the countryside (città and contado) has been fundamental throughout Siena's history, and is today just as valid and vital concerning the endeavors of specialty agricultural products and tourism. Spannocchia provides a particularly striking example of this connection, considering both its geographical relationship to the city and the historical connection through the Spannocchi family. The famous Palazzo Spannocchi in the center of Siena and the medieval tower of the Castello di Spannocchia provide illustrative images of that iconic connection between the urban and the rural, and also represent two of the most typical activities pursued in the two different environments: banking and commerce in the city; agriculture and forestry in the country.
History of Spannocchia
Castello di Spannocchia is the operational center of the Tenuta di Spannocchia, an agricultural estate that dates back to the 12th century. Although written records of the estate are limited, it is known that members of the Spannocchi family were residents on the property by the early 1200s, and it is believed that the Spannocchi were part of one of the great feudal clans that, along with the church, controlled most of the countryside of Tuscany during the medieval period. Members of the family continued to be active in the life of the city of Siena into the 1800s, but during that century their fortunes declined until one of the last remaining members of the family sold the property to Delfino Cinelli in 1925. Cinelli, a Florentine aristocrat and writer, bought the property both as an investment and for its value to him as a tranquil place to pursue his writing.
Following the end of the World War II, the mezzadria sharecropping farm system under which such estates had operated for centuries, began to decline as a result of the advent of modern industrialized agriculture and the general prosperity of Italy. As the population of tenant farmers at Spannocchia dwindled and agriculture declined drastically after the 1950s, the farm gradually took on a new role, first for programs of the non-profit Etruscan Foundation, created in 1958 by Delfino Cinelli’s son Ferdinando. Ferdinando’s daughter Francesca Cinelli and her husband Randall Stratton have managed the property since moving to Spannocchia from the United States in 1992. Upon the death of Count Cinelli in March of 2002, his heirs assisted in the creation of the new Spannocchia Foundation and Associazione Castello di Spannocchia to continue the educational and research activities at Spannocchia.
Conservation is the central theme and direction of all activities on the estate of Spannocchia. It is a wildlife refuge, part of the Tuscan Riserva Naturale Alto Merse, a certified organic farm raising endangered breeds of domestic farm animals and producing wine and olive oil, and a registered historic site. Great attention is paid not only to architectural preservation in the course of renovation projects, but also to landscape preservation through appropriate stewardship of agricultural land, and through forest conservation. Spannocchia strives to provide a good example for the sustainable use of a wide range of resources.
Organic agriculture is practiced at Spannocchia in order to realize a series of interconnected goals. Its use of natural products and methods of cultivation without chemical fertilizers or pesticides provides an effective lesson in sustainable management of the land itself, part of the fundamental educational mission of the estate. The organic route allows the appropriate use of traditional methods of agricultural which were, until recently, substantially organic, and this also provides important lessons in the historical practice of agriculture in Tuscany. Spannocchia's “Noah's Ark” project raises traditional local breeds of farm animals that have become threatened with extinction in recent decades: Cinta Senese pigs, Pomarancina sheep, Calvana cows, Monterufolino ponies, and Monte Amiata donkeys.
Forty acres of grains and legumes are cultivated for animal feed, along with wheat and farro for human consumption. Over 700 olive trees, extensive vegetable gardens, and five acres of vineyard also contribute to supplying the needs of feeding Spannocchia's guests and program participants, as most of the meat, eggs, whole grains, fresh vegetables, honey, olive oil, and wine used in the kitchen and dining room come from the estate. Spannocchia illustrates a nearly complete, self-sustaining, cyclical system of agriculture, whereby crops feed the animals, the animals produce the manure that is used to fertilize the fields to grow the next cycle of crops, the animals and crops feed the human residents and visitors, and the humans provide the labor necessary to make it all work.
Forest use in this area of Tuscany has long been integral to the practice of agriculture for the direct and indirect production of wood products complementary to the agricultural operations (timber, firewood, charcoal, implements) and wild and cultivated food crops. These food crops included berries and other wild fruits, mushrooms, game, nuts, and domestic animals pastured in woodland and nut tree groves. Spannocchia’s 900 acres of woodland comprises four different types of forest: 70 acres of mature (high canopy) wood, 175 acres of mixed wood, 600 acres of coppice wood, and 50 acres of chestnut groves, all scattered and mixed in multiple parcels of various sizes. Cutting of the coppice woods for firewood and charcoal was traditionally done in cycles of 15 to 20 years.
Largely traditional methods are currently being followed and provide for the perpetual renewal of the forest. Cutting patterns and methods take into account wildlife habitat and the general health of the forest as well as the perpetual renovation of the trees themselves. Spannocchia employs work horses in part of the process of hauling cut wood out of the forest in areas inaccessible to a tractor and in order to minimize damage to steeply sloped areas.
Charcoal was one of the most important products from Spannocchia well into the 1950s, and represented the traditional fuel in Italy not only for cooking and heating, but for industrial processes, as well. Charcoal is no longer made on the property, but many local residents rely on Spannocchia for their supply of firewood, and wood-burning stoves and furnaces provide much of the heat and hot water for Spannocchia's own buildings. The estate cuts approximately 1,000 saplings a year from carefully managed coppice chestnut groves, for a variety of products used directly on the farm: fence posts, trellising poles for the vineyards, and joists and rafters for renovation projects.
Architectural preservation is also central to Spannocchia's conservation philosophy, and traditional materials produced on the estate are used whenever possible. While systems and amenities in most of Spannocchia's buildings have been considerably upgraded in recent years, care is always taken to change the appearance of the property as little as possible, avoiding the all too typical "gentrification" that has swept through much of rural Tuscany. Although Spannocchia is no longer able to produce its own lime and terracotta (bricks and roof tiles) as in the past, it still uses traditional lime-based mortars and local brick and tile for renovation and repair, and is gradually returning rooms in the main Villa to 18th- and 19th-century styles of interior decoration utilizing pure lime and natural pigment-based paints, restoring or replicating recently uncovered designs.
Internships at the Spannocchia Foundation
Tenuta di Spannocchia’s 1,100-acre pastoral estate serves as an active model for responsible stewardship through collective effort. The estate’s internship programs are dedicated to enriching the lives of young people by providing them with a unique educational experience on a community-oriented organic farm in Tuscany, Italy. The Spannocchia Foundation supports a unique pair of programs at the Castello di Spannocchia. The Farm Internship Program is a hands-on learning experience during which interns work alongside our Italian farm staff to help run the diversified organic farm. Each week consists of 30+ hours of manual labor complimented by bi-weekly Italian language instruction, educational presentations, and bi-monthly fieldtrips to surrounding areas of interest. The Guest Services Internship Program is a hands-on learning experience in Spannocchia’s agriturismo. Both internship programs offer an introduction to the various themes of Spannocchia, including agricultural tourism, farming, sustainability, community living, and Tuscan culture.
All photos courtesy Spannocchia Foundation.