Culture /

FAI: Protecting the Beauty of Our Country Since 1975

A few times a year, top news outlets have me clicking on articles on how to buy 1 euro homes in Southern Italy. The joy of scrolling through apartments with cascading balconies overlooking sundrenched piazzas even if the insides are ceiling high with crumbled concrete and discarded furniture is my ideal clickbait.

Following Olimpia Zagnoli’s Instagram feed has rekindled my love for searching for well-priced villa’s outside of Milan. In her personal search to buy a home, she posts Milanese properties with suntanned cementina tile, home entertainment grottos and entryways with mailboxes which are directly from the b-roll of Karl Kolbitz highly curated Taschen book Entryways of Milan – Ingressi Di Milano, featuring photographs of over 140 Milanese entrance halls from 1920 to 1970.

Bigger dreams of Under the Tuscan Sun-ifying your life may have you wondering how to get a good deal on an abandoned monastery near Como or a castle in the Dolomites or lakeside palazzo like Villa Feltrinelli, once home to Mussolini and now considered a luxurious yet understated hotel. Although the likely question on most of our minds is what happens to the properties that are unsellable – or simply too grand for upkeep and restoration? 

Pride in Italy’s natural cultural assets is not only in their blood. Article 9 of the Italian Constitution reads “The Italian Republic promotes the development of culture and of scientific and technical research. It protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the Nation.”  

Protection by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is the greatest and most historical body for preservation in existence. Italy counts fifty-five UNESCO World Heritage Sites within its borders, the most of any country: five are nature sites and fifty are cultural sites including the entire cities of Verona, Ferrara and the historic center of Rome. For the most part, the “protection, prosperity, and preservation” of UNESCO is a highly selected inventory — forty one additional sites are on a tentative list under consideration in Italy alone. 

Enter FAI. In 1975, Italy’s Fondo Ambiente Italiano began to transform castles, stately homes, libraries, gardens, lighthouses and even barber shops throughout Italy into hotspots for local and regional history. While the FAI properties in Milan and Venice are the most frequented by international visitors there are sixty-six in total throughout Italy. Established by the late Giulia Maria Mozzoni Crespi, descendant of the Lombardian cotton family and former owner of Italy’s Corriere della Sera, her big vision was modeled as a National Trust for Italy, a non-profit following the example of the British National Trust — established over 120 years ago, the British National Trust has grown to become one of the country’s largest landowners. Crespi’s FAI was on rocky terrain as a new organization until the Monastery of Torba, the Abbey of San Fruttuoso and the Castello della Manta, then and today properties of enormous cultural and artistic value, were donated.

The first FAI property was bought and then donated by Giulia Maria Crespi herself. Less than an hour’s drive from Milan, Monastero di Torba is today part of an archaeological park declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, not by coincidence. The complex dates back to the 5th century A.D., when a barbarian invasion threatened the Romans. In the 8th century Benedictine nuns commissioned the construction of the monastery which they inhabited for seven centuries. After 8 years of archaeological excavation and fresco restoration with field experts, the property was opened to the public.

When a property is donated to FAI, the assets within are often part of the package, adding value and layers of history to the visitor experience. More often than not the public opening is only after extensive restoration. Chiara de Rege, New York City-based interior designer spent her summers as a young child in and around the transformative of her real-life fairytale home. Her nonna, Countess Elisabetta de Rege, who lived in an imposing medieval fortress since birth, put Castello della Manta in the hands of Crespi and her team in 1985, making it the fifth FAI property. de Rege’s memories span from exploring the acres of roof to watching the swift, delicate and methodical movements of the fresco restoration team to riding her bicycle through the FAI gift shop when she was six years old.  It opened to the public through time in sections as rooms were recovered and in some cases, uncovered. Since then, 830,000 people, including thousands of school children, have crossed the door overlooking the expansive garden. The de Rege family still lives in a section of Manta. This past summer was the first ever that Chiara, regretfully, did not make the pilgrimage. FAI properties, including Manta, also host private events, meetings and conferences. I first learned about this and Manta through de Rege’s cousin Victoria James, author of Wine Girl and outspoken sommelier, on Instagram. While women in her family have been married there for centuries, James was first in the family to amalgamate since it was donated to FAI and she describes the experience as truly magical.

The most visited FAI property is Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan. Io Sono L’Amore, Luca Guadagnino’s achingly beautiful film, is set there and likely brings in many visitors the moment they step foot in Milan (including me in 2015 when I moved there). Milan bears the cultural fruit of hosting the largest design fair in the world and Villa Necchi is renowned architect Piero Portaluppi personified. His mark on Milan in the early 1930s is filled with period ambiance and neo-classical detail that keeps even the Milanese coming back for more.  The six million euro restoration in the late 2000s led to creating a stylish lunch eatery that will serve you even just a cafe by the pool while you wait for your FAI docent-led tour to begin.

While we continue to click through websites to find our Italian homes, become a member of the FAI for 39 euros a year here. While no FAI property is to be missed, here are a few more of my favorites of the 31 that are open to the public:

Villa e Collezione Panza

An 18th century mansion filled with an expansive American art collection on a hill overlooking Varese

Negozio Olivetti

Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa’s homage to the modern and innovative cultural values of Olivetti in 1957.

Abbazia di San Fruttuoso

A 10th century Benedictine monastery sandwiched between a fishing village and beach front and the woodlands of Mount Portofino.

Antica Barberia Giacalone

An Art Deco barber shop hidden in the Carrugi of Genova