Villa San Rocco – A Brief History
San Rocco’s beginnings remain a mystery. The villa’s foundations, comprising the cantina and the south wing, date from the 14th Century, when the complex, much larger than the present dwelling, is believed to have been a seminary and pilgrims’ rest. The chapel opposite the main gate is dedicated to San Rocco – a patron saint of illnesses – and weary travellers on the Franciscan Way would have found care and repose in the quiet and spacious rooms and garden. The emblems of a religious Christian group, as yet still unidentified, can be found above the doorways below.
In 1688 everything changed. A rich merchant family from Lucca, the Benedetti, purchased the property and demolished the upper portion of the main building, of which there is apparently no surviving record. In keeping with contemporary trends, a Baroque structure with open portico and covered terrazzo above was built and the personal family chapel opposite remodelled in sympathetic style. Villa Benedetti, as it became, was the village’s principal residence, owning much of the land in the village and beyond.
In the mid-19th Century, disaster struck the village of Benabbio in the form of a deadly outbreak of Asiatic Cholera. 46 of the 900 inhabitants perished, including the young Benedetti. The family’s fortunes waned, in tempo with those of Bagni Di Lucca and other surrounding communities, until in 1960 the last direct descendent, Monsignor Amadeo Tofani, bequeathed the villa to the orphans’ association of Carlo del Prete, based in Lucca. Under the watchful eye of the association’s nuns, for a quarter of a century the villa became a summer residence for orphans and abandoned children. The house, meanwhile, had long been falling into neglect. Battered by harsh winters and a lack of funds as fostering took over from centrally controlled orphanages, by the late ‘80s it was no longer suitable for habitation. The doors were sealed and for two decades, the villa was left to rot.
In late 2004, after more than three years of enquiries and negotiations, our family purchased the ruin known to the village simply as ‘Carlo del Prete’. After 20 years standing vacant , the building was in a sorry state and on the verge of collapse. By now, the northern section of the roof and everything below had fallen in; many of the principal beams and the windows had rotted and the garden had become a nightmare from a fairytale. Fittingly, a local team of builders under the name of Benedetti was commissioned to undertake the restoration, which began in earnest in late 2005. Every original feature that could be salvaged was carefully preserved; everything that had succumbed to nature and ‘60s institutionalisation was replaced by local materials fashioned in the traditional vein: chestnut from the Lima valley for beams and windows, handmade terracotta tiles for the roof and floors, brass fittings from nearby artisan workshops.
For a house reborn, a new name was needed. San Rocco takes its cue from the chapel which still sits opposite the entrance, pointing the way to where travellers for some seven centuries or more have come seeking comfort, care and healing. We hope you will find your measure of respite and peace of mind, body and spirit. Moreover, we hope you yourself will become a part of Villa San Rocco’s continuing story.
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