Villa Cimbrone is a historic building in Ravello, on the Amalfi coast of southern Italy, dating from at least the 11th century AD, although little of the original structure is now visible. The building was much altered and extended, using a motley collection of salvaged architectural elements from other parts of Italy and elsewhere, by Ernest William Beckett (later Lord Grimthorpe), an English politician, in the early twentieth century. The alterations were of such an extent that the building is now more pastiche than original structure. The gardens were redeveloped at the same time. The villa is now a hotel, and the gardens are open to the public.
Villa Cimbrone stands on a rocky outcrop known as "Cimbronium", and it is from this landscape feature that the villa takes its name. The earliest references to the villa date back to the eleventh century AD, when the villa belonged to the Accongiogioco, a noble family. It later passed to the ownership of a wealthy and influential family, the Fusco, who are also recorded in 1291 as owning the local church of S. Angelo de Cimbrone.
At a later stage in its history the villa became part of the nearby monastery of Santa Chiara, and during this period of the villa's history the papal arms of Cardinal Della Rovere were placed on the old entrance gate. From the seventeenth century the villa's history is uncertain, but by the second half of the nineteenth century the villa had passed to the Amici family of Atrani. It was visited by the historian Ferdinand Gregorovius, who described it thus in his Siciliana: Wanderings in Naples and Sicily (1861):
incomparable ... where the most beautiful flowers you can imagine flourished, coming from numerous plants of the South ... redesigned and enriched with countless ... ornamental features, small temples, pavilions, bronze and stone statues.
and referring to the belvedere (also known as the Terrazzo dell'lnfinito, the Terrace of Infinity)
While contemplating from those Armida's orchards, among the roses and the hydrangeas, that magic sea in which the blue colour of a very limpid sky is reflected, the wish of being able to fly comes out ... Right at the edge of the crag there was a terrace commanding an enchanting view; it was surrounded by horrible marble statues which, however, from afar, had a sort of appeal.
Ernest Beckett and the villa in the twentieth century
Beckett had visited the villa during his travels in Italy and had fallen in love with it. He bought it from the Amici family in 1904, and enlisted the help of Nicola Mansi, a tailor-barber-builder from Ravello whom he had met in England, to help with the restoration and enlargement of the villa and gardens.
He embarked on an ambitious programme of works, including the construction of battlements, terraces and cloisters in a mixture of mock-Gothic, Moorish and Venetian architectural styles. The gardens, strung out along the cliff face, were similarly redeveloped. Grimthorpe was reputed to be the father of Violet Trefusis; the connection with Violet brought Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson as visitors, and Vita is said to have given advice about the garden, though her own gardening ventures at Long Barn still lay some years in the future.
O quid solutis est beatius curis
cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrinoTo rest on the bed we have longed for?
labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum,
desideratoque adquiescimus lecto?
Oh what is more blest than when the mind,
Cares dispelled, puts down its burden
And we return, tired from our travelling, to our home
After Beckett's death, the villa passed to his son. Beckett's daughter Lucy (Lucille Katherine Beckett, 1884–1979) also lived at the villa, where she was a keen gardener and breeder of roses, including the "Rose of Ravello" in the thirties.
Many famous visitors came to the villa during the Beckett family's ownership. It was a favourite haunt of the Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey. Other visitors included D. H. Lawrence, Vita Sackville-West, Edward James, Diana Mosley, Henry Moore, T. S. Eliot, Jean Piaget, Winston Churchill and the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The actress Greta Garbo and her then-lover, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, stayed at the villa several times in the late 1930s; a visit of 1938 is memorialized on a plaque.
Present-day Villa Cimbrone
The villa was sold in 1960 to the Vuilleumier family, who used it first as a private family home, and for the past few years as a hotel. In 1976 the American writer Gore Vidal (who lived in La Rondinaia, a nearby house built by Lucy Beckett, from 1972 to 2004) wrote of Villa Cimbrone:
Twenty five years ago I was asked by an American magazine what was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen in all my travels and I said the view from the belvedere of the Villa Cimbrone on a bright winter's day when the sky and the sea were each so vividly blue that it was not possible to tell one from the other.
- Anon (no date). Villa Cimbrone Guide Book.
- Carter, Marina (2006). Adventure Guide Naples, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast: Capri, Ischia, Pompeii, Positano. Hunter Publishing, Inc.
- Gregorovius, Ferdinand (1861). Siciliana: Wanderings in Naples and Sicily.
- Ann Larås, Åke Lindman, Gardens of Italy, 2005, p 88f.
- Larås, and Lindman 2005.
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