"We are tightly attached to the soil”: Anna Bernabei Biondi Santi on life at Villa Santa Chiara
“Whenever I think of myself and my own mindset, I cannot help but think that both my father’s and mother’s families are tightly attached to the soil”, muses Anna, her bright blue eyes lost over the seemingly endless landscape to the south of Villa Santa Chiara, a 17th century building inherited from her father, a renowned Doctor and Professor at the University of Siena. Now it is home to her and her eldest daughter Claudia who is a tour guide of Siena, as well as hosting tourists from around the world and of course, several feline friends who decided to take up residence.
As she speaks, I also look south and try to find, in that wondrous landscape, the Val di Chiana and Val d’Orcia. Anna’s mother came from nearby Montalcino, one of those small medieval towns that dot the Tuscan landscape and define it just like hills, cypresses, vineyards do.
In Montalcino the Biondi Santi family invented Brunello, one of Italy’s glories when it comes to wines. “It was unfortunate, Anna remarks with a half-smile, that my ancestors didn’t think of patenting it!” Through many decades, the name Biondi Santi itself meant Brunello. Anna’s cousin, Simonetta, still produces an award-winning Brunello.
I open a book about Franco Biondi Santi, Anna’s uncle and a charismatic figure in the history of Brunello. I find a black-and-white picture: a bunch of people standing around an ox-drawn cart. The caption says it was taken during a grape harvest back in the 1940s. I see the farmer and his family, but the young woman leaning against the cart is Anna’s mother, and her sister is sitting inside. Maybe this picture is a clue on what Anna means when she depicts her family as “tightly attached to the soil”.
Today, in her own property Anna produces olive oil which she sells to friends and guests of the villa. Thanks to the quality of the soil, her oil, after many taste tests, has been recognized as one of extremely high quality.
The olive trees (now around 500) were planted by Anna’s father, whose father in 1917 bought the building (a monastery later transformed into a farm) and the surrounding piece of land, on the top of a knoll just in front of Porta Romana, a gate in the ancient walls of Siena looking towards Rome: pilgrims who walked the old Via Francigena and contributed to the fortunes of the town, crossed it in their hundreds.
Maybe Anna, a gynecologist by training who likes to spend her free time running her home and tourist facility, thinks of herself as somebody coming from the countryside. Nonetheless, anyone having the chance to spend some time with her will notice her appearance and manner are a subtle blend of shy elegance and roughness. She likes to tell friends, with a touch of nonchalance, of the times she had to take care of the poultry whilst wearing some high-fashion garment.
This story of high fashion and poultry tells, in a nutshell, the experience a guest can find in Santa Chiara: holiday tuscany villas you get all manner of amenities, but everything around reminds you of the soil, where Anna says she comes from. In Villa Santa Chiara’s garden, you can enjoy the view of the ancient walls, the Basilica dei Servi, Porta Romana, and behind them the magnificent Torre del Mangia, a 15-minute walk. But in the opposite direction you can get lost in a sea of hills and valleys, right until the Monte Amiata in the distance.
Here lies the secret of the place, and Siena’s secret too: a unique experience where the land has been changed through farmers’ hard work and by art and culture. However, all the beautiful artifacts of men cannot be thought of as something separate from the shape and colors of the soil, of the stones, of the woods.
Anna can tell you it’s all about the soil, and maybe she has a point, but there’s much more to it, and it can be experienced here, in Villa Santa Chiara.