History of the Casa
The Renaissance Period was actually a cultural movement which started in Tuscany and was centred on Florence, to the north of Rome. It began in the 14th century and lasted through to the 17th century. During the early part of this period, in the 1500’s, it is local folklore that the Casa – only recently named Casa Bella Vista – may have been the site of a military look-out tower.
If so, it would have comprised a single storey of probably 2 rooms and housing 2 local men (possibly part-time soldiers) to keep lookout for invaders and local brigands and to light a beacon fire to warn the inhabitants of local villages and towns nearby, of approaching strangers. The lit beacon was also to warn the next lookout tower in the chain and whose soldiers would likewise light their beacon to pass on the warning of approaching attackers to the local garrison who, if inclined and if they had been paid that week, would turn out to repel such attacks.
In view of its commanding open position on the hilltop it seems that a lookout tower may well have been part of the history of the original building on the site of the present Casa.
In 1604 a local farmer named ‘MA’ (probably M. Arcari) converted the previous building into a simple dwelling and farm. Another storey was likely added at the time, to make it 2 storeys high – usually with the animals living below and with the family’s one room above – for warmth from the animals in the winter.
The forests on the hillsides around Immoglie have been used for centuries for hunting wild boar and deer and for gathering mushrooms, truffles and wild asparagus. The forests also supplied trees for house construction but mainly for firewood. The farm and its land supported animal farming, with goats, sheep and some cattle. All were kept for milk for making pecorino – cheese from sheep’s milk such as ricotta and sardo; and for making caprino – cheese from goat’s milk. There are over 100 types of goat cheeses, the two major types of caprino being ‘fresco’ (fresh) and ‘stagipnato’ (aged). The animals, including pigs, chickens and rabbits, were also kept for meat. This way of life in the mountains with the farmstead, animals, fruit orchards, vineyards, olive groves and some food crops quietly continued unchanged for many centuries.
Back in these times a rich mozzarella cheese was also produced in the area. This was made from the milk of the domestic water buffalo – rather than from cow’s milk – hence the name ‘buffalo mozzarella’. So the cattle farmed here probably also included some water buffalo for their prized nutritious milk.
In these mountain areas, water buffalo are still reared today to provide valuable farm income from this centuries-old tradition of buffalo mozzarella cheese production.
Down in the valley alongside the river for irrigation, crops were grown – probably cannellini beans, corn and wheat. On the hill slopes, large numbers of vines were cultivated for wine, also fruit trees of fig, sharon (also known as kaki but in the UK called persimmon), pear, apple and cherry. Olive trees are the world’s oldest cultivated trees and were wide-spread throughout the area. Together with grape vines, cultivated olive trees have covered the local hillsides for hundreds of years and continue to be a regular source of income for many.
Today olive groves are still in abundance across the region and are still carefully tended for their virgin olive oil, cold pressed at the local community press or ‘oleificio’ (oil mill), from the olive fruit when ripe in late November and December.
The farmhouse was extended over the centuries with extra rooms, extra storeys, an annex cottage (ruined and now demolished) and farm buildings, which were added in 1777 with an arched walled courtyard and a 2 storey barn constructed – now converted to a 3 storey holiday home.
The family of Arcari – builders of the original Casa and farm – can trace their ownership and ancestry at this same farmhouse, continuously for over 350 years from the early 1600’s until the early 1950’s. During this time the house had always been the family centre of this small farmstead but over time it has also been put to other local good uses including a single classroom school in the between-war years of the 1920’s and 30’s.
For lunch children enjoyed home-made pizzas cooked over wood in an old brick-lined oven in an outside store – only removed in 2007 during house renovations as the pizza oven had been unused for many decades, had crumbled and was then beyond repair.
Difficult times. During the centuries of its history there have been many wars, plagues, natural disasters and difficult economic times here in the Val di Comino, but the Arcari owners of the Casa had always ‘soldiered on’ and maintained their continual presence in the area and at this same farmstead for over 350 years.
The plague of 1629-31 devastated Europe with Northern Italy particularly hard hit. In the North there were 1/4 million deaths. Some 60,000 people died in Milan alone, which decimated the population there by a half. In the East of Italy in Venice there were 46,000 deaths – at the time this was nearly 1/3 of the total Venetian population.
The infected were isolated, quarantined and then buried on an island in the lagoon called Lazzaretto Vecchio. The death toll was enormous. For example on the 9 November 1630, 595 people died in Venice – on one day alone. This huge number of daily fatalities greatly affected the city. Even the ruler of Venice – called the Doge – Nicolo Contarini died of the plague, leaving the new Doge, Francesco Erizzo to rule the Venetian empire in his place.
The central and southern regions of Italy were largely unaffected until the bubonic form of the plague arrived 25 years later in 1656-7. This resurgence of the plague was in the areas around Rome and Naples. In just one year, 1/2 of the 300,000 population of the city of Naples had died. Today (2015) the City of Naples has a population of almost 1 million and the Metropolitan City of Naples – in Italian Città metropolitana di Napoli (with a total of 92 Municipalities) has a population of over 3 million. During World War II, Naples was the most bombed City in Europe.
In the 16 years from 1898 to 1914 nearly 750,000 Italians each year emigrated. It is thought that this is the largest mass migration in contemporary times (to 2015) and has led to around 25 million Italians emigrating to various countries abroad. In the Val di Comino area many locals were evacuated during the Second World War and never returned or in the hard economic times following the war, left the countryside for work in the industrial towns and cities at the coast. Huge numbers emigrated in search of a better life abroad and away from the harsh rural life in the mountains and countryside, so continuing the mass emigration started towards the end of the 1800’s.
The Farm and Land
The Farm and Land were rented out for a short time after the Second World War. Descendents of the original Italian Arcaris – but born and living in Wales UK – have been traced and have had an emotional reunion with their ancestral home in the summer of 2009, during a holiday at the Casa to coincide with the 100 year anniversary and the re-building and re-dedification of the family cappella or chapel just across the road from the Casa.
The coincidence of events leading to this reunion and the re-building of the cappella, is an amazing story in itself and told in the section ‘Family home re-discovered’ in our information folder at the apartment.
In the early 1950’s – after being in the Arcari family for at least 350 years – the complete farm with cottages, barns and land were sold by the Arcaris to the Valente family from nearby San Biagio Saracinisco and their new ownership then continued unbroken for another 50 years.
After an earthquake in 1905 the house was strengthened with extra walls and by the best known method available at the time – by inserting iron tie rods through the building in several directions and in a number of walls. End tie bars (sometimes round discs) and iron wedges were used to tighten the rods and hold the old stone walls together. These tie bars in the old farmhouse, can still be seen today over 100 years later.
This protection held good for almost 80 years until a big earthquake of magnitude 5.9 in May 1984, with an epicentre 10kms deep under the mountains above San Donato Val di Comino.
This 1984 quake caused quite some damage to property in the area including some damage to the Casa (though not a great deal) but signalled the opportunity to ‘grab the grants’ and to carry out even more major structural improvements using aid money from the central Italian government.
As part of the government aid scheme, the Casa benefited from a ‘belt and braces’ structural job of all new reinforced concrete floors and ceilings throughout; both external and internal steel mesh reinforcement affixed to walls with hooked rods through the walls to connect the inside and outside mesh panels together; re-rendering of both inside and outside walls both to strengthen and to cover the mesh reinforcement; buttresses and strengthened walls with concrete underpinning; new lintels over windows; new roof of timbers and tiles; and other major structural improvements many of which it is doubtful were necessary but which brought the Casa up to the standards of present-day earthquake measures.
The house has now stood for over 4 centuries and through many major earthquakes. After each, more and better protection measures have then been installed right up to the best modern-day standards. For example, to comply with up-to-date building regulations, engineers designed the recent new extension with the very latest reinforced foundations, walls and pillars using huge quantities of steel and concrete so that the new extension cost more for the foundations than for the building itself.
Having stood the test of time and nature, and had all the best improvements added, the Casa should be in great shape for another 400 years.
In keeping with Italian tradition, in the mid 1990’s on the death of the elderly Valentes, the farm and land were willed to be divided variously between 5 siblings. One brother was left the upstairs of the house whilst the downstairs was left to another brother living in France. Various land, barns and other ruins were willed to sisters. So the whole farm was unfortunately split, and with various owners living in other countries or towns away from the area, the house was not lived in, and fell into acute disrepair, requiring total modernisation and major refurbishment work including new utility services, plumbing, electrics, air conditioning, heating, tiling, windows and doors and all new kitchen and bathroom facilities.
We were able to buy several parts of the old farm, land and buildings and put back together as much as we could of the old farmstead.
A sympathetic refurbishment gave the old farmhouse the care and attention it deserved and careful renovations were carried out to retain many of the old features and the character of the old Casa – although the outside pizza oven was unfortunately beyond repair so was removed, together with a ruined old 2 storey barn.
The Casa was fully converted into two separate, self-contained apartments and a new sitting room extension, balcony and garden store were carefully designed and added in 2008.
Long gone from the Casa are the animals and farming – indeed commercial farming across the whole area had declined and is now limited to cannellini bean crops, corn, vines for wine, olives for oil and of course grazing for sheep, goats and cattle, raised primarily for milk and cheese production but also for meat. However, many local small farms and gardens still produce excellent seasonal fruit and vegetables for local shops, for markets and for direct sales.
The name Casa Bella Vista was only coined in 2007 when we bought and renovated the old farmhouse.
One of our builders suggested ‘Casa Ventosa’ – Windy House – after the strong, winter winds blustering along the valley and through the mountains.
The heating contractor suggested ‘Casa Calda’ – Warm House – at the same time he was installing the many central heating and AC units – all in addition to open fireplaces for log fires and also a wood burning, tiled stufa – Italian stove – in our own apartment.
However, everyone who worked on, or visited the farmhouse commented on the amazing views and the stunning sunsets so it had to be Casa Bella Vista – House with the beautiful View.
So started another chapter in the long history of the house from military lookout post, to animal shelter, stable, shepherd hut, early dwelling, to small home and farm and now a 21st century holiday home bringing much needed revenue to this majestic, rural, mountain area.
But throughout the ages the few things remaining unchanged have been the peaceful rural setting, the quiet calm of the mountains and the ever-constant beauty of the scenery and the views.
After 4 centuries, only now is all of this available to everyone to share with us this unique setting, as our welcome guests at Casa Bella Vista.
Discover 'Casa Bella Vista'
A 400 year old farmhouse located in an outstanding rural Italian setting, on a hill-top above Immoglie and enjoying stunning views.