Of all the competing stars in the recent Succession finale, Villa Cetinale — the gorgeous Tuscan pile which provides the baroque backdrop to all that heavenly treachery — is certainly the finest looking. That towering avenue of cypress trees! That deep green lawn stretching to infinity like some verdant cashmere carpet! The perfect proportions and fearful symmetry! All that glowing, creamy marble and peachy stone! Usually such on-screen beauty has been, well, enhanced a little — helped out by a CGI nip-n-tuck, or colour boosted to high heaven. But in the case of Villa Cetinale, the post-production editors needn’t have done a thing. This a place that looks finer in the flesh than on any television screen — and one that with a history and a pedigree far grander than any poxy multi-media conglomerate, thanks very much.
The house, which dates to 1680, sits in a rolling stretch of hills just south of Siena, and was designed as a hunting lodge for one Cardinal Flavio Chigi in the late baroque style. (Chigi, by the way, was the favourite nephew of Pope Alexander VII — the coddled ‘nipote’, from whom, pleasingly, we get the word nepotism.) It is distinctive for its perfect scale and pleasing box-like structure — not sprawling and unmanageable and ego-ticklingly huge; but livable and elegant, with its handsome bedrooms arranged around the light-flooded piano nobile of the first floor.
In the centuries since Chigi’s demise — in which, it must be said, the place became a hunting lodge and party house of some repute — Cetinale drifted slowly into disrepair, as grand houses tend to. Then, in the 1970s, it was bought by Lord Lambton, a former junior minister in Edward Heath’s administration, who had decamped to Tuscany following a fairly spicy episode in his home life. Lambton soon set about infusing the Italianate architecture with some distinctly Home Counties charms — several packs of highly-indulged dogs; a stodgy English cook; acres of country house chintz; gum boots in the portico; and a habit for particularly boozy lunches. At the latter, Marina Lambton, the current matriarch of the house who first visited as a child in the 1990s, remembers Tony’s distinctive charms. “He was out to shock,” she says. “I used to go there with my parents, and the lunches were always quite interesting. As a young ten year old, he would ask obscene sorts of questions — I’d never been asked such things! But it was quite amusing, and he was like that with all his guests.”
“There was a vast amount of dogs — which was actually quite scary..."
Lambton’s other early memory of the place is of being harrangued by dozens of excitable hounds. “There was a vast amount of dogs — which was actually quite scary. They were always biting people. Every time you’d walk over some gravel, the dogs would hear you and go on the attack,” she laughs. “Which is quite kind of unrelaxing on a holiday.” Nonetheless, most remember Cetinale as a place of louche fun. At one particulalry colourful 21st birthday party, live elephants were brought in to roam the grounds, while Tony used to enjoy talking up the cast of eclectic ghosts that the house had collected. (“Yes — it certainly was bohemian and wild…” Marina says)
When Lord Lambton died, he left the place in its entirety to his son, Ned, who began a thorough renovation of the estate over a number of years. He roped in Camilla Guinness, a family friend who lived nearby, to do the interiors. “She knew Cetinale well, spoke Italian, and knew where to source things — like marble — locally,” says Marina. “She’s amazing.” The resulting style is a sort of stripped-back elegance, leavened with bohemian touches and rugged Tuscan authenticity. The bathrooms are said to be particular highlights — “they’re so luxurious and the colour of the walls is very soothing,” says Marina. “Camilla’s used such beautiful textiles.”
“But I love the dining room, too, because it’s got those beautiful frescoed walls, and it’s really kind of magical.” she says. “And the views out of some of the bedrooms are so amazing, when you wake up and open your curtains — because you’re looking up at that Monastery. There’s lots and lots of the house I love.”
It’s not at all surprising, then, that the boxset-set soon came a-calling. The drama in Succession, with its labrynthine wranglings and deep-finance plot points, might have got little dull if it took place exclusively in the glass-and-steel skyscrapers of Waystar RoyCo. So the creators have always been clever to capture the prettier baubles of the billionaire jet-set, too — the private azure coves of the Aegean sea; the pompy Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire; the grand hunting lodges of Hungary. When it came for them to chose a backdrop to their most intricate season finale yet, the sheer beauty and gravitas of Cetinale must have seemed like a very happy casting. With its cross-like structure, its renaissance palette, and its monastic romatorio peering down at the main house from on high, it takes on the air of modern a plutocrat’s cathedral — a place primed for confession and redemption. But it is a bastion fit for courtly intrigue and sin, too — with rumours bouncing around the secret corridors, and the delicious possibility of some very catholic decadence at every turn.
One scene, in particular, sticks in the mind in that respect. Down on the boulevard of ancient cypress trees, dear Tom Wambsgams — far from the fields of Minessota, and glowing like some fallen angel in off-white Brunello Cucinelli — turns to young Cousin Greg, his psychosexual protege, and asks him whether he’d like to “make a deal with the devil.” The acting is exceptional at that moment, of course, and the script is particularly delicious. But it’s the setting here that’s truly triumphant, especially when cast in that honeyed golden-hour glow. Here is Tom, for the very first time, acting as the king of his castle — and the revelation wouldn’t be half as punchy if it were set in a corner office, say, or the seats of a private jet.
“We always loved the series,” says Marina about the production. “So we were actually quite excited by it. They were there for two weeks, and sadly we didn’t get to meet any of them, as it was during term time — which was a shame, because actually I would have loved to be out there,” she says.
“It was surreal to see. But it was exciting actually. I was slightly disappointed at first, because I watched the ‘Chiantishire’ episode, and I thought the house would be in that — but it was just in one tiny scene, in the stairwell.” (During the dintcintly un-romantic moment, as it happens, when Gerri tells Roman to stop sending her dick picks.) “I thought: God, I can’t believe it was two weeks of filming for one tiny scene! But then, luckily, in the last episode, it was shown a lot, which was great.”
“There was quite a good scene on the driveway, too, with Kendall”, Marina concludes, remembering the moment at which Shiv and Roman comfort their sobbing brother, and appear, for once, to present a united front. “That was the best scene of the episode. So I think we’ll get a lot of tourists going to that spot!” she laughs. One imagines that they’ll be joining a very long queue.
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