Beneath the arches, a cloaked man walks through the shadows, his head bent, his hands supporting an open book. I can hear my footsteps, distorted through the darkness by the basement’s wet gravel, a hesitant chord to the beat of dripping water.
Upstairs, in the clouded daylight, it’s easier to see the wooden planks covering the windows and the words that scream “take my blood.” It’s also easier to see the table decked with homemade olive oil, bread and wine.
This is the Nicosia Monastery, a place that chalked up nearly 800 years of active service before the last few monks hung up their cassocks in the 1970s and the vandals moved in. Among the ripped plaster and violent graffiti, a neatened orange grove provides fragrance and a sense of peace.
It’s being painstakingly restored by the Nicosia Nostra, a volunteer organisation founded in 2004 from people in the neighbourhood who wanted to save the place. They host outdoor concerts in summer, construct nativities in winter, and spend the rest of the year lurking in basements to scare the bejesus out of visiting writers.
And they’re not the only ones.
Agustino Agustini greets me in the hallway of Villa di Corliano, a house, no make that a mansion, complete with a driveway that sweeps through the grounds like a flourish from a period drama. Florentine eagles flit across the vault, while whispers of ghosts hide behind chandeliers.
A chill follows us through the towering doors, while Roman statues stand guard.
“Teresa,” Agustini tells me, remembering the real-life ghostbusters who stayed here. “People come to see Teresa della Seta Bocca Gaetani.”
He smiles and slips his hands into his pockets. “The ghost who makes you laugh.”
Like the Nicosia Monastery, Villa di Corliano’s has 21st century problems. Upkeep is expensive and the high society who summered here have long since gone. Yet Agustini seems quietly optimistic. He’s opened his home to visitors, although he’s keen to emphasise the nature of the experience.
“There’s no swimming pool here,” he says, “and we won’t install air conditioning. The people who come here, who love our family home, want something more than the latest hotel. They want to see the real Tuscany.”
And Teresa, I suppose.
Later on, we find more ghosts from the past – but this time no-one’s laughing. In unmarked graves, the Charterhouse monks of Calci used death to extend their earthly vows of silence into eternity.
While the brothers ran the pharmacy, the fathers lived reclusive lives, speaking only once a year and passing food between walled tunnels to avoid the temptation for a chat.
Yet despite this severity, austerity never really caught on.
The Charterhouse notches up an impressive 1500 rooms, plus a view of the leaning tower of Pisa on that infamous clear day. Living quarters come with private orchards, while cloisters overlook fountains and a gated panorama of Tuscany at its best.
In fact, it’s this very richness that’s the real curse in this part of Tuscany. With the splendours of Florence and Pisa nearby, little attention remains for buildings that would otherwise be protected, promoted and thriving.
Like the others, the Charterhouse is struggling. The last monks left in the 1970s, leaving the cloisters crumbling behind them.
Part of me wonders whether this is how things need to be. That it’s impossible to restore and remember everything and that in trying to do so we risk losing today’s resources.
Yet I cannot deny the beauty of these places: not only in their frescoes and fragrance, but in the joy and enthusiasm of those so eager to save these ghosts – for the future and for the sake of saving Italian culture.
Disclosure: I visited these “off the beaten track” parts of Tuscany as a guest of Marco from Casa Gentili. Marco himself left his corporate position to run a bed and breakfast in the house that has been in his family for 100 years. Like the Villa di Corliano, it’s a place to visit for the atmosphere rather than the air conditioning. And as ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, there’s just no point.