Ripe for restoration - fermo, Italy
Ripe for restoration - fermo, Italy
Published FT April 24 2010.

In Le Marche, central Italy, the splendidly preserved medieval town of Fermo sits on its hilltop with views of the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Sibillini Mountains to the west. Around the town the classic Italian patchwork of olive groves, orchards, wheat fields and vineyards rolls down the slopes to the river valleys where much of the region’s heavier industry is based.

Also dotted throughout the region are hundreds of small factories that make shoes for the world’s top brands. Local man-turned-billionaire Diego Della Valle, founder of luxury goods manufacturer Tod’s, sited the factory outlet for his shoe brand in Cassette d’Ete, a few miles outside Fermo. Even in the face of global competition there is still a market for handmade Marchigiano shoes, yet Le Marche still lacks the international profile of regions such as Tuscany and Umbria.

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But is this about to change? In July last year, after a 30-year campaign, Le Marche gained a fifth province and Fermano has been newly recreated out of its old borders. In the 1860s, when the king was on a summer tour by train along the coast, one of the noble families of Fermo is said to have told him not to bother getting off at the town’s station. In retaliation, the administration of Fermano was given to the neighbouring town of Ascoli Piceno, where it stayed until last year.

Fermo, once a Roman fortress town, was later allied with Venice and traded to the east, flourishing during the Renaissance. After America was discovered, Europe looked west and it was wheat that revived the town’s fortunes in the 18th century.

The town has retained a wealth of interesting architecture and beneath its streets is a feat of early underground water storage: perfectly preserved Roman cisterns built in about AD60. The 2,200 sq metres of 30 interconnecting vaulted spaces are second only in scale to those in Istanbul. At the highest point of the town stands a 13th-century cathedral with a magnificent rose window, whose sacristy houses the chasuble of Thomas à Becket. From the same era, but with a later renaissance makeover, is the Palazzo dei Priori, which sports a sweeping double staircase on to the town square and an imposing statue of Fermo’s own Pope Sixtus V.

“Le Marche is remarkably unspoilt,” says Charles Freeman, historical consultant to travel book series Blue Guides. “It’s like touring Italy in the old days. You ask to see inside a church and someone has to go and find the keyholder, who eventually appears with an enormous bunch of keys. You go inside and there are these amazing treasures.” The mayor of Fermo, Saturnino di Ruscio, cannot avoid that sense of history when he sits down to work in his office. Painted on the ceiling are the family crests of previous administrators dating back to 1564 and on the wall are listed the names of the incumbents back to 1199, the year when Fermo became a free comune

Now the comune is supporting a unique property experiment. During the past century it has become the owner of several grand palazzi and it is prepared to negotiate favourable terms with buyers who are able to restore and find uses for these splendid buildings. “We are very keen on the project,” says di Ruscio. “It’s important for the historic town centre but also for the territory around. The comune may not have the resources but we have the property and there is the possibility of funding for restoration work from the European Regional Development Fund.”

A team of enterprising women has taken on the task of matching these buildings with buyers who can bring them back to life as cultural centres, luxury hotels, residential study centres or other imaginative use. The team comprises Cecilia Romani Adami, who restored her own family’s 18th-century Palazzo Romani Adami in Fermo and turned it into an upmarket bed and breakfast; Claudia Bonanno, an architect and expert in property law; and Helen Miller, a photographer who moved to Le Marche from London eight years ago and has been introducing buyers to old buildings ever since.

Their expertise is being applied to a clutch of old buildings. Casa Marinelli, which could be restored as a private dwelling, is a spacious medieval merchant’s house, now derelict but remarkably untouched by the modern world and with its own private garden. Also standing empty is Palazzo Trevisani, a 2,000 sq metre 18th-century palace once home to the aristocratic Trevisani family. Palazzo Monti is a 5,000 sq metres early 20th-century palace, designed by the architect Giambattista Carducci and internally decorated by Nicola Consoni da Rieti with a splendid staircase and vast fresco-ceilinged rooms. The quality of the decoration is breathtaking, as is the scale of the rooms.

The final building, Fonte Vecchia, a former convent built around a central, previously cloistered courtyard on top of the Roman cisterns, aches to be brought back to life. A casually strewn pile of carved stone family crests and salvaged treasures from other Fermo buildings illustrates the building’s history. “This bit is gothic, there is the post-gothic and here is the 16th century,” says Romani Adami.

“There are other empty buildings in the town which are privately owned but those owners may be persuaded to sell if there is sufficient interest,” says Miller. Palazzo Alaleona in the nearby town of Montegiorgio, which she is selling for €1.6m, was built in about 1500 but was given an 18th-century makeover. Sensitive restoration could restore its 1,600 sq metres to their former glory.

For the past eight years Miller and her artist husband, Sam, have been involved in their own restoration project. “We found an early 18th-century farmhouse sitting in 20 hectares of oak and maple forest,” says Helen. “It had been empty for 30 years but was mostly intact and was all hand-built in traditional style.”

A rustic ruin with some land will cost €80,000-€150,000 but restoration will cost the same amount again. A village house with mountain views can be found for €150,000, usually requiring less restoration. Above €200,000 there are handsome stone farmhouses to fix up, complete with vineyards and olive groves. For historic grandeur, Villa Vescovo, a former bishops’ residence complete with its own little church, is on sale for €1.5m through Miller Homes.

Any new buyers will also have access to Fermo’s other, already-restored large-scale venues. These include the beautiful 1,000-seat Theatre dell’Aquila, the biggest in Le Marche (which has 120 theatres), and the 17th-century church of San Martino, which has recently been renovated. Both are part of an energetic drive to bring modern business and tourism to the town.

Fermo is competing with deluxe destinations at a time when investor money is tight but its historic credentials are impressive. An evening stroll through its cobbled streets shows off Italy’s cultural cachet, especially if before you start your promenade you have the foresight to slip into a pair of handmade Marchigiano shoes.

Miller Houses, tel: 44 (0)7970 522 379,
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