Monthly Archives: April 2018

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Expatriate Stories, Dr. Buly finds Podere Collalto

Owning a villa in Tuscany, producing fine wine and fragrant olive oil, is the fantasy of many Americans, but one that rarely comes to fruition. For years, Dr. Robert Buly nurtured such a dream, but once it came true he still had to keep his day job as a renown orthopedic surgeon in New York to fund his expatriate life.

View near Trequanda, Italy

A family history of immigration from Europe to the United States forms the basis of Dr. Buly’s interest in Italy and adds depth to his appreciation of the land of which he and his family now have stewardship. Although Bob and his family haven’t moved to Tuscany for good, his heart seems to be in Trequanda.

Grandparents Emigrate from Ukraine to Pennsylvania

Soon after the turn of the 20th century there was a grand immigration from Eastern Europe to Western Pennsylvania by those in search of work in the thriving steel mills, including Bob’s grandparents traveling from Ukraine for a better life. Their son, Mike (Bob’s father), who had just started to work as a plumber, rushed to enlist when the U.S. entered World War II. He was sent to Italy.

Mike Buly in Florence 1945

Mike Buly was a soldier in the U.S. Fifth Army. Moving north up the Italian peninsula he fought to liberate Italy from the occupying Germans at a time that it was essential to split the attention of the enemy forces as the D-Day landing was being implemented. As the Fifth Army entered Tuscany they took heavy casualties. Many of Mike’s comrades now lay buried in the American Cemetery of Florence.

Mike Buly Finds a Bride in Italy

Soon after the the town of Trequanda was liberated in southern Tuscany Mike and a buddy commandeered a motor scooter and took off through the countryside looking for a place to buy a few straw-covered fiascos of the local red wine. Seeing some lights on a hilltop, they droved into the village of Torre a Castello. A local festa di liberazione was taking place with music, dancing, food and, most important to Mike and his friend, a lot of local wine.

Fedora Gigli, who lived in a nearby village, was attending the celebration with seven of her female cousins. The two young American soldiers in uniform became the hit of the party. And that was the night Dr. Buly’s parents fell in love.

Italy was liberated April 25, 1945, and victory in Europe soon followed on May 8. Mike Buly could have chosen to take his well-earned discharge, but he reenlisted once his commanding officer confirmed that he could remain with the U.S. Army in Italy instead of going to the Pacific. He immediately started to jump through the Army’s bureaucratic hoops necessary to marry an Italian citizen, as well as to beg permission from Fedora’s family.

Mike and Fedora get married in 1945

Mike and Fedora were married in the village of Serre di Rapolano, just ten miles from where they first met. The entire village turned out for the wedding on November 29, 1945. Post-war Italy was in a state of chaos and poverty. Through the black market Mike was able to obtain gasoline for the vehicles, food and wine and even the hard-to-find ingredients for the wedding cake. His sister Stella, who lived on a farm in Pennsylvania, couldn’t attend, but sent Fedora a wedding dress. Fedora’s young cousin Giulio was part of the wedding party (he plays a big part, later). Fedora emigrated with her new husband to his hometown in western Pennsylvania. She and Mike would raise five sons. Robert Buly was the third.

When the Buly family finances could afford it, the seven of them would travel to visit Fedora’s extended family. (Remember the seven female cousins? They were only a fraction of the clan, all living near Siena.) Bob and his brothers became fluent in Italian since their mother spoke it at home. They all loved Italian food and the Tuscan lifestyle. Bob always dreamed of being able to have a place in the Italy that could produce olive oil and wine.

Finding a Place to Call Home in Italy

In 2006, after years of searching for a suitable place, Bob’s cousin Giulio (the 1945 ring-bearer) learned that Podere Collalto was for sale, approximately 6 miles from his own vineyard and farm, just outside the Tuscan town of Trequanda. Podere means farm and Collalto means high hill.  The hilltop farm with its classic expansive Tuscan view had land for a vineyard and already contained over 300 olive trees.

Olive Groves at Podere Collalto

From their large casa colonica (farmhouse), Bob’s family can see the towns of Montalcino (the home of world-famous Brunello) and Montepulciano (the excellent, but less well known, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). Bob felt that the climate and soil should certainly be conducive to producing an excellent wine. His cousin Giulio felt that U.S.-based Bob was crazy for attempting this endeavor. Giulio has his own vineyard of almost 6 acres and offered to sell a portion of his grape harvest. But, Bob, whose undergraduate degree from Penn State’s college of agriculture was in plant science, felt just buying grapes to make his own wine would not be the same. He wanted to establish his own vineyard.

Casa Colonica at Podere Collalto

The vineyard was planted in early 2008. The altitude provides a summer breeze which dries out the vineyard after rainstorms and cool nights to allow the grapes to rest. The soil in the region appears to be perfect for olives and grapes, rocky, full of minerals and drainage, and not overly fertile. Bob likes to say that Italians feel that, like people, olive trees and vines do better in the long run if they have to suffer and struggle somewhat as they develop.

Buli “Estate 44” Toscano Rosso

Bob started with 1.2 acres of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot grapes to create a red blend, known in the U.S. as Super Tuscan. He also planted some white grapes to be used for Vin Santo. In March 2012, he tripled the size of the vineyard and added a Shiraz varietal. The vineyard now produces about 1200 cases per year. Bob Buly called the winery Buli (the Italian version of his Ukrainian name). He named one of his red wines Estate 44, which in Italian is Summer of 44, to honor the soldiers who liberated Trequanda on July 1, 1944.

Bob has the help of not only his family, but also an enologist, Massimo Carpini, to employ more scientific techniques rather than the traditional Tuscan methods of his cousin, but harvesting the grapes is still labor-intensive and done in the traditional way. To bulk up his labor force Bob has managed year after year to convinced his American friends, professionals from all walks of life, to come to Tuscany during the vendemmia (harvest) for a few days of backbreaking physical labor, followed each evening by a great meal and a lot of wine from past vintages.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Expatriate Stories, Frederick Stibbert’s Museum

Garden of Stibbert Museum

Coming of age in 1859, Englishman Frederick Stibbert settled in the villa his mother Giulia bought in Florence at the edge of town in the Montughi neighborhood. He was wealthy due to a large inheritance that he was determined and able to increase by means of financial dealings in Italy and in the rest of Europe. His real passion, however, was art – it was the only thing, reportedly, he had been good at in school – not as an artist, but as a collector.

He began to fill his mother’s villa with items he obtained in his travels as an international financier. For almost fifty years he frequented European art markets. He also traveled to Asia and Africa. The trips lasted for months. He returned every time with hundreds of pieces. Soon he also had dozens of agents across the world sourcing items for his collection.

Stibbert family ballroom

In 1874, finding that the Villa of Montughi was not able to accommodate his mother and sisters and so many collectibles, Stibbert bought the neighboring Villa Bombicci. Between 1876 and 1880, he joined the two villas into one building. He renovated the spaces for the collections and those for family life. To create display rooms, each with its own theme, Stibbert hired artisans such as Gaetano Bianchi, an expert in neo-modern atmospheres, the stucco artist Michele Piovano, the ceramist Ulisse Cantagalli, and an army of furniture makers, carvers, gunsmiths and outfitters.

Sala della Cavalcata

Stibbert was interested in the history of costume and uniforms from the Renaissance to the First Empire, but his obsession was for armor and armaments, not only from the knights of Europe, but also from Asia, especially Japan, and Islamic countries. He had distinctive halls created in the combined villas to house the armory, including the Sala da Cavalcata, a grand hall with a cavalcade of human and equine plaster figures clad in European armor, overlooked by a huge figure of St. George battling a dragon.

Stibbert’s armor for Duomo façade dedication

Stibbert not only loved to acquire armor, he loved to dress in the armor from his collection, and talked relatives and friends to join in the interpretation of historical scenes. In one historical procession, organized in 1887 for the inauguration of the façade of the Duomo (for which he donated thousands to fund the construction), he paraded as a fourteenth-century knight, with a custom-made armor.

Stibbert loved to dress up

Today, this eccentric museum still exhibits Stibbert’s own ideas of how the collection should be arranged. In other words, the rooms are specially designed to create the right atmosphere, the items are presented in ensembles, some of the costumes are remade and arranged in semi-theatrical poses.

The First Empire collection of all things Napoléon (whom Stibbert’s father fought as a Coldstream Guard) fills an entire room.

Napoléon’s coronation costume

The collection includes French arms, such as combat and ceremonial swords, sabers, and dragoon helmets, plateware and jewelry, the a decree for the modification of coats of arms of the city of Florence dated 1811 and signed by Napoleon, and the coronation costume worn by Napoléon in the Duomo in Milan in 1805. The coronation cape is green (in honor of Italy) and covered in Napoléonic symbolism: notably, embroidered palms, laurels and bees, stars surrounded by garlands composed of corn cobs and oak leaves, Napoléonic ‘N‘s, and on the left shoulder an embroidered plaque of the Grand Master of the Royal Order of the Iron Cross, with the inscription ‘Dieu me l’a donné, gare à qui y touche‘ (‘God gave me it. Heaven help him who touches it’). The shoes worn by Napoléon during the ceremony complete this unique costume.

Detail from fresco in mother’s bedroom

Stibbert wasn’t trained in art history, museum curation, or fine art. Unlike Bereson, Horne and Bardini, he did not purchase works necessarily for their value or for resale. He bought what he liked and he kept it all. The collection at his death in 1906 contained over 50,000 pieces. The result is an extraordinary example of eclecticism, in which different styles and heterogeneous collections coexist, united by the strong personal stamp of the collector.

Inside the museum, where you tour with a guide, the rooms follow one another presenting European, Islamic and Japanese weapons and armor, in environments that suggest the atmosphere of distant cultures, followed by neo-baroque or rococo rooms, full of paintings, portraits and wooden sculptures, religious art, including reliquaries, and vestments, furnishings and porcelain, travel souvenirs. The family’s living spaces have now merged seamlessly into the collection.

Japanese Armor Room

The vast garden behind the villa is laid out in the English style, with temples, grottoes and fountains, affording a delightful walk on leaving the museum. During a trip to Egypt made after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Stibbert bought some artifacts later used in the construction of the small temple that overlooks a small lake. He, along with his mother Giulia and sister Sofronia, were honored with awards for the garden and creation of various new flower varieties.

Malachite Room

Today, the museum frequently curates excellent themed exhibits highlighting certain aspects of the Stibbert collection. The museum is open from 10am to 2pm Monday through Wednesday and from 10am to 6pm on Friday through Sunday. The guided visits start on the hour and last for about one hour. Last entrance an hour before closing. Closed Thursday. Tickets are 8 euro. The garden can be visited without a ticket.

Special Exhibit: Feasts and Banquets – The Art of Preparing Banquet Halls

From March 30, 2018 to January 6, 2019, the Stibbert Museum presents “Conviti e Banchetti – L’Arte di Imbandire le Mense” which pulls hundreds of items from the Stibbert collection as well as from other sources such as Ginori ceramics, Meschi artificial flowers, and Opera Laboratori Fiorentini for sugar sculptures. Exhibits and items include those for the Renaissance banquet table, a Baroque feast, 18th and 19th century flatware and table settings, as well as kitchen equipment through the ages.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Expatriate Stories, Frederick Stibbert

The stories of immigrants and expatriates who choose to live in Italy are some of the best tales told about present and former residents of Florence and Tuscany.

Frederick Stibbert’s Villa in Florence

This is the first in a series of Tuscan Traveler’s Tales about the “foreigners” who put down roots in Tuscany. The first post is about Frederick Stibbert, a British citizen, who settled in Florence in the mid-19th century and left behind on of the most unique (and under-appreciated) museums in the world. First, his story:

The Grandfather

Frederick’s grandfather, Giles Stibbert was the source the impressive family fortune, but he came from very humble beginnings. Born 1734, in Norfolk, England, he went to sea as the cabin boy to the captain of a Far East trading vessel, but at 22 years of age he disembarked in India.

Giles Stibbert

Giles enlisted under the patronage of Robert Clive in the military arm of the British East India Company, which was a private corporate armed force, and was used as an instrument of geo-political power and expansion, rather than its original purpose as a guard force. It soon became the most powerful military force in the Indian sub-continent. Giles Stibbert quickly climbed in rank and wealth because, unlike enlistees in most state-sponsored militaries, there was money to be made as the East India Company plundered the resources of India.

In January 1765, Captain Stibbert was ordered to lay siege to the hitherto impregnable Moghul fortress of Chunargur. A month later, the fortress of Chunargur surrendered to Stibbert’s forces after a sustained and bloody battle. Lord Clive promoted Stibbert to the rank of Major. In December 1765, Stibbert married 20-year-old Sophronia Rebecca Wright, the daughter of a clergyman, in Calcutta.

Giles and Sophronia spent six years (1768-1774) in England, during which three sons were born. The oldest, Thomas (1771-1847) was Frederick Stibbert’s father. The family returned to India, where Giles climbed in rank to Bengal Commander in Chief and was charged with reforming the Indian Army. He resigned in 1785. The family went to live in a grand manor house Giles had built outside of the town of Southampton, surrounded by 600 acres. Giles died in 1809.

The Father and Mother

Frederick’s father Thomas Stibbert was also a soldier. He enlisted in the Coldstream Guards and fought Napoleon’s forces in Egypt, Spain and France until the French defeat and the fall of the First Empire. Eventually, after living in Rome, he settled in Florence in 1836, where a couple of years later, at the age of 67 he married 33-year-old Giulia Caffagi from Stia, a tiny hill town north-east of Florence. She may have been Stibbert’s housekeeper. They were married in Malta and had three children: Frederick (also known as Federigo or Federico), born in 1838, followed by his sisters, Sophronia and Erminia.

Giulia Stibbert’s Bedroom

Thomas Stibbert died in 1847 when Frederick was nine and away at boarding school at Harrow in London. In 1849, Frederick’s mother bought a large villa, once owned by the Davanzati clan, on the edge of Florence in a neighborhood called Montughi.

Frederick Stibbert

Frederick remained at Harrow, reportedly a very poor and rebellious student, until he matriculated to Cambridge, where he did no better.

In 1859, Frederick came of age, returned to Florence to his mother’s home, and came into his vast inheritance. As the only male heir of his grandfather Giles Stibbert, he inherited the wealth of his father and his uncles. He proved to be a good business manager and investor, as well as astute at taking advantage of the many changes caused by the early efforts for unification of the Italian State in 1861, and the role of Florence, as the nation’s capital in 1865.

Frederick Stibbert with his medals earned in battle for Italy

In 1866 Frederick took part in the war for the Third Italian War for Independence with Garibaldi’s troops and was awarded a silver medal for his valor during the battle of the Trentino.

Wealthy and brilliant, Frederick had an active social and cultural life, both in Florence and in London. Passionate about horses, he owned a stable of thoroughbreds. He never married, but was popular with both men and women. He was known to be a bit of a dandy, appearing frequently in London’s social magazine Vanity Fair.

Stibbert’s Ballroom with portrait of his mother and sisters

He was devoted to his mother. His sister Sophronia married into the noble Pandolfini family and was famous for her gardens and orchid house. Erminia apparently died young and disappeared in history.

His multifaceted nature as an international financier, habitual traveler and passionate collector contributed to the realization of the greatest project of his life: transforming the Villa of Montughi into a museum. This goal drove his every action for fifty years.

The first documented guests to visit Stibbert and his collection were Francis, Duke of Teck, his wife Adelaide and his daughter Princess Mary, future wife of Britain’s George V, who left as a gift a guest book in which, among hundreds of others, are notable: author and poet Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the painters Telemaco Signorini and Michele Gordigiani, writers such as  Ouida and Gabriele d’Annunzio, collectors Temple Leader and Constantino Ressman or Bagatti Valsecchi. And then Queen Victoria arrived at Stibbert’s villa in 1894…

In his last will he left the museum to the British Government, with the obligation to keep the collection in Florence and to establish the museum in his name. In case of withdrawal by the British, the bequest passed to the municipality of Florence, as actually happened in 1908 .

After Frederick’s death in 1906 the museum was opened to the public (1909).