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July 24, 2014

FORTE CESARE: lost, forgotten and hopefully found?

Forte Cesare, 2013 (Photo by C. Sezgin)
by Luca Antonini, ARCA graduate and resident of Amelia, Italy

Italy is famous all over the world for its rich and varied material heritage, some of it well-preserved as historical sites of interest or kept safe in rich museums located all over the country; other parts of it sadly neglected.

The abundance of historical, artistic and architectonic elements has always posed a problem of conservation, and there are additional issues such as limited resources and governance. At the municipal level, a lack of clear and enforceable guidelines often contributes to the problem, ambiguity leading to art crimes such as theft, vandalism or destruction brought about by natural events such as floods or earthquakes.

Forte Cesare had always been in private hands until the beginning of the 20th century, when it was added to the assets of the Municipality of Amelia. Recently, the Municipality sold Forte Cesare to a private company with plans to restore and use it.

Forte Cesare is the name given to a group of ancient buildings located on the top of a strategic hill dominating all the territories around it in the center of Umbria, the green heart of Italy. Administratively, the site belongs to the Municipality of Montecastrilli, province of Terni, which is 30 km east of Orvieto, 20 km south of Todi, 12 km north of Amelia and 85 km north of Rome.

Forte Cesare, 2013 (Photo by C. Sezgin)
The site was probably inhabited by the Romans, but the basements of the buildings we see today date back to the VI – VII century AD, when a fortified garrison was established along the path of the Via Amerina, the most important road of the Byzantine Corridor.

One century after the end of the Roman Empire, Ravenna became the capital of the Byzanthine Exarchate (a sort of province of Constantinople's Eastern Roman Empire) which included Rome.  The rest of Italy was invaded by different national groups coming from the north of Europe.

The only safe link between Rome and Ravenna was a little strip of land surrounded by territories occupied by the Lombards, with Tuscany to the west and Spoleto and Marche to the east; it was extended from Via Cassia, a few kilometers north of Rome, and reached Via Flaminia, a few kilometers south of Ravenna. Byzantine Corridor was the name given to the strip, and the road was called Via Amerina, touching the towns of Orte, Amelia, Todi and Perugia. At that time Forte Cesare was a fortified site with soldiers protecting people and goods traveling on both directions, but it was also a station to have a rest, change horses, and stop for the night.

Later on this area became part of Terre Arnolfe (lands under the control of the Archbishop of Spoleto, 10th – 11th century), but no official documents survive until the beginning of the 16th century, when it was sold by the Stefanucci family to the Atti family, a strong Guelph family ruling in Viterbo and originally from Todi.

Between the 16th and 17th centuries, Forte Cesare was radically transformed from a military to a residential complex. Only the tower remained in its original dominant position, while all the other fortified parts were reunited in the new three-story villa.

Until that time, we find the toponym indicated as "Peroccolo", particularly on some maps made in the Vatican in the 19th century but stating the situation in the 13th century. The first time we find it named in relation to a “Cesare” in an official document is on a 1629 map; it probably comes from Cesare Borgia, a leader supporting the Roman Church in the wars between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines in the 15th century, who probably used the place during his military campaigns. This is one of the most credible hypotheses about the origin of the name we still use today.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Forte Cesare was donated by the Bishop Franceso Atti to Propaganda Fide, an organization created by the Pope to support the missionaries’ activities and some “related” ventures, including real estate management. Propaganda Fide immediately rented it out to the Verchiani family, and few years later (1808) sold it to Ciatti family. Angelo Ciatti was the last member of this family; at his death, in 1922, he decided to donate the whole estate to the Municipality of Amelia.

From the beginning, the ownership of the estate by the Municipality of Amelia was problematic.

Angelo Ciatti made provisions for the revenues from the estate to establish a permanent scholarship for poor families and to improve the Boccarini Boarding School in Amelia, and to support local education and charity in general. The college was run by the Franciscans and, since 1932, by the Salesian Fathers, and it was the most important school not only for Amelia, but for all the small villages and town in a range of several kilometers. According to Angelo Ciatti’s philanthropic wishes, Amelia was becoming an educational centre for the whole rural district; other towns with relevant school institutions were too far (Todi, Orvieto and Terni).

Two problems emerged following Ciatti’s wishes according his will: first of all, strong opposition from some distant relatives created some legal and administrative challenges after the estate became part of the Municipality of Amelia. Second, two different municipalities were involved in the same property, though in different roles and positions: Amelia was the legal and formal owner, but Forte Cesare is situated in the territory governed by Montecastrilli. Although this dualism seemed to exist without producing any problems in the first decades, it probably created the foundation for later situations of uncertainty, reciprocal discharge of responsibilities and apparent lack of initiative as to the property's care. After World War II, lands and buildings were rented to farmers, and later on to the Molino Cooperativo, a cooperative firm managing farming and milling activities, originally related to the cereal crops produced in the area.

Particularly after the earthquake of July 30, 1978, the condition of the abandoned buildings deteriorated heavily. Both lands and buildings fell into a slow but inexorable decline, due to theft and decay soon after. Before the end of the 20th century, the asset had turned into a burden for the mayor’s budget.

In 1986, the Municipality of Amelia requested a grant to develop the area through an initiative co-funded by the P.I.M. program and by the Regional Government of Umbria. Forte Cesare was included in three proposals: File A, 20 hectares of land assigned to an ungulate stock-breeding (fallow deer); File D, 120/150 hectares of land assigned to sheep farming; and File E, proposes to restore the villa and other close buildings to establish a training-college for students in agriculture, farming and rural hospitality; a restaurant and a show-store for local products were included in the project. Costs (E file only) amounted to 1.5 billion Lire

The P.I.M. projects were not funded, nor realized. This is the only documented project, made by the Municipality of Amelia, where a rough vision of an integrated solution is sketched, putting together “lands and buildings”. However, the proposed solutions contained a significant flaw: the cultural, historical and aesthetic value of the site was completely missing from the analysis, and consequently, twenty years after the P.I.M. draft project, a muddling through approach caused Forte Cesare – its condition further damaged and abandoned - to be sold to a private company.

When the estate was sold in 2005, no inventory was annexed to the contract. According to Angelo Ciatti’s holograph will, the holdings of Forte Cesare included:
1) The main villa, surrounded by 4 minor buildings, cisterns (this is important because the area is rich of water generally speaking, but not the hill where Forte Cesare was built), a big garden and vineyard surrounded by a wall; 2) the Chapel; 3) Water springs; 4) Croplands; 5) Grasslands; 6) Woods and copses; and 7) Orchards, including chestnut, wine, olive and more. 
a) Holy vessels, not better specified; b) Furniture, furnishing and fittings; c) Paintings (not specified in number, position, artist and age); d) Other “non social” rural tools (that probably means that, at that time, part of the implements for farming were collectively owned or used, whilst others were individually owned; customs from the Middle Ages still ruled the relationship between landlord and farmers); and e) Cattle and crops.
This list seems to be the only inventory ever made on Forte Cesare’s assets and real estates, a fact that makes its importance profound. The new owner has been working since the acquisition to on a project of restoration of the buildings and economic exploitation of the area. The project has not been approved by the Authorities yet. The Municipality of Montecastrilli, the Province of Terni, the Region of Umbria and Soprintendenza Beni Ambientali, Architettonici, Artistici e Storici of Perugia are involved.

The idea is to create a resort, turning the main building into a five star luxury hotel and restaurant; an 18-hole golf course and a spa will be created as part of the recreational facilities, sport and entertainment components of the resort concept. The project is ambitious and far-seeing, but far from the original heritage.

Luca Antonini originally wrote an academic paper under the same title for ARCA's Program in November 2012. Susan Douglas served as editor for adapting this piece  for the ARCA blog.

Luca Antonini graduated from ARCA program in 2012/3 and has a degree in economics from the University of Torino. Since the middle of the 90's, he has been working as project manager in local and sustainable development projects co-funded by the European Union. He specializes in managing non-government organizations (NGOs).