Christopher Jackson heads to Tuscany and finds a well-kept secret now open to the public
My desire to possess the place is immediate. As we round a leafy corner and see Tenuta Il Palagio for the first time, I realise that I won’t deem my life a success if I never get to own it. This is a remote possibility for a whole host of reasons, but it’s unlikely to be available for sale in any case, since its owners – I’ll come on to them in a moment – have poured so much love into it.
First, the place. As you leave the car, you see a yellow pile, fronted by box gardens. Beyond, and somewhere to your left, Leonardo da Vinci has produced a replica of the background to the Mona Lisa, and outdone himself.
Beneath you, vineyards roll. It will turn out that most of what you can see is owned by the owners of the villa itself. This brings on a new bout of regret at having not had the sense and foresight to have written, for instance, such hits as Roxanne, Englishman in New York, and Fields of Gold. That’s because this is one of several homes which belong to Sting and his wife Trudie Styler. It’s also the only one open to the public.
Back in their Battersea apartment, Sting and Trudie tell me about the original decision to purchase the villa: ‘It was a fortunate accident,’ recalls Sting. ‘We had this fantasy about owning a house there, which took a long time to realise. After about ten years of searching half-seriously, we came across a ruin on the border of the Chianti area. It was a big house but had liveable rooms.’
What ensued was a labour of love for the pair: what the visitor sees today is the product of an enormous amount of hard work and commitment to the locality.
Sting continues: ‘Trudie said we should do something with the vineyard but the vines were old and the wine wasn’t great. So we met this guy in California who was a winemaker and told us about biodynamics. I was sceptical – until I tasted the wine.’
This Californian winemaker went on to introduce the pair to the legendary Alan York. Trudie recalls him: ‘Alan sadly died a few years ago; I always think about him so fondly. He blazed the trail because of his unique respect for the land.’
Over time, the estate was regenerated – and, wonderfully, the surrounding economy achieved a boost as a result. ‘Alan’s ethos was that you should try and create a wine that is unique,’ Sting recalls. ‘Most wine in the world is generic; it tastes the same. Here you have wine that could only be produced from this soil: it’s a unique signature. That appealed to me because my life in music is about creating something unique.’
Trudie pours me a glass, and upon tasting it, any scepticism I may have had about the cliché of rock stars and wine labels disappears. The vintage is called Sister Moon. Wonderfully rich, it condenses for me, like a tantalising promise, the flavour of the estate.
A few months later, on our first evening, a generous lady called Valentina cooks us a magnificent Fiorentina – washed down, of course, with another Sting and Trudie vintage, this one with the home run name: ‘Message in a Bottle’.
The following morning, the gorgeous Tuscan day efficiently nurses our red wine hangovers, and we feel sufficiently robust to explore. Beyond the main villa are olive groves, the olive-trees looking like people with arms flung out, paused in a crazy dance. Next to the house, there’s a rock star pool, shaped like a figure-of-eight. Here one can easily imagine Elton John giving piano tips to Paul McCartney, while Bono sketches out charitable ideas over by the giant chess set.
Our favourite part of the villa is the lake. This, about a half mile from the villa itself, is swimmable-in, though the surface of the waters occasionally flick with fish. It also has a treehouse – built by the musician himself – and surrounding woodland.
The only way of reconciling yourself to your eventual exclusion from this paradise is to tell yourself that it must be a burden of some kind after a while. Back in London, I ask Sting whether the rich in the UK are failing to do their duty as philanthropists as compared with their American counterparts? But he moves swiftly to shut this down. ‘That would be a generalisation. There are very generous people here. There are more tax breaks in America for giving and so people are giving millions because they’re getting a tax break on it.’
Trudie agrees: ‘I think English people don’t like to show off about money, whereas Americans are very bold: “Hey, we’re giving this amount to this charity!”. I don’t want to make a generalisation about America either, but you’re not really regarded in American circles as a good citizen unless you have a not-for-profit you’re supporting.’
So should there be legislation to encourage philanthropy? ‘I would prefer legislation to be designed so there is less of a dichotomy between the superrich and the people who have nothing,’ Sting says. ‘We’re working class and we’re wealthy but we’re not superrich. I’m not sure how many billions you need to die with to be happy. Charity legislation should be introduced where capital gains are taxed.’
What ultimately distinguishes Sting from many other celebrities is his thoughtfulness and commitment to community. All this is much in evidence when you visit Il Palagio.
When I speak to Paolo Rossi, who has for years run the place alongside his sister Bina, he tells me how he loves to hear Sting playing music in the studios overlooking the courtyard. ‘Everything changed and became modern [when Sting bought the place].’ He points at some outhouses overlooking a cobbled quadrangle. ‘We have a recording studio on the first floor, and on the ground floor is where we store and age the wine. The wine benefits from the impression of the music.’ Have they been good for the area? ‘When Trudie and Sting arrived we had three permanent workers,’ Paolo says. ‘Now we have 20 permanent workers. In the summer, we have 3o-45 people. It had a big economic impact in terms of salaries.’
There are also stories that the locals are anxious to protect Sting’s anonymity and will give deliberately wrong directions to autograph-hunters. ‘There’s a strong connection with the local community,’ Paolo explains. ‘He came here with respect and knowledge.’ Do they speak Italian? ‘Trudie speaks very well. Sting speaks – a bit.’
In the house itself, you get a strong sense not just of the musician, but of the family as a whole. The gym is a converted chapel, with Buddhist-themed murals. In the lounge and library, there is evidence of wide reading in poetry, art and history. In one of the upstairs guest rooms, there are magnificent original drawings by Jean Cocteau (1889-1963).
Predominantly, this is a musician who has made a success of domestic life: photos of the family frequently line the walls. You don’t feel you’re staying in a hotel but in Sting’s home.
Paolo says: ‘They are a unit. What you say to one, the other one knows immediately. They are a fantastic couple.’
As for Il Palagio itself, to stay there even for one night is to find your life enriched and enlarged. I suspect that it will never be entirely okay not to have spent more time there. But I’m glad that if I can’t own it, Sting and Trudie do.
Christopher Jackson writes for Spear's