Old Italian church converts property buyers
Church conversions are becoming increasingly popular around Europe, but it’s not just England and France where you can pull up a pew: Italy is getting in on the game too. And new admirers are being converted every day.
“It gives an unexpected, wonderful sense of history,” Annamaria Negri, owner of a converted Catholic vicarage in Marche, tells me. “One imagines the countless weddings, baptisms, funerals, and other social events that have taken place within the walls in the course of a millennium. You feel like the caretaker of a piece of history.”
Annamaria’s villa is located just outside the medieval, walled city of Urbino. Now, it’s a bustling university city but go back 1,000 years and things were very different. Her house was a fully operational vicarage, about the size of a small monastery, complete with rectory, meeting rooms, classrooms, living areas, and other facilities.
It was built sometime before the end of the first millennium, she explains; a continuously inhabited church property until it was deconsecrated in 1973.
But the history doesn’t stop there. Annamaria goes on to explain that the vicarage once belonged to a castle complex as well.
“The castle was demolished about three centuries ago,” she says.
Looking around the small community of La Torre San Tommaso, you can still see some foundations of the old castle walls.
“This is the only castle structure left intact,” she adds, wistfully.
Indeed, it still has its old charm and features, from six bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs to the living room and kitchen downstairs, as well as a laundry. Attached to the latter? What used to be the local bakery, complete with wood-burning pizza stove.
“It was the local bakery from about 1600 AD,” explains Annamaria. You can hear the excitement in her voice. “It’s now used for occasional informal dining.”
The church itself is the real show-stopper. It may be deconsecrated, but it’s intact; there are still altars inside the chapel as well as a sacristy. The ancient walls are adorned by life-sized sculptures. Annamaria even shows me how to get up to the old choir stall from an upstairs hallway.
You certainly wouldn’t be ashamed to have friends round for communion. While the words “old church” conjure up images of dirty floors and muddy gardens, there’s not a speck of dust in sight.
And it has all the mod cons as well: security system, irrigation system, WiFi internet access, satellite TV. Even a hot water-heating system powered by oil. Not that you would need the hot water: perhaps the most surprising thing in the villa is how warm it is.
“The masonry walls are more than three feet thick!” smiles Annamaria. “It makes the villa easy to heat, and it keeps the house cool in the summer too.”
She takes me outside to see the beautifully landscaped gardens. There is a sense of profound peace about the old place, she says.
An old brick and wrought-iron well immediately catches my eye. I soon discover it goes down 100 feet and serves as part of the irrigation system.
Receipts for its construction date it back to the early 1600s.
A lot has changed in those 400 years. Italy’s economy has weakened; the demand for property has slowed. The one thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the view: to the East a sliver of the Adriatic Sea, 15 miles away, cuts through the horizon; to the South, the rolling woodland of Cesane National Park; you can even see the ragged peak of San Marino in the distance.
With surroundings like that, it’s no surprise that church properties keep attracting investors. Interest in coastal apartments may have started to dry up but investors haven’t lost faith in properties such as Annamaria’s with their own personal piece of history – and, she points out, a unique cultural potential.
“It’s an ideal setting for parties, small concerts, weddings, or art exhibits,” she says.
And for the days when your faith in the economy is slightly weaker?
She gestures beneath the paved floor: “There’s a modest wine cellar, too.”
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