The de Renzis Sonnino family has been living in the Castello di Montespertoli since the beginning of the 19th Century. The arrival of Alessandro and Caterina de Renzis Sonnino and their children in 1987 marked the start of a new phase in the life of the Castle. The de Renzis Sonnino family has expanded part of their estate into the Castello Sonnino International Education Centre for researchers, educators and students committed to preserving environment and cultural heritage for future generations. Conservative renovation work, a commitment to the protection of the historic-cultural heritage and the revival of the winegrowing activity have made the Castello Sonnino one of the most interesting educational sites and one of the finest producers in Florentine Chianti.

View of Castello di Montespertoli, now the home of the Castello Sonnino Education Centre.

What is the Castello Sonnino International Education Centre?

It is a project to transform the Castello Sonnino estate, which is a historical monument 20 kilometres outside of Florence, into an economically viable and internationally recognised example of sustainable development in rural areas. It is situated close to the village of Montespertoli in the Chianti region, and is an educational centre for those who are committed to preserving the environment, culture and historical heritage for future generations.

18th Century frescos represent local flora and fauna in an imaginary landscape in the Flora and Fauna living room.

What do you mean by that?

The idea is that the entire world is full of wonderful heritage sites, but they have been transformed and lost their souls, and this is very sad for me.

Overview of the Castello taken from a drone.

What have you done about this?

We tried to preserve the know-how that is in these places. We live in a world where the speed of change is so fast, and we have to adapt to the changes in the economy. So many mistakes have been made in this process of following the quick changes that the economy imposes. In other words, in order to survive heritage places have been transformed according to the economical speed of our time. Everywhere the original sites have lost their souls, changed into resorts, golf clubs and wedding venues, and the know-how that was developed in these places for centuries has been abandoned. In this way they have become like empty boxes. For me, as I said, this is terribly sad.

Harvesting grapes at Castello Sonnino.

What could you do at Castello Sonnino to rectify this?

For centuries and up to the present day Castello Sonnino has been a farm and a wine estate. It has always been a social and economic engine for this area, feeding more than a thousand people since mediaeval times. It has a long story starting from the 4th century, and has belonged to the Sonnino family since the since the beginning of the 19th century. When my husband Alessandro and I came to live here in 1989 we found a place that was completely untouched. For me it felt like a treasure hunt and I fell in love with the place, and as its guardian and because of my family’s background and culture I felt that my duty was to preserve the place.

Students of Sustainable Agriculture at home during the Hecua Semester

How did you manage to turn the normal activities of the farm and vineyard into a programme of studies in which more than thirty-five North American universities now participate?

I realised that I had to find a way for the place to undergo a transformation without making major changes, and I decided to go through a process of transformation because you cannot only live in the past. In short I decided to look forward, and since I really believe in the power and the essential importance of education, knowledge, tradition and culture, I created a cultural project in order to bring faculty and students to Castello Sonnino.

Wines in production include prizewinning and highly acclaimed Vin Santo, and LAUDEMIO extravirgin olive oil.

What do they study, and how does it work?

The students that come here are interested in Italian culture. At the moment we are hosting a semester in sustainable agriculture, and we have 18 students. Many others are on waiting lists for future courses, for which they get credits from their university. I built a course schedule with a programme director and other professors from different Italian universities. What happens is that our students live in the castle and they have classes there. They have lectures from eminent scholars and professors, and entrepreneurs as well as experts. These people teach and give lectures, and we take the students to visit other places connected with their studies in the region. They do internships, they work on our farm, and they study economics, marketing, environmental systems, agriculture, oenology and tourism. We are only walking distance away from the village of Montespertoli, so they have a total experience of Italian life and culture.

The tower of the Castello.

How long have you being doing this?

Since 2014. We started with a one month course in wine tourism with UBC, The University of British Columbia. After doing that course we became successful, because research made by an American organisation showed that we were the only ones offering this kind of experience. We have attended many educational conferences, all over the world. When people talk about the Castello Sonnino educational programmes they say that I have identified a new didactic vision for studies abroad. This sounds exaggerated to me, because it happened in a very simple and spontaneous way.

The courtyard of the Castello.

The Sonnino family is an eminent Italian family. Do you also manage the family archives?

Yes. Everything started when I understood how important it was for our family to open the archives and make them available to scholars and researchers. Sidney Sonnino, the great-great-uncle of my husband, was Prime Minister of Italy and then Minister of Foreign Affairs during World War I. Therefore we have papers, letters and documents about the foundation of the Italian state, the First World War, the League of Nations and the Versailles Treaty. These archives are clearly an interesting source of information for our students.

The family’s archives contain more than 200,000 documents.

What wine do you produce?

Our brand is Castello Sonnino. We produce Chianti and Super Tuscans and we research oenology, so we link our tradition with innovative research. We also produce olive oil and grow antique grain. This guarantees that our students and scholars live in a working environment and therefore have hands-on experience. We also instruct them in geology, landscape, architecture and archaeology, and we are introducing new courses on art.

The kitchen was renewed at the beginning of the 19th Century. The copper pots on display were recently found hidden in a well.

What is your ambition?

My ambition is to preserve this place for future generations. If my project is successful other people will be able to follow our model and find a new way to preserve historical places without changing their DNA.

Students in the vinsantaia, where the grapes are dried for Vin Santo.

How much do you enjoy this educational work?

Very much. I like the energy that the students bring when they come here. It is essentially a matter of love for me, and if we succeed I will be proud of having opened a new door.

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