A History of the Casale Sonnino
Our Present Embraces Our Past
According to family lore, the Sonnino family is only the 5th owner in the last 2000 years to reside on our hilltop. In 1883, our great, great grandfather began purchasing land in the area and the Casale itself was bought in 1900. Next to the Casale, the three Sonnino brothers built the area’s first industrial winery in 1904. Here they produced award-winning wine and olive oil for their taverns in Rome and their expanding business supplying the same to hotels and restaurants.
The Remains of an Ancient Roman Villa
The Casale Sonnino was built over 300 years ago above the remains of the cistern of an ancient Roman Villa, one of about 200 patrician villas scattered around the Alban Hills during the time of the Empire.
We believe our property belonged to Caius Julius Cornutus Tertullus, a Roman senator who held many positions during his long career. In 98, Tertullus was appointed Prefect of the Treasury and served as suffect consul while his friend and historian, Pliny the Younger served as a consul in Rome. Through two important letters written 25 years after the fact, Pliny the Younger provided the definitive eyewitness account of the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius and his uncle’s involvement and death in 79 A.D. To this day, these kinds of eruptions marked by shooting columns of gas and volcanic ash high into the earth’s stratosphere are known as “Plinian Eruptions”.
Over the years, many Roman artifacts have emerged from the soil. Some have been incorporated in the parking lot wall, such as the round watering trough and several columns and capitals. Exhibited on the upper terrace wall are pieces of garden wall, decorative molding, and a doorframe.
The basement of the Casale, easily accessed from the piazza below the Villa, features an impressive foundation wall with Roman arches and opus reticulatum, a type of stonework typical of the late Republican period. There is also a rectangular Roman well with the original 2000 year-old stucco work. Right below, is the entrance to a labyrinth of caves which branch out beneath the villa and vineyard. These caves probably dating from the 1200’s, were excavated for their pozzolana, a volcanic gravel useful as a building material. Hundreds of years later, the caves were re-purposed for wine storage. Each niche in the caves held a 1000 liter chestnut keg. The caves were used to store wine until the 1960’s when modern refrigeration techniques were introduced.
From Rustic Farmhouse to Family Villa
From an architectural perspective, the design of the Casale, long and narrow with 2 staircases rather than a single central one, is typical of late 17th and 18th century Roman country houses (“Casali”). In 1947, the house was completely restored by our grandparents, who created the large 20’x 45’ living room/dining room from what was originally a storage area where the carriages and the farm olive jars were kept. The large window on the front of the Villa and the elegant parlor was the carriage entrance. Upstairs was completely reconfigured and corridors were added where there were none. More the recently, the bathrooms and kitchen have been upgraded while maintaining the vintage country feel.
From Italy to the USA and Back
With the coming of World War II, our grandfather escaped with his wife, our mother and her two brothers to live in neutral Switzerland and then relocated a few years later to New York City. With the family gone, the Casale was watched over by local friends who kept silent about the personal possessions from the family’s primary residence in Rome that were sequestered in caves beneath the vineyard. For three months during the battle for Rome between the Axis and Allied powers in 1944, officers of the German army occupied the house and stored food and munitions in the winery. The nearby town of Frascati was bombed heavily. After the armistice in 1945, when our grandfather returned to Italy to reclaim his property, the jams and jellies were still on the shelf encased in cobwebs.
Guests can see a reminder from this chaotic time etched over the living room fireplace: “I SHALL RETURN, 1949”. Indeed, our grandparents returned to their homeland and renovated the rustic farmhouse with carriage garages into a the Villa fit for a family that stands today. By the mid-1950’s however, the Sonnino family had permanently settled in the US, but our grandparents just couldn’t bear to let go of their family vineyard.
In the 1980’s, our mother, Clotilde Sonnino was one of the first in the Castelli Romani to open up her family home to guests as a Villa Rental.
Our mother was an expert on good food and good eating, and also history, art, politics, culture and all things Italian. Sometimes when the timing was right, guests would get to meet her. If they had empty travelogues, they would soon be full. Clotilde Sonnino would offer up an unforgettable experience, sharing the local food and her passion for her ancestral home and it’s history.
Though down to 30 acres from the original 100, the Casale has remained a haven from the frenetic pace of modernity. Since the original three Sonnino brothers operated the property at the turn of the 19th Century, four generations have made the Casale a significant part of their lives – a touchstone that we continue to love and cherish.
We were two couples who used the villa as a base for day trips to Rome, Mount Vesuvius and Herculaneum, and the Monte Cassino and Anzio battlefields. The villa was a perfect central location for us – about 25 minutes southeast of Rome. The owner – George – was born in the US – speaks English as his 1st language and is fluent in Italian. George lives on the property, but he will give you whatever amount of privacy you want. In our case, we spoke no Italian – so we sought him out for advice and information all week long.