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Window on Italy - Ode to Gianni

Colleen Simpson

How do I even begin to create an ode to one of our dearest friends in Italy? Gianni is the first friend we make in Italy when we arrive at his studio office amply drenched after hurling ourselves over mountain passes in an April rain storm in 2004.

Little did we know, after I telephoned him from our home in Seattle to ask if his real estate listing for a huge abandoned glass works was still available, that we would have soon have a dear friend. We had been searching for ten years for our dream place in lush, green Umbria. Having spent our honeymoon in Umbria, we developed a love affair with the place and were determined to find our own home there. For ten years it had been a dream and now it was about to become true.

An adventurer and creative genius, Gianni becomes our wizard of dream making! Fluent in English, a good thing, because my Italian was non-existent at the time and my French did not help much, he immediately caught the vision of what we wanted to do with this major restoration job.

Giannii with his beautiful wife Jole

Gianni with his beautiful wife Jole

First impressions are everything and my first impression of Gianni standing in his office doorway smiling, dressed in khakis and wearing cowboy boots is astounding. Here in Italy is a man who thinks he was meant to be in Texas! Hopping into his Jeep Cherokee, he leads us up and up a hill to the perched village of Piegaro to our destiny. Flashlight in hand, we explore the massive interior of a glass works long abandoned to village cats and occasional children's play. We are soon told it is the site of the original glass works in this historic glass making village, founded in 1292 by renegade master glass artisans who escaped from the island of Murano in Venice lagoon. Crawling up ladders, carefully balancing on floor beams and scrambling over debris to explore the base of a 9th century tower, I am besotted, head over heels in love with the place.

And so it goes that within a few days we sign the "Preliminario", the intent to purchase agreement, and start what will become our shared mythic journey of a massive restoration, bulging construction budget, immersion into village life and above all else, a strong friendship. Rooted in common values and leavened by a hearty sense of adventure, humor and great generosity, our friendship has thrived for seven years.

Tom signs the Preliminario with Enrico, Gianni's brother, and Gianni in his studio

Tom signs the Preliminario with Enrico, Gianni's brother, and Gianni in his studio

Returning home to Seattle, we cannot quite believe that we have actually started on this journey. After planning for so long, it is finally becoming a reality; what have we done! Exhilarated and slightly shell-shocked, I return alone to Italy the following month of May to sign the final purchase documents under Gianni's protective eyes. He translates all the Italian words for me as I follow with my finger each line on the six pages of the final "Purchase Act." Accustomed to the thick file of American purchase documents that is often three inches high, I question Gianni as to their brevity. He is confused. When I explain that in America we put many pages of laws into the document, he says, "Why would we do that, when all the laws are in these books here," gesturing in the Notario's office. "If you or Mario, the seller, is not honest, they will just take you away in handcuffs." This said with a twinkle in his eyes.

The keys are placed in my hands and after we go to lunch together to celebrate, I can hardly contain my pleasure: when opening the padlock on the ancient doors, I get to survey my own domain. I visit it each day, just sitting in the window, or pacing off the measurements of the rooms, designing a villa and four apartments on a pad of paper that Gianni will soon convert to architectural plans. I spend two glorious weeks in May exploring the abandoned space, the village and drive along little country lanes, taking photos and imagining making our lives in this place. When Gianni invites me to a sunny luncheon on the terrace of his friend's restaurant in Panicale, we are firmly co-conspirators in this dream of ours. Confidently he assures me that he will make our dream come true. And true to his word, for two years he works hard to obtain the necessary construction loan and all permits to begin the restoration of this massive glass works into a beautiful villa and apartments for guests with panoramic terraces and pool.

Gianni and his motorcycleMuch of the planning is done by email with occasional visits to Italy. When work begins in March, 2007 Gianni visits the works at the end of each day on his motorcycle. Each morning I can open my email to find 25-30 photos. By this time I have memorized each inch of the place and can easily imagine exactly what has been accomplished daily.

When Tom and I arrive in January, 2008 for one of our final visits, we discover that Gianni has searched for an American flag to pair with the Italian when the roof is finished. The feeling of seeing our crane rising above the hilltop village with flags fluttering in the breeze from kilometers away as we approach, warms our hearts and we know what effort he has put into pleasing us. We feel like we are coming home.

Flags on the rooftop

Gianni is a purist in restoring property to its original architectural style and takes great pride in his restoration work. When we spend many hours designing the grand doorway entrance into the villa he insists that we go to Gobbini's stone yard to find an original 12th century piece of stone to use as the doorway lintel. As we clamber over ancient stones, I am overwhelmed to be surrounded by the thousands of years contained in just one yard! When we find the perfect stone Gianni is elated that we can have a completely authentic entry to our villa.

Gianni and Colleen in the Stoneyard

Sg. Gobbini, sits on his bike while Gianni and Colleen look for the perfect stone

When the restoration is complete at the end of June, 2008, we have a grand opening celebration and invite the entire village to tour and feast with music and dancing. Gianni basks in the joy that we all feel in accomplishing a remarkable work together. We have shared a long journey to this day and deepened a great friendship. With hard work, patience and a big dose of humor, it has not been the nightmare that many people write books about. The narrative in our book will be about Gianni, his charm, his grace, and his wise advice and the fulfillment of the original promise he made to me over a sunny lunch on the terrace in Panicale, when he took my hand and said he would make our dream come true.

Over the years we spend many hours working, sharing a caffe, enjoying visits and eating meals together. I look forward each year when I return for my annual stay, to mount the stairs to his studio office, ring the bell, and when the door opens, to see my cowboy!

Gianni is certain that in some past or future lifetime he was or will be a Texan. Although he has not traveled to Texas, he loves all things Texan! We like to joke with him and create many scenarios of him herding cattle on his motorcycle or sitting on a porch watching the tumble weeds go by. When Tom racks his brain for an appropriate gift to give to Gianni to express our gratitude, he comes up with an awesome idea. Locating a place in El Paso, he orders a set of longhorn steer horns to be sent by FedEx to Gianni. I tease Gianni as he waits for the delivery of something amazingly wonderful, unique in all of Umbria, perhaps in all of Italy. When they arrive, he telephones me with great excitement and dashing over to his studio, I see them, in all their magnificence, set upon the hood of his Jeep. However, were he to mount them permanently, he would not be able to drive through the narrow streets of Piegaro! So he places them carefully in his studio office, prints off the flag of Texas and has Tom and I sign our names. I think he loves this daily reminder of Texas as he works in his studio office. Now whenever I can find something of Texas I save it for him.

Texas Longhorns in Umbria

Gianni also loves motorcycles and has several he is proud of. He and a few of his friends have formed their own traveling club called "The Bedouins" and they go each year to exotic places to ride for several weeks. One year it was Morocco, another Libya, even to India, I recall. He enjoys riding fast, especially when he got up to a record-breaking speed in the desert sand. It is always a thrill even riding with Gianni in his Jeep while he talks on his cell phone, gesturing to me with his hands as he speaks. He is the ultimate multi-tasker! Someday soon I will ask for a ride on his motorcycle ... I think.

Gianni on his motorcycle

Gianni on the road from Piegaro to Citta della Pieve

When our villa and all apartments become completely booked full and I am searching for a place to stay, Gianni quickly offers me his spacious, historic and very beautiful childhood home in Panicale. Currently vacant, it is a historic place, once the home of the monks in the church next door. He enthusiastically takes Tom and me to see it, and dashing from room to room opening shutters, he proudly shows us where he was raised. Family photos and the many books that line each hallway make it very welcoming. There is even a small library of ancient books from the church, some dating to the 16th century.

Ancient Book

I am overwhelmed by his generosity and take pleasure in nurturing the garden of his beautiful home each day through the hot summer. Eventually I put my entrepreneurial skills to work to rent it to tourists for him, and when greatly successful, I will have to find another place to stay.

A sense of adventure, humor and generosity are the keys that cement our friendship. There will never be another Gianni! He is one of a kind and we are blessed to have him as our first and one of our best and truest friends in Italy.

Epilogue: When shown this story, Gianni wanted to make sure that my readers know this: "Gianni wants to be precise that his dear friend, Colleen, was too gentle with him and he does not bear any responsibility for the kind words she has written." I actually think he was thrilled with this tribute to our friendship.


Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests. At other times, you can find her in beautiful Seattle.

© Colleen Simpson, 2011

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