When William Waldorf Astor bought a villa on the cliffs of Sorrento in 1905, he was one of the wealthiest people on the planet. His great-grandfather had made a fortune parlaying a fur monopoly into a real estate empire, and subsequent Astor generations had managed to expand their portfolio to newspapers, import/export concerns, and real estate developments that included the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
Astor’s purchase of the property for 110,210 lira wasn’t exactly a drain on his resources. At the time, he also was in possession of Cliveden House, a massive Palladian mansion in Buckinghamshire, England, purchased for US$1.25 million; 18 Carlton House Terrace, a 67,000-square-foot mansion overlooking St. James Park in London; and Hever Castle in Kent, which was originally built for the family of Anne Boleyn. Astor reportedly spent 10 million pounds—(about US$110 million today)—to renovate it.
The house in Sorrento, while not as grand as Astor’s other palaces, became something of a pet project. After renovating the house from 1905 to 1908, he set about acquiring surrounding parcels of land and cultivated a lush botanical garden. He also built a recreation of a Pompeiian villa on the edge of the grounds, which he subsequently filled with priceless antiquities.
Astor died in 1919, at which point the Italian government—not exactly a beacon of preservation advocacy at that point—declared that the antiquities and gardens were such an important part of the country’s patrimony that they had to remain untouched.
After passing from the Astor family to the Italian government, the house was purchased by shipping tycoon Mario Pane and his wife Rita in the 1970s. They held onto it for more than three decades, selling it in 2012.
The property’s new owner hired interior designer Jacques Garcia to restore and update the villa; following a several-years-long effort, they’ve memorialized the renovated interiors in the book Villa Astor: Paradise Restored on the Amalfi Coast (US$65).
No Expense Spared
The book contains a foreword by Lord Astor of Hever, William Waldorf Astor’s great-grandson, who gives background. There are essays devoted to the origins and education of “William Waldorf,” as the book refers to him, as well as his diplomatic career and publishing interests.
Every house gets its own essay: Hever Castle, we learn, was “too small to accommodate the many needed guest rooms,” leading Astor to commission a 100-room, mock Tudor village next to the castle, with particular care lavished on each mansion’s art collection.
By the time readers make it to his arrival to southern Italy, they’re primed to expect a full-scale, no-expense-spared approach to renovation and decoration. And that’s exactly what happened.
When Astor bought the 16-room villa in 1905, it was owned by an Italian nobleman. Soon after, Astor acquired a monastery and medieval church next door and knocked them both down. He added parquet floors and hand-painted ceilings and installed a pool and several acres of gardens. He even built a glassy dining room so his guests could have unimpeded views of Naples and the island of Ischia.
His final addition to the property was the “Pompeiian” villa, which was decorated with Ionic columns and neo-classical frescoes by the Roman artist, Mario Spinetti (1848-1925). Astor, who by then had renamed the house Villa Astor, called the faux-Pompeiian construction “Villa Florus” and filled it with artifacts that had been dug up in Pompeii.
A Succession of Notable Owners
After Astor’s death (his estate was worth approximately US$60 million), the house underwent a few decades of obscurity until it was requisitioned by the Allies during World War II. For a time, the anti-fascist philosopher-politician Benedetto Croce was installed in the house, after which it was acquired by someone whom the book refers to as “a Dutch minister.”
After that, the Panes purchased the property and turned it into a destination for the jet set. Princess Margaret, Rudolf Nureyev, Gianni Agnelli, and others were photographed hanging about. “These were years of unforgettable receptions in and outside the villa,” writes Rita Pane in her own essay in the book. “We have always kept a guest book and it is remarkable how many of the comments left by our visitors evoke the idea of paradise.”
Now, with the intervention of Garcia, a Paris-based interior designer who’s also worked on the interiors of Versailles, the house has been brought back to what Astor, writing in the introduction, said is “the dream realised by [William Waldorf] during the latter part of his life when he gave his imagination free rein.”