In Italy’s chic-est seaside resort, there are no luxury hotels, restaurants, boutiques, spas, or nightclubs. Yet, as on Ibiza back in its heyday, anyone who is anyone knows someone in Capalbio. If you’re there, you are someone’s guest, and that someone knows the Puri Negris.
Carlo Puri Negri’s great uncle, Piero Pirelli, the son of the founder of the Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli, first bought property in Capalbio—stretching from the hillside town of Capalbio Alto to the nearby Mediterranean—with the Resta Pallavicino family and a few friends in 1922. A remote strip of land hugging the southern coast of Tuscany, Capalbio had long been a preserve for left-wing Italian intellectuals, writers such as Umberto Eco, and other academics too poor and serious-minded for the glitzy ostentation of nearby Porto Ercole, home to the ultra-luxe Hotel Il Pellicano.
Today, it’s still a quiet retreat for bird-watchers and campers who travel through the area in R.V.’s. But it’s also home to the Puri Negris and their friends, who step off their speedboats onto Capalbio wearing long dresses and flamboyant hats, and who for many years coexisted with the old-timers in an entente cordiale of sorts.
“You Pay to Stay Here?”
Soon after they bought it, Carlo and his partners started converting abandoned farmers’ huts into houses, discreetly renting them out year-round to friends.
The Puri Negris made sure the houses underwent as little renovation as possible, and it shows. In the 90s, when the German prince Moritz von Hessen visited one of the properties, he famously inquired, “You pay to stay here?”
They do: Carlo Caracciolo, the ninth Prince of Castagneto, was one of the first vacationers to buy a house nearby. Then came the Counts Brandolini d’Adda, the Elkann family, of the Fiat empire, and so on. This summer, an anxious Mick Jagger inquired about a house and was told that there was no space.
As on Ibiza in its heyday, anyone who is anyone knows someone in Capalbio.
In Capalbio, men and women sit topless on the empty beach, avoiding the sun under makeshift tents held up in the brown sand with sticks and shawls. Lunch is a pizza slice from the café at the train station, and the only other people for miles around are the nudists that will occasionally steal your beach spot.
To help ensure Capalbio’s conservation, Carlo’s uncle and the Resta Pallavicinos placed the land under the protection of the World Wildlife Fund in 1968, preserving 7.5 miles of unsullied coastline as a nature reserve. “It’s unique because it’s wild,” Carlo’s daughter Margherita tells me. Teeming with birds and boars, the land is “one of Italy’s first nature reserves.”
Things haven’t changed much since then. Trains run on a track behind the properties, rattling their fragile windows at nighttime. Views are of expansive hayfields, a lagoon, and the abandoned castle that sits on its banks. Further renovations are forbidden, as are, for the most part, swimming pools. Instead, going for a swim entails picking your way across the fields, avoiding brambles and vipers, to reach the adjacent private beach—a strip of sand without so much as a shack or umbrella on it.
Until, that is, 2016, when some residents in the area started a members’ club, La Macchia (Italian for “the Stain”). Founders include members of the von Furstenberg and Liechtenstein families, the Spanish business tycoon José Manuel Entrecanales, and the Swiss-born artist Rolf Sachs. But, in keeping with the Capalbio aesthetic, the place itself is simple: a small stone house and a couple of wooden tables concealed by sauntering green vines. There is no dress code—women wear loose caftans; men, linen shirts. Shoes are not on the menu, and neither are reservations.
The club’s exclusivity has caused some friction between the intelligentsia and the jet set, especially when members of La Macchia began making moves to privatize the adjacent beach. After a series of delayed permits and talks with local authorities, in 2017 the dispute was settled in favor of La Macchia, and access to the beach became restricted to club members. While tensions continue to simmer—just last week, a group of middle-aged nudists tried to assault a couple of Carlo’s friends for anchoring their sailboat too close to the shore—so far, the relationship has remained, for the most part, cordial.
La Macchia’s long waiting list has not stopped the world’s rich from flocking to Capalbio. In 2019, Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko parked his yacht, which, at 394 feet, is one of the largest in the world, right out front—an anomalous sight for a town that doesn’t have so much as a proper restaurant. Also last year, Hong Kong retail magnate Silas Chou arrived with friends for a private dinner at the club. Guests included Rupert Murdoch’s former wife Wendi and the contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang.
For people accustomed to lavish hotel rooms and restaurants, Carlo’s no-frills rental houses seem liberating. “In a world where everything is complicated,” a friend of Carlo’s explained to me, “you arrive here and everything is simple.” The food is fresh, the wine is plentiful, and the crowds are nowhere to be seen: it’s a far cry from elbowing your way through hordes of tourists on Mykonos.
This summer, Mick Jagger inquired about a house and was told that there was no space.
When it comes to nightlife, without clubs, cocktail bars, or rules, people get creative.
Tickets to the Roman Pallini family’s yearly hilltop party cost $60, it’s open bar, and anyone is welcome. Start time is four A.M., finish time is however long you last. One year, it historically ended two days later, with people dancing on hay bales for hours on end.
Luchino Visconti’s great-nephew Uberto and his friend Giorgio Sanjust di Teulada also throw a party every summer, at the Sanjusts’ house. Back in the 70s, Giorgio’s notoriously eccentric father, who for 30 years refused to wear anything but shawls, built the place with his bare hands. Tales of him lugging stone and landscaping acres are legendary. True to Capalbio form, last year’s party was festival-size, with attendees—friends and friends of friends—numbering more than a thousand. There were art installations by New York artist Harif Guzman, and the world-renowned D.J. PillowTalk played in the greenhouse, while in the main house Damian Lazarus spun vinyl under a disco ball.
Where ramshackle houses are the norm and $60 parties are the highlight, you realize what a lucky few have known all along: that real luxury—and freedom—comes in the form of anonymity. But, the coronavirus notwithstanding, Capalbio isn’t immune. With more and more people seeking seclusion, the chances of Capalbio staying covert forever are dwindling.
The other day, at a restaurant in New York, I overheard a neighboring table in conversation: “Have you heard of Capalbio? Apparently it’s the place to be … ”
Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor at AIR MAIL