Finding Settefinestre

Italy’s most celebrated post-war archaeologist, Andrea Carandini, essentially initiated a paradigm change in national field archaeology in his excavations at Settefinestre. Here Carandini defined a quintessential slave-owning villa (the subject of endless debate), and introduced stratigraphical methods in place of clearance excavations, with new recording techniques supported by disciplines like environmental archaeology. This Tuscan excavation in the later 1970s gave meaning to his canonical book, Storia dalla Terra; Manuale di Scavo (1981), an enduring text-book for every Italian student of archaeology.

But where is the villa at Settefinestre? I had always envisaged it as close to the Etruscan hilltop citadel of Cosa (near Orbetello), later transformed into a Roman colony. Indeed, I assumed it to be marked by the strange columns on a low terrace about a kilometre to the east of Via Aurelia, and thus a distinctive place to all who passed along the littoral highway in antiquity. No, as it happens, the columns belong to a more modest villa called, appropriately, Le Colonne.

The monumental front of Le Colonne

So taking a side road into the low ground hereabouts tellingly named Settefinestre, I asked a local. She pointed out a hill covered in olives beyond, to the east, but promptly said I could not visit it. It was private. Undaunted, I found the hill, two kilometres from the Via Aurelia, overlooking the Val d’Oro, a bucolic inland basin below the Etruscan and medieval hilltop site of Capalbiaccio.

Settefinestre from the Val d'Oro

An old sign mounted by the Soprintendenza indicated that the remains were on top of the little hill now occupied by a magnate’s home.

What remains? Someone had helpfully scrawled a note saying it was a villa, and someone else had shot a hole in the sign! The present house within a gated enclosure commands the eastern ridge of the hilltop and is guarded by baying hounds. But below the sign are inviting olive groves contained by only a modest fence. Sneaking down I found the immense north-facing terrace-fronts with attached, niched columns running along the mid slope.

The monumental north-facing front of Settefinestre

The monumental scale of the place is certainly consistent with the fame of this villa. Quite what the niched columns signify remains puzzling. (It is less stressful(!), I later discovered, simply to circumvent the base of the hill and approach the mid-slope terracing from below.)

Very simply, this great villa was probably not visible from either Cosa or the Via Aurelia, as I had imagined. Instead, its massive ornamental terracing aimed to impress travellers passing inland, eastwards, on the by-lane threading through the Val d’Oro. Paradoxically, in its magnificence it was intentionally discrete.

Descending from the hill feeling a mite relieved to have escaped notice or the discombobulated hounds, a large car roared up and stopped. Was it to be an indignant owner? No, the passenger asked me: do you know where we might find Settefinestre? I had to laugh!

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