Conservation is the central theme and direction of all activities on the estate of Spannocchia. It is a wildlife refuge, part of the Tuscan Riserva Naturale Alto Merse, a certified organic farm raising endangered breeds of domestic farm animals and producing wine and olive oil, and a registered historic site. As such, great attention is paid not only to architectural preservation in the course of renovation projects, but also to landscape preservation through appropriate stewardship of agricultural land, and through forest conservation. Spannocchia strives to provide a good example for the sustainable use of a wide range of resources.
Forest use in this area of Tuscany has long been integral to the practice of agriculture, for the production, directly and indirectly, of wood products complementary to the agricultural operations (timber, firewood, charcoal, implements) and of food crops, both wild and cultivated. These food crops included berries and other wild fruits, mushrooms, game, nuts, and domestic animals pastured in woodland and nut tree groves. Spannocchia’s 900 acres of woodland comprises four different types of forest: 70 acres of mature (high canopy) wood, 175 acres of mixed wood, 600 acres of coppice wood, and 50 acres of chestnut groves, all scattered and mixed in multiple parcels of various sizes. Cutting of the coppice woods for firewood and charcoal was traditionally done in cycles of fifteen to twenty years.
A management plan for sustainable use of Spannocchia’s forests was completed in 2005, providing for annual cutting of approximately twenty five acres on a twenty year rotation using largely traditional methods to provide for the perpetual renewal of the forest. Cutting patterns and methods take into account wildlife habitat and the general health of the forest as well as the perpetual renovation of the trees themselves. Spannocchia employs work horses in part of the process of hauling cut wood out of the forest in areas inaccessible to a tractor and in order to minimize damage to steeply sloped areas.
Charcoal was one of the most important products from Spannocchia well into the 1950’s, and represented the traditional fuel in Italy not only for cooking and heating, but for industrial processes as well. Charcoal is no longer made on the property, but many local residents rely on Spannocchia for their supply of firewood, and wood-burning stoves and furnaces provide much of the heat and hot water for Spannocchia’s own buildings. The estate cuts approximately 1000 saplings a year from carefully managed coppice chestnut groves, for a variety of products used directly on the farm: fence posts, trellising poles for the vineyards, and joists and rafters for renovation projects.
Architectural preservation is also central to Spannocchia’s conservation philosophy, and traditional materials produced on the estate are used whenever possible. While systems and amenities in most of Spannocchia’s buildings have been considerably upgraded in recent years, care is always taken to change the appearance of the property as little as possible, avoiding the all too typical “gentrification” that has swept through much of rural Tuscany. Although Spannocchia is no longer able to produce its own lime and terracotta (bricks and roof tiles) as in the past, it still uses traditional lime based mortars and local brick and tile for renovation and repair, and is gradually returning rooms in the main Villa to 18th and 19th century styles of interior decoration utilizing pure lime and natural pigment based paints, restoring or replicating recently uncovered designs.
Castello di Spannocchia’s architectural preservation program with the University of Kansas brings fifteen architecture students to the estate every summer for a two and a half week introduction to some of the basic issues in preservation and adaptive reuse of historic structures. In addition to lectures and touring, the students participate in three days of hands on work with an experienced local mason each week, working with local materials and learning traditional methods used in dry stone wall construction, mortared stone wall construction, brick-laying, plastering, roof construction, and floor paving.
Natural Resource Conservation
Sustainable water practices is illustrated by Spannocchia’s natural wastewater treatment system, one of the first in Tuscany. All wastewater from the central Castello complex is passed through a four compartment septic tank, then goes through two filtering basins, each 5 meters by 16 meters by .5 meter deep, filled with a sand/gravel mix and planted with phragmites grass, which house symbiotic bacteria for secondary treatment of sewage effluent. The resulting biologically clean water then flows to a small collection pond, planted with water lilies and other aquatic plants designed to help maintain water quality, from which it is then pumped as needed for irrigation in the nearby fruit orchard. Rain water from roofs is also directed to this pond for additional irrigation use. This recycling of the precious water from Spannocchia’s San Bernardino spring and utilization of rain water helps to substantially reduce overall water usage and thus reduce pressure on that vital natural resource.
The most recently renovated farmhouse at Spannocchia demonstrates our first graywater recycling system, used to treat wastewater from the sinks and showers of the house. The recycled water is then reused in the house for flushing toilets, and for watering the organic vegetable and flower gardens adjacent to the house.