Castello del Catajo

Sergio Cervellin visited the castle in 2015 and simply fell in love with it. He later learned, accidentally, that it was for sale. It was a done deal.


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Sergio Cervellin, the owner of Castello del Catajo, and his wife Roberta
Artiom Ganin talks with Sergio Cervellin, the man who was lucky to buy fantastic Castello del Catajo in Italy's Veneto in 2015. The castle which boasts the prominent frescoes by Giovanni Battista Zelotti and whose halls were attended by greatest European royal families of the past including Archduke Franz Ferdinand was in a dire state. Sergio faced a lot of challenges: the roof was leaking, the external plasters were peeling, most of the wooden panels of the windows were rotting, the historic garden of the Castello was abandoned too. It was the result of some 40 years of neglect. Sergio says that a lot has been achieved since 2015 and the castle has risen from the dead but great work still lies ahead. He says he does not regret his spontaneous purchase back then. Sergio also told me why he does not reside in the castle but at the same time can feel his deep personal connection with Castello del Catajo - one of the largest private houses in Europe.


Castles_and_Palaces (CnP): Why did you buy Castello del Catajo - exactly this very castle? Why do you have a special attraction to it?
Sergio Cervellin (SC): One day I was passing by, I saw that Castello del Catajo was open to the public and I decided to visit it. I immediately fell in love with the place, it was love at first sight. It is something that happens very rarely in life. I was told that the castle was for sale. A few days later I submitted an offer to buy it, it turned out that I was the only bidder… and here we are today. I feel a magnetic attraction for Catajo: it is a unique and incredibly special place, full of history, art and charm. The greatest European royal families of the past have visited the halls on its Piano Nobile, entirely frescoed by the great Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Zelotti. Today, Catajo is already strongly connected to the history of my own family and for this reason the castle is even more special for me.
CnP: You bought the castello in 2015 from an auction - how bad was the castle's shape?
SC: In 2015, most of the surfaces of the castle were in a dramatic condition. For example, no maintenance work had been done on the roof for decades and it was broken in several spots. The external plasters were peeling and crumbling, and most of the wooden parts of the windows were rotting.
SC: The castle had witnessed more than forty years of neglect and it had caused much damage and structural losses. Even the historic garden was in a state of semi-abandonment, entire areas were covered by weeds. The oldest and most precious part of the castle, the one that preserves the famous frescoes by Giovanni Battista Zelotti, was the only part still in good condition. Luckily, this masterpiece of 16th century painting was safe on the first floor of the "Castelvecchio" (the "old castle").
CnP: You started urgent restoration works – was the scale of the works bigger than you previously thought?
SC: Important consolidation and restoration works started immediately. The roof of the Castelnuovo (the "new castle"), that is the area built in the 19th century, was severely damaged and the rain had been coming in for years, ruining the precious frescoes inside. The holes were immediately covered. The large "Cortile dei Giganti", the courtyard of honor, had problems of securing and today it has been completely restored, also bringing to light traces of the external frescoes. The large historic garden "Giardino delle Delizie" has been entirely recovered, and today the flowers have returned and the old paths have been reopened. And then, in many parts of the castle many other works have started and continue to this day.
CnP: Have you completed the restoration process?
CF: Unfortunately, no. The castle has suffered for more than forty years of abandonment and the amount of work that its huge dimensions require is enormous. Much has already been done, but it will take many years to intervene in every part of the castle. For the time being, we have focused on the most ancient, noble and precious part, but our ambition is, over time, to continue to restore more and more parts to their earlier splendor.
CnP: Did you pay for restoration on your own or did the Italian authorities help you?
SC: The castle is a private property and as such, most of the work is financed by us. The Regional Institute for Venetian Villas has given us a contribution, but unfortunately, for a museum complex consisting of various buildings and more than 350 rooms, it turns out to be just a small drop, but… better than nothing.


CnP: The previous owners - the Dalla Francesca family - transformed certain parts of the castle for the purpose of tobacco drying. I personally think it was a strange decision to say the least – what would you say?
SC: The transformation of some historic parts of the castle into tobacco drying rooms took place in the early 1930s, in those days there was less awareness and less respect for the historical value of buildings such as Catajo Castle. The decision to transform certain areas of the castle into a farm for tobacco cultivation was probably made out of necessity, during the great economic crisis of 1929. However, these areas suffered a premature wear due to improper use.
CnP: I know that the palace has a gem – the frescoed historical battle scenes painted in 1571–1572 by Giambattista Zelotti, a pupil of Paolo Veronese – how did the times of neglect affect the frescoes?
SC: Fortunately, the time of neglect did not affect the frescoes. Zelotti's masterpiece is situated on the Piano Nobile, the Noble Floor on the Castelvecchio, which is the best-preserved area of the castle and has always remained in good conditions and excellent state of conservation.
CnP: Please tell me about the interiors – what is the most valuable thing you have?
SC: The most valuable thing in the interiors is not an object: it's the cycle of frescoes on the Noble Floor, which can be seen during the museum openings. We also have other treasures, some of them occasionally open to visitors, such as the private chapel built in neo-gothic style for the visit of the emperors of Austria in 1838: a real gem entirely made of colored wood. Many parts of the castle, still not restored, preserve other precious spaces, such as the sleeping quarters with the private family rooms on second floor of the Castelvecchio, with very refined nineteenth-century painted decorations, and the ancient guest quarters decorated with another splendid cycle of Renaissance frescoes, unfortunately very damaged because of the abandonment in the previous decades. These areas are in need of future restoration.
CnP: By the way – did you find anything interesting during the restoration works? What was it?
SC: During the restoration and securing of the large courtyard of honor, the "Cortile Dei Giganti", we discovered that in the 17th century it was entirely decorated with frescoes; then in the 19th century it was all covered with a new layer of plaster which has been removed in 2018, bringing to light what remained of the ancient frescoes: 1233 m2 of pictorial surface, the largest found in Veneto in the recent decades.
CnP: Do you have a castle museum with such exhibits? Or maybe you still use some mechanisms which survived the last 500+ years?
SC: Unfortunately, the castle has been emptied of all its furniture and art collections by the various owners who have inherited Catajo in the last two centuries, therefore today there are very few objects to exhibit. However, during the museum openings the visitor can enjoy Catajo's unique and bizarre architecture, a breathtaking views of the surrounding Euganean Hills from the two enormous panoramic terraces, an itinerary along the noble halls that host Zelotti's masterpiece of Renaissance fresco painting, take a stroll on the 19th century roof-top garden and relax under the shadow of secular trees in the "Garden of Delights" (Giardino delle delizie)… in short, the atmosphere of a magical place.
CnP: The castello has close links with Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was killed in Sarajevo and whose assassination prompted WWI. Could you tell me about this connection between the castle and the archduke?
SC: Franz Ferdinand of Austria inherited the castle from his second-degree uncle, Francesco II of Habsburg-Este, who was the exiled Archduke of Modena. The latter, being childless, wanted to assure the survival of the surname "Este" and of his great heritage by tying it to the Austrian royal house, hoping for a future succession to the throne of Modena.
SC: Franz Ferdinand accepted this great legacy and the new surname, even though he was not interested in the fate of Modena at all, and did not have any affection for Catajo. In fact, he exploited the castle's properties as if Catajo were a "gold mine". He took away large quantities of works of art, weapons, antiquities collections and furniture, that he used to embellish his favorite dwelling, Konopiste Castle, situated just outside Prague. Every so often, he came to Catajo for deer hunting trips. He left Catajo for good in June 1914, stopping briefly in Vienna and then heading to Sarajevo, where he was going to be assassinated a few days later, thus changing Europe's and the world's history and fate.
CnP: Do you live in the castle?
SC: The castle is a museum open to the public and we live in a house more suited to the needs of contemporary life. However, Catajo has become the location of our most special moments, my wedding, my son's baptism etc.

CnP: Did you ever stayed there overnight?
SC: I haven't slept in it yet, perhaps I am afraid of ghosts?

CnP: So, who are your ghosts?
SC: We have more than one for sure. The best known is that of Lucrezia Obizzi, a noblewoman murdered in 1654. The castle still retains the so-called "pietra insanguinata" (blood-stained stone) that shows traces of her blood to this day. Her son was the first to claim to have seen Lucrezia's ghost at Catajo back in the 17th century, and I am convinced she is still there and that she protects us and the castle.
CnP: Okay, a good ghost! You offer tours around the castle – can all areas be visited? What do you show to your guests?
SC: The visitable areas include the large external areas of honor, such as the large "Cortile dei Giganti" (Giants' Courtyard), the 16th and 19th century panoramic terraces, the rooftop garden "Giardino della Duchessa" (The Duchess' Garden) and the large "Giardino delle Delizie" (Delice's Garden). As for the interiors, at the moment we have opened some rooms of the "Casa di Beatrice" (Beatrice's House) which is the oldest nucleus of the castle, composed of small rooms without ambitions of representation, then it is possible to visit the entire Piano Nobile (Noble Floor) with its halls frescoed in the late '500s by Giovanni Battista Zelotti.
SC: These halls have a highly representative purpose and are a true Renaissance masterpiece. One Sunday per month, upon reservation, we also open the "Chiesetta degli Imperatori" (the Emperors' Chapel). The Chapel is a small structure, very fragile, which is why it is not included in the regular visit itinerary. We are working to open the second floor of the "Castelvecchio" (the Old Castle), where the private apartments of the Obizzi family first, and of the Este family later, were located. These rooms are decorated with 19th century frescoes and are in need of some interventions.
CnP: What kind of events do you offer?
SC: Catajo Castle offers a wide choice of events open to the public and is also available for rent for private events. For the public, the most important events take place in the summer. From July to September, we usually organize an entire calendar of evening events, visits in historical costumes, walks with astronomers to discover the wonders of stars and planets, food and wine tastings, aperitifs at sunset, treasure hunts, events for children and much more.

SC: In springtime we organize a calendar of thematic guided tours with insights on some chapters of the vast history of the castle, visits dedicated to the female figures who lived in the castle, or to the historical roses in the garden or even picnics for lovers of the 18th century culture, who participate wearing valuable reproductions of 18th century clothes. There are also host many private events, we rent the spaces of the castle for gala dinners, corporate events, wedding receptions, etc.
CnP: You offer the castello as a wedding venue – can the newlyweds spend a night in the castle to get the most out of their day?
SC: Currently the castle does not have any bedroom. We have agreements with hotels situated nearby, with time perhaps we will also create some rooms for the newlyweds.
CnP: The name of the castle does not sound 100% Italian (I personally read it in a Spanish way - «ka-ta-kho") – what's the story behind it?

SC: The name of the castle is said to be a reference to the legendary "Catai", a Chinese region visited by the Venetian merchant Marco Polo in the 13th century. In his well-known travel book "Il Milione" he described the palace of Catai, that is the palace of the Chinese emperor, as the most beautiful in the world. As the legend goes, Catajo Castle would therefore be a copy of the Chinese imperial palace, thus assuming a very similar name. This thesis was strengthened by the will of the Obizzi family who wanted to give even more charm and prestige to their representative dwelling, by associating their castle with the Far-East. Actually, the name is of Venetian origin and is generated by the union of two words: Cà (Venetian abbreviation of the word "house") and Tajo (Venetian term that indicates an artificial canal, dug by man). The name "Catajo" therefore means, prosaically, "the house on the canal".
CnP: Which legend about the castle do you like most of all?
SC: A curious legend tells a story of Gabrina, a maid who lived in the castle in the 17th century. She loved to entertain the guests of the castle with her overwhelming joy and her jokes. Despite being old, ugly and lame, she was also famous for her amatory arts that many guests could appreciate during their stay. She was such a magnetic character that the owners wanted Gabrina's portrait carved into the rock, designed as a water game that can still sprinkle water on visitors today, perpetuating the jokes she made during her lifetime.
CnP: I talked to many castle owners and some say COVID was and still is a curse for them. Although others told me they have always been exclusive and this exclusiveness helped them to avoid losses. How did you fare through 2020 and the pandemic?

SC: Catajo Castle is, first of all, a museum, and most of our income comes from visitors and tourists. Clearly, during the lockdown, we had to close, which resulted in great economic losses. Even the activities related to weddings and receptions have suffered a lot, but now we see that things are quickly returning to normality and this gives us a lot of confidence and enthusiasm.
CnP: Is it costly to maintain your castle?
SC: The castle has 350 rooms, about 20,000 m2 of internal surface and 50 hectares of external surface. It is among the largest private houses in Europe, you can imagine how expensive it is to maintain it and at the same time try to recover from the previous forty years of abandonment.
CnP: You don't regret you bought the castello, you don't want to sell it and return to a "normal life", do you?
SC: I don't regret buying it at all, and wouldn't sell it.
CnP: What would you tell those dreamers who wish to buy a castle to restore?
SC: I would not give any piece of advice, it is an emotion that comes naturally, either it is there, or it is not ...

CnP: Is it that romantic to own a castle?
SC: What is important is to love it, which is already much more than romantic.

CnP: If not Castello del Catajo – which other castle would you be happy to buy?
SC: I can only wish for Catajo!
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