Castello di Paderna

The Pettorelli family have transformed their 9th century castle into an organic farm.

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Pierluigi, Leopoldo and Cristina Pettorelli, the owners of Castello di Paderna
Artiom Ganin is talking with Leopoldo Pettorelli who together with his father Pierluigi and mother Cristina own Castello di Paderna not far from Piacenza. The castle is somewhat unique as it is among the few which have fully preserved the medieval moat filled with water. Leopoldo was born in this early medieval castle and sees it as his big home. We've talked about stereotypes people have about castle owners, how upsetting it is for Leopoldo to hear that 'if you have a castle you live a life without worries'. For his family running their castle, which was first mentioned in 817, is a hard work. The castle is also an organic farm while the estate is a true nature reserve. The owners managed to restore the natural balance, bring back some rare species and make the territory a heaven for their exceptional bees.


Castles_and_Palaces (CnP): A love story between the castello and your family started some 500 years ago? How did the castle become your property?
Leopoldo Pettorelli (LP): This is correct. We've been the owners of this castle for 5 centuries. Our ancestors took over the fortress from the monastery of San Savino in 1493. After military-political misadventures Count Melchiorre Marazzani came from a town called Marazzano on the hills of Rimini and put himself under the protection of the Duke of Milan. Some 80 years later Count Ludovico Marazzani married Claudia Visconti – if you have ever read Manzoni's historical novel Betrothed you would probably remember a character of a robber baron called the Unnamed one. It is believed the character was inspired by a real man – Francesco Bernardino Visconti. Claudia was his niece. This is how my ancestors became Counts Marazzani Visconti.
CnP: Not that unusual for those times I would say. It's clear that you stem form an old noble family. What's your background?
LP: Well, I'm Leopoldo Pettorelli, 27 years old. I've studied Management and Economics and hold a Master's degree in global business management. I graduated in 2019. Initially my plans were to pursue a corporate carrier and return to the castello in 5 -10 years to take care of it. Imagine – hardly have I started my internship with Bosch when Covid struck. The lockdown followed and I decided to devote myself to the castle. It was a complete change of operation. I used to help my parents occasionally because my key task was to study. Today I'm both a gardener and a guardian and a bricklayer and a lumberjack and a plumber and a house painter and an electrician and what not! Proper multitasking!
CnP: I hope you don't play all the roles at the same time though! What about your parents?
LP: It was my father Pierluigi who got Paderna. He was a young man when he decided to drop out of the university and focus on this old family castle and a farm. Paderna was in a very bad condition. My mother Cristina has always been the soul of the place and she's responsible for the recovery of the castle. To be honest, may parents spent the last 30 years restoring Castello di Paderna and they are really putting their heart into it every single day.
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CnP: How bad was the state of the castello when the works commenced?
LP: It was my grandmother Luisa who started the restoration. By the time the castle had been forgotten for a hundred years. So, she started it all and we still continue the process. Interestingly, there was probably a Roman camp on the site of the castello. A Roman artifact was found some 20 kilometers away from the castle and it had a name written on it - Fundus Paternus. There is also an ancient Roman road Via Francigena beside the castello, it actually runs along the border. It is 1,700 kilometers long stretching from Canterbury in England all the way down to the south through Rome.
CnP: How do you cope with the restoration of the castle?
LP: We have a lot of challenges and we have to win battles every day. The biggest challenge now is the stability of the building. Let me explain. Basically the castle stands on an island which is surrounded by the moat. The moat must be full of water, if there's no water in the moat its clay bed starts cracking and it affects the castles. The key thing is that the ground must stay wet. Historically the moat got the water from a natural spring located 4 kilometers from the castle. But in the last 15 years every summer the spring dries up. It's got even worse – occasionally it is dry in winters too. This winter it produced no water whatsoever, the weather is very dry and we haven't had a proper rain for weeks! Is this a clear sign of the climate change?
CnP: Your castle is among the few to fully preserve its moat and it looks so authentic! I understand that there's this problem with clay and cracks but how does water affect the brickwork?
LP: The moat is authentic and the problem is that the water level goes up and down; it damages the brickwork and affects the castle's stability. The best-case scenario is to have the same level of water all the time which is not the case now. So, now we're facing a problem in the northern side, the retaining wall exists no more because it collapsed a hundred years ago, and the northern side is slowly falling apart. We need to tackle this problem quite fast and we are now conducting research, an architect and a structural engineer are looking for the best solution. As soon as the solution is found we'll submit our proposals to the ministry of cultural heritage.
CnP: You need to get greenlight from the heritage preservation authorities when you want to fix something, don't you?
LP: Exactly! Every time we need to make an intervention we are obliged to get the permission from the ministry of the cultural heritage. The castle – or rather a fortified farm - is very old, but present-day looks date to the 1400s when it was expanded.
CnP: But it was built 600 years earlier, in the 9th century, wasn't it?
LP: True, you are quite right, the first document that mentions Castello di Paderna is a lease contract dated December 1, 817! And the oldest part of the castle is inside. It is a small square-shaped church inside the castle. Its building materials date back to the Roman times! The layout of the church is based on the winter solstice principle, the old altar faces East and on the solstice day the light comes from the window and illuminated the center of the church.
CnP: You should know all secret passages of the castle - which part you love most of all?
SBB: Ha-ha! They are so secret that we haven't found any so far! I love the castle as the single whole and of course I love the armory in one of the towers. The weapons are part of the collection started by our ancestors Marazzani at least some 130 years ago! We have a document that mentions 1891, but we're pretty sure that the collection had started long before that date.
CnP: Do you live in the castle all year round?
LP: Absolutely. All year round. In the same part in winter and in summer. We have a lot to do – like weddings, festivals, you know it is very convenient to be around all the time.

CnP: What do you do during the low season?
LP: In winter we carry on with the restoration, so we don't have a low season for us with less work.
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CnP: Isn't it cold in winter? How do you keep it warm?
LP: In winter it's colder than in a usual house because of high ceilings. It's really difficult to heat those rooms. But we used to live at lower temperatures so it's okay for us. Actually when I go to friends' houses I can't bear the heat! The castle's heating system is an old wood-fed boiler. We have a lot of wood that come from trees pruning; we have a park and the woods planted 30 years ago beside the castle.
CnP: Running a castle is a day-to-day work – these old structures require attention non-stop. How do you three cope with it?
LP: Well everybody has a role and we help each other running multiple tasks, in this way a family is a great strength. So, we're three plus two people that work for us, we're really happy to have them, they're very good people and very good workers. Running a castle is challenging and unique, sometimes it is very hard but everything is possible, after all the human kind has sent people into space!


CnP: In one of the interviews your mother Cristina said that "castles are great old men, which need constant care and many investments in conservative restoration. I get angry because very often there is prejudice and clichés towards those who own these places." How do you think it is possible to make a mental shift so that the people stopped thinking of castle owners as of some super rich guys who have plenty of money?
LP: This is the point, there is a cliché as you said that castle owners are super rich individuals with fancy houses wearing silk dressing gowns. This has nothing to do with reality. This is a mere cinematographic fantasy. Try running a huge old property, which needs fixing all the time. Running a castle is a real hard job but it also a real passion. And of course we feel much more as guardians. These old places need love, care, attention, they are like the elderly in need of care. They are not usual houses, they are fragile.
CnP: What do you feel when you think that your castle is some 1,200 years old!? It sends shivers down my spine to be honest!
LP: It's hard to say - because for me it's normal. This is my home but I have to admit that it's very strange to live in a 1,200-year-old building

CnP: Do you feel you are the coolest one in the neighborhood because you live in a castle?
LP: It is natural for me because I was born here. I don't feel the coolest in the neighborhood but I do understand that my house is slightly bigger than normal and that my problems are a bit bigger too!


CnP: The castle is now a huge organic farm. Why have you chosen this path and not a more usual way of hospitality business?
LP: We'll be offering accommodations in the future. As for the farm - this was not a business choice but an ethical choice. We believe that we should not only take from mother nature but also return to mother nature. We do not use pesticides, we practice crop rotation, we have installed a lot of bee hives.
LP: The beekeeper – who takes care of others' bees too - told us that our bees are the best in terms of health and that our queens are the oldest of all the hives he treats. In 2022 we'll increase the total number of bee families. Our bees are monitored by the regional institute within the ministry of agriculture. They are studying the environment through the health of bees. Moreover we also have a swarm of wild bees - it is really unusual for the Po Valley!
SBB: These are good signs! Mother nature should be grateful to you!
LP: I hope so! Some 30 years ago my parents planted the woods near the castle. They grew naturally, and the woods have now become a refuge for a lot of animals: like autochthonous red squirrels, unusual birds such as kingfishers or the golden orioles, etc
CnP: What about the castle moat? Do you breed fish there?
LP: Wait wait wait! I have a story for you. So, we have bats and they hunt mosquitos at night. We've also found a very unusual type of frogs called the Lataste frog or the Italian agile frog. Now imagine this – you have a wet place like a castle moat. It would be logical to surmise that this place should be full of mosquitos, right?
LP: WRONG! The moat is full of fish and frogs which feed on mosquitos and their larvae, we've armies of dragonflies that hunt mosquitoes every day. We have swallows, frogs, toads, bats or natural predators, and all of them hunt mosquitoes! Once you have this kind of balance you won't have any problems. This is a general rule for life.
CnP: I understand. This is so inspiring! By the way in one of the interviews Cristina also said that you "hoped that the disaster caused by the COVID pandemic will help a rebirth of living in the countryside?" How far do you think we have moved in this direction?
LP: The concept is quite different, we all noticed during this lockdown that the human activity often contrasts with nature. Come on, settle in the countryside, respect it and you'll learn that you are not the central element of the world but you are part of it. Living and respecting the environment helps to keep contact with reality, it teaches you to appreciate small but big things, for instance to watch a bee fly over a flower and make its tiny miracle every day.
CnP: Agreed. We should enjoy simple things! Speaking about the miracles - how have you managed to cope with the pandemic and the restrictions imposed?
LP: Oh, was it a miracle? Maybe! The pandemic has dealt us a huge blow. We have our farm and we organize weddings and other events. The pandemic with all the fears, prohibitions and restrictions was tough but we survived.
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CnP: Perhaps an old castle has its own special Guardian Angles! What do you think?
LP: There is a legend about the ghost of Castello di Paderna. Once upon a time a person was tortured to death here and we don't know why. This person belonged to the Confalonieri family. The legend says that when the castle is in danger this Confalonieri appears as a warning. So he should be a benevolent ghost. But to be honest I have never seen or heard this spirit.
CnP: Do you hold medieval reenactment festivals?
LP: No, we don't but for the last 25 years we have organized an annual fair of old varieties of plants and high-end artisanship. This event helps to safeguard the biodiversity that is slowly disappearing. Look we usually buy and eat 3-4 varieties of apples from the superstores, but there are thousands of types of apples which have been forgotten. The same is true for vegetables, fruit and flowers.
CnP: Do you keep in touch with other castle owners in Italy or in the rest of Europe to share experience?
LP: We are among the founding fathers of the association of castles called Castelli del Ducato, which brings together certain castles and their owners.
CnP: What would you tell those who would like buy an old castle and make it their home?
LP: Do it only if you have a strong passion and motivation otherwise the castle will smash you. It's not a game but a life's choice. You have to adapt to the castle not the other way round. You have to be ready for compromises, and sometimes be prepared to miss modern comforts. Buying a castle is simple, running it is hard!
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Leopoldo Pettorelli of Castello di Paderna near Italy's Piacenza!

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