A new year, new opportunities. 17 years ago, Charlotte Horton left the UK for Italy, where she’s devoted her time to restoring Potentino castle. We meet to discuss the ecological attitude to life, local traditions, democracy and micro-politics.
Visiting great castles in Italy isn’t exactly an everyday affair for Modern Times. So why travel all the way to Tuscany, with a cameraman in tow, to interview the woman who’s restored the Castella di Potentino?
We’re seated in the private wing of the castle, where at least five metres separates the ceiling above us from the enormous stone floor under our feet. Our conversation is accompanied by the snoring of a giant dog lying on the neighbouring couch. I try to get an understanding of what prompted Charlotte Horton to take on the restoration of what, 17 years ago, was a complete ruin, rather than continuing her modern life in London. She had worked at Vogue Magazine and at Warburg Publishing House; she was, in other words, a well-established figure on London’s cultural scene.
By way of an answer, Horton cites her background as a roaming journalist. She bought the 3000-years old ruins of the castle by persuading the 20 families who collectively made up the heirs. “Nobody really knew what I was up to, especially because I was a woman, and so they couldn’t stop me.”
Horton wanted to create a winery. “I was already making wines that were winning awards. There are many creative, dynamic women involved in winemaking, but only up to a certain level; over this you’ll find the men controlling the market. But surely the wine that was drunk by the wine god Bacchus was made by a woman? Many seem to think that the concept of being a strong woman is a modern one. And unfortunately, too many women are still worrying too much about getting married. It’s something that both Meryl Streep and I’ve had enough of.”
With the help of countless volunteers, Horton has now rebuilt Potentino castle; its hundred-year old rows of vines and ancient olive trees are similarly well looked after. Documents trace the castle’s history back to 1042, but the evidence points to the existence of Etruscan settlements here in pre-Roman times. The castle has at various times been in the possession of aristocratic families like the Tolomei, Bonsignori and Salimbeni; it subsequently housed a charitable foundation in the 16th century before it was finally bought by a German in 1906. Wandering through the grounds one is inevitably filled with awe at the sight nature’s endless bounty. As the castle’s owner puts it: “Man has always managed to make a living, and winemaking has been practiced in Mediterranean cultures for a very long time. In this area they’ve been producing olive oil for the past 4000-5000 years.”
Horton grew up surrounded by liberal-minded people in London, and subsequently travelled the world in order to learn about cultural differences. Her cultivated, free-spirited family background has left her critical of today’s entertainment-obsessed media reality; she fondly recalls a time when “people would still ask: ‘What are you thinking? Let’s have a discussion about it.’” In a similar vein, she laments the present-day erosion of democracy: “Democracy requires that you educate people, otherwise they can’t vote or make independent decisions. The current trend in lots of countries, however, is to cut back on education and health care, which leaves people sick and ignorant. They’re manipulated into casting their votes in what’s effectively a simulated democracy. As a result of today’s irrational, sycophantic mass media, we barely have real political debates anymore.”