All over Italy, there are thousands of picturesque, perfect towns, with Medieval stone walls and Etruscan caves banked into hilltops from which the 360-degree vistas are interrupted only by the appearance of the next picturesque, perfect town. And all over Italy, these towns are dying. According to a 2016 census, there are nearly 2,500 rural Italian villages that have become depopulated and abandoned—due to some combination of urbanization, poverty, and the young leaving and never returning—to the point of becoming effectively ghost towns. Two centuries-plus of architecture and craft and tradition, gone.
Not Solomeo. This week, nearly 500 journalists from all over the world arrived to the hamlet on a hill between Florence and Rome to see what Brunello Cucinelli, the Umbria native and designer-cum-enlightened philosopher-king, has been working towards for the past 25 years. That’s 500 journalists traveling to a town whose last census, in 2001, counted only 436 residents. Such is the exponentially outsize impact of Cucinelli, whose cashmere empire has made him a billionaire, on the village a half hour from where he was born in Castel Rigone in 1953. (Cucinelli celebrated his 65th birthday and his company’s 40th this week.) He has invested untold millions—evidently, it would be inelegant for Cucinelli, a CEO who spouts Plato and Kant extemporaneously and confers with Jeff Bezos, to say exactly how much, only that it is “a lot”—into restoring and beautifying the village and its outskirts. He started with Solomeo’s ruined castle in 1982, which he bought and turned into the company’s headquarters, before moving his operations into several old mills on the landscape that spreads out below Solomeo in 2000.
There, on the outskirts of the town, Cucinelli has restored the plants into state-of-the-art facilities for his company. There’s a definite gravity to Cucinelli’s influence: the farther away you get from his meticulous second-floor office, where he can look up to see rows and rows of exactingly ordered and purposefully spaced open-plan desks of employees all facing him, and out into the factory, the more apt you are to notice the smallest sense of disorder creeping in. And although Cucinelli, who subscribes to the practice of “humanistic capitalism,” which reinvests profits into the community, has made a point to beautify not only Solomeo but its once-grim industrial surroundings, he is only one man, and his is a perpetual project. He has already refurbished the town’s 14th-century castle (which is now a school to preserve the traditions and crafts of the village) and the Church of St. Bartholomew, and built a nearby winery and a theater that recently hosted a production by John Malkovich, as well as a grand monument “to human dignity” made out travertine marble. With five arches that symbolize America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceana across a marble base nearly 80 feet across, it’s designed to stand for millennia. And, as he told the journalists assembled in the beautifully revitalized Piazza della Pace (Square of Peace) in the hamlet, his Solomeo project is unending, meant to be carried on for millennia more.
Here, a tour of Solomeo as it is now—in Brunello Cucinelli’s own words.