Giulio & Donatella
The Hidden Countship is the fruit of the passion and vision of Donatella and Giulio della Porta, Italian lovers and patrons of art and beauty, who aspired to showcase in the United States little-known artisans whose work embodies the very essence of Italian craftsmanship. The company was established on the 2010 by Giulio and his wife Donatella. The Hidden Countship brings to Charleston and to the United States the work of skilled Italian men and women who, against the prevailing tide, without agents or fame, continue to carry into the 21st century age-old artisanal traditions that would otherwise be lost. They work out of love and pride, and we represent them out of love and pride.
extend story as told by Sybil Fix
The Hidden Countship came into existence through an adventurous and romantic story that begins in Gubbio, a medieval hill town in Umbria, in the year 2000, when Donatella Cappelletti and Giulio della Porta met.(I write this story on their behalf, as narrated by them.)
The occasion was the publication of a short history, commissioned by Giulio, about the della Porta family, based on archives that had for centuries sat untouched in city hall. Newspapers were invited to interview Giulio about the book and his illustrious family whose name had been known throughout the region for centuries.
By then Giovanni Maria had married into a prominent family and had a son, Giulio. Giulio inherited generously of properties from his mother’s side of the family, and during the course of the 1500s the della Porta took control of several important properties in the ducato of Urbino where Giulio, and subsequently his children, exercised their power and asserted the rule of their family. During that time della Rovere’s son, Duke Guidubaldo, granted Giulio use of the della Rovere coat of arms, an oak tree (rovere), featured beside the della Porta coat of arms, an open red door with three steps (porta). This resulting coat of arms, distinguished and colorful, descends through the centuries, testament to the closeness of the families and their shared history. Giulio goes on to become a nobleman and a counselor, and during the following century the della Porta family adds to their possession the territory of Le Carpini, in Umbria, the greatest of their feuds, counting one fortress and dozens of houses.
Over the following centuries, generations of the della Porta succeed each other, with the distinction of the occasional cardinal, surviving the historical vicissitudes of life in Umbria, down to the day Giulio meets Donatella.
Donatella was a busy editor at the Corriere dell’Umbria, a newspaper in Perugia, when news of publication of the della Porta family history came across her desk. Twice Donatella assigned a staff writer to go to Gubbio to cover the story and interview Giulio, but twice the writer fell sick. Unhappily, Donatella headed out to cover the story herself. “I did not want to go! I thought he would be this old boring pompous aristocrat,” she says laughing.Giulio was not old, or boring. He was a tall, handsome man with deep blue eyes, a trove of stories, and a mad sense of adventure. “We loved each other immediately,”—in modo folle, says Giulio—like a folly.
Giulio, recently back from years of travel and work in South America, had taken an interest in his family’s archives and, out of reverence for his family’s past, had commissioned the family history. “Every now and then through the centuries, someone had kept up with the history. This was my way of contributing to the story, of doing my part,” he says.
But illustrious history aside, Giulio was faced with the financial disarray of an old extended family in ruin, with little left but the large ancestral country property, Le Carpini. Le Carpini had been known through time as the contea nascosta, or hidden countship—secluded, hidden in the hills of Umbria. It was the property that Giulio had grown up on in more glorious times, when his parents and grandparents lived there, when the farmhouses were inhabited by farmers and workers who tilled the land, when the summers were long and the fields were resplendent with color. Those fields now lay fallow, and the ancient farmhouses, a dozen or so poderi, sat abandoned and in near total disrepair. There were debts and family disagreements.
Aided by the mounting quest by foreigners for property in Umbria, Giulio took the reins of his family’s land and began to make the tough decisions: he sold the first of the houses, then the second. After paying off the family debts, he restored another and sold it, and then another. With a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, by 2010 Giulio had brought his family’s last remaining historical property back to life: the farmhouses were once again inhabited—though most of them no longer in the family; the fields were back in production; and the pulse of life filled the hidden countship. And he and his family were solvent.
“The valley returned to life and my work was done,” says Giulio. “It was time for a new phase."
”We began to dream, says Donatella. They traveled far and wide around the world, including the southern United States—Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia. “An America one could not imagine,” says Donatella. “It was like a storybook.” The trip ended in Charleston, and they fell in love with its magic. They returned shortly thereafter with a list of properties to view, unsure where it would lead. They bought a building, and thereafter another.
As they settled, they were inspired by the idea of bringing to the States the remainder of the possessions that had been in Giulio’s family—paintings, prints, statues, the door of a church built by the della Porta family.
Obtaining permits to take out of Italy each of the objects, they brought them to the pink building on Burns Lane and founded the Hidden Countship’s museum. As the publication of the family history memorialized the illustrious narrative of the della Porta family, and the restoration of Le Carpini breathed life and purpose back to the family property, the museum would restore honor and dignity to the della Porta legacy.
“Out of Giulio’s love for his family, there was a desire to take care of these things that had been in the family for five hundred years and to give them a place of importance and a title of dignity,” says Donatella.
The concept of a store followed, coming slowly into focus. Giulio and Donatella began thinking of and looking for Italian products, unseen here and prized, that would be in good cultural and historical synergy with the museum. At the heart of both the museum and the store is the desire to celebrate and promote the arts, artists, and history.
“Italian goods are unmistakable. There is an immediate recognition about them,” explains Donatella. “We wanted to bring here things that are unmistakably Italian.”
For three months Giulio and Donatella traveled through little towns in Italy, mostly in Tuscany and Umbria, many not far from where they grew up, discovering the undiscovered—“all things that made us feel pride for the traditions of Italian artisanship.”
“We started with the jewelry, then the ceramics, then the caves of marble … then we remembered the linens … and then we started realizing how fantastic this could be and we started buying everything!” she says breathlessly. “One thing led to the other and we couldn’t stop ourselves! … This space where art and artisanship meet is a beautiful place to navigate—the blacksmith who makes chandeliers that are artisanship but are also art.”
They returned with two containers of goods, the products of two dozen or so artisans—none with agents in the United States, and many of whom would not be able alone to export their products—and in January 2011 they opened the store. Currently representing a stable of thirty or so artisans, Giulio and Donatella have a standing quest for new artisans whose work carries forth into the contemporary world the honor of tradition and the beauty of the unmistakably Italian.
“We look for people who produce things with the same philosophy of two or three hundred years ago, the handmade that comes on the heels of a tradition, of a body of knowledge. The true handmade; the true Italian,” said Donatella.