Throughout the Middles Ages, artists painted their pictures directly onto the stone walls of churches and castles. In European countries the practice was common.
“You find murals and paintings everywhere in Italy, so you don’t pay that much attention to it,” said Italian artist Fabio Sanzogni.
Here in Napa Valley, however, a castle with a great hall with floor-to-ceiling frescoes isn’t something you see every day.
Sanzogni was in town last week to touch up his frescoes in the great hall at Castello di Amorosa, and demonstrate the centuries-old art as part of the Arts in April program.
It took Sanzogni one and a half years to paint the two-stories-high frescoes. After three days, he said, he couldn’t feel his fingers, from the way he needed to stand and the tension on his back. “I needed a chiropractor,” he said. He also painted the woodwork on the ceiling.
Castello di Amorosa means “Castle of Love,” and it literally is a castle. Styled after 12th- and 13th-century Tuscan castles, it sits on more than 30 acres of estate vineyards with high walls, towers, a drawbridge and moat, a dungeon and torture chamber, secret passageways, a chapel, stables and a 12,000-square-foot barrel room.
The castle was the pet project of Dario Sattui, a fourth-generation winemaker and owner of V. Sattui Winery. After graduating from Berkeley in 1969, he spent two years traveling around Europe in a Volkswagen van and developed a fascination for medieval architecture. According to the castle’s website, in 1993 Sattui purchased a 171-acre vineyard in Calistoga and spent the next 14 years building the castle. The castle winery was made with brick, wood and iron imported from Europe and with over 8,000 tons of hand-carved, local, Napa Valley stone. It is 121,000 square feet and has 107 rooms, of which 95 are used for winemaking or wine storage.
“I knew he was building it, and building it, but I never thought it would be this big,” said Sanzogni.
Previously, Sanzogni had painted some frescoes in Sattui’s house. For the great hall in the castle, they pored over books of 13th- and 14th-century Italy to look for inspiration.
The scenes in the great hall depict famous Italian stories, including those by Dante — some with amusing poetic license from Sanzogni — and scenes from famous frescoes in Sienna, Italy. Sattui loves Sienna, Sanzogni said, and has a smaller version of one of the scenes in his house.
Sanzogni grew up in Italy and studied in “bottegas” or workshops building sets in the theater. His grandfather was an artist, and he found it was in his veins. Plus, he said, “I didn’t want to work or study, so I landed in the theater building sets.” He came to the U.S. in 1992 and lives in San Francisco.
Sanzogni also painted the several private apartments in the castle, along with medieval figures in alcoves and even on the rest room doors. He also painted the doors to the elevator — required for disabled access — to make them look like medieval wooden doors with iron hinges.
Sanzogni is also a sculptor and paints in the abstract, which he refers to as “fine art.” Composition is more difficult in the abstract, as opposed to drawing a horse that looks like a horse that you could just as easily take a picture of, he said.
“Art goes beyond everything including emotion and reasoning,” he said. “The artist has two faces: one, he has to create something out of nothing and have it mean something to people. And two, he has to be able to reproduce whatever you want and still give it meaning.”
Tours of the castle run daily. Visit CastelloDiAmorosa.com for more.