Astrid Schiller Wirth knows a thing or two about style. She worked as a fashion model in the 1960s, her beauty gracing the pages of some of the era’s biggest magazines. An eye for design, she spent many subsequent years reworking the interiors at the famous Hotel Hassler Roma. Now, she lends her sense of beauty to guests whom she welcomes to her sprawling and historical villa, Il Parco del Principe (The Prince’s Park).
The villa’s principal building, a late-19th-century three-story Gothic brownstone, is nestled in a verdant paradise in the southern part of Italy’s Tuscany region. “The most beautiful things the world has to offer are concentrated in this little part [of Italy],” says Schiller Wirth, praising Tuscany for the rich grass on which its cows feed, the famous wineries she counts as neighbours and the world-renowned art and architecture of both the immediate region and nearby Florence and Rome.
Schiller Wirth’s eye for beauty and how to present it was nurtured during a childhood in Germany. After the war, her mother opened up a modeling agency and a very young Astrid would observe the newly learned techniques from the girls who came to the agency. She began to enter fashion shows, which quickly turned into magazine shoots, then invitations to Milan and Paris, and offers from America.
Photographers and agencies found in her look a mix of Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor as she modeled haute couture. She graced the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, with some of those shoots photographed by William Klein, who famously brought more of a street sense to fashion photography in the ‘60s.
In her modeling days, travel was hectic and showing up 15 minutes late could damage a model’s career. So when the 20 year-old Astrid was told by a Milan taxi driver that the train she was expecting to get her to Paris that evening for a shoot was not running, she panicked. The driver had a suggestion: he was about to pick up a gentleman planning to fly his own plane into Paris. Shortly thereafter, she found herself on the tarmac, where a stranger on a plane was yelling for her to come quickly. She can’t believe how crazy she was. “He could have taken me anywhere!” But she ended up in Paris, on time, at her shoot, and never saw the stranger again.
The many trans-Atlantic flights and constant demands required by the fashion world gave her an appreciation for moments of respite, such as listening to music during a flight or a room-service meal in a nice hotel. Now, for her and her guests, Il Parco del Principe offers this same sense of peace, the space to take time away from the pressures of everyday life.
Though she worked often in the USA, Schiller Wirth’s strong European roots kept her from settling in America, and a second marriage to hotelier Roberto Wirth, whose family founded the Hassler hotel in Rome generations earlier, kept her in touch with the hospitality trade. Roberto originally let her redesign a room, she says, to stop her from criticizing previous jobs. Soon after, the hotel began getting positive reactions from those new rooms, so she became responsible for all the redesigns at the Hassler.
In 2001 she had the idea that some guests might like to escape Rome to take time in the countryside. She asked around and finally found the right place – Il Parco del Principe. It was a little wanting but from the moment she stepped inside she felt as if she was walking into a dream. Despite the building being dark as a church and the grounds terribly neglected, she was mesmerized. “I felt like I was Alice in Wonderland. That this wasn’t true,” she recalls.
Schiller Wirth oversaw 12 long years of renovation, worked with landscapers and brought in furniture she had in storage to bring her vision for the house to life. Her eye for design in the finished product is apparent, from the imposing tree-lined walk and ornate wrought iron gates, to the romantic table arrangement on the private terrace off the master bedroom. In the library, she references the rustic heritage of the region with intricate chairs made from deer antlers, while the grand splendour of the dining room invites you to linger after dinner, the warm tones and ornate ceiling illuminated with soft light.
Outside, a few steps away from the pool and al fresco dining area marked with fragrant cypress, bay and lemon trees, is a fully made up outdoor bed under a thatched roof, surrounded by gauzy curtains. It’s for afternoon naps, says Schiller Wirth, though one of her guests actually chose to sleep there overnight. She says all her guests tell her they sleep well.
Through the long years crafting her dream house, Astrid never doubted that she would succeed. She offers a bit of wisdom that speaks to us all, from the young girl looking for her start as a model to the senior interior stylist embarking on a huge project like this: “The difference between a dream and a reality is your courage.”
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