«Princess Margaret was our guest at least ten days every year, from 1987 to 2001, the year before she passed away. She was a very polite woman and the epitome of the true sense of regal. I appreciated the sub-plots in Netflix’s series “The Crown” that brought this side of her personality to light, but I never saw any of the excessive behavior that is meant to have been one of her traits and are used to plug the storylines of TV serials after being thrashed out for so many years by the tabloids. Many said she was unhappy, but she didn’t seem so to me. She appeared serene, direct, simple in her sophistication, educated and with a great sense of humor. She was very close to my mother». Rita Zanardi Landi is the descendant of an ancient, aristocratic family and along with her brother Orazio is the owner of Rivalta Castle, not far from Piacenza. Her words are full of enthusiasm, and offer us a picture of Princess Margaret that is somewhat different to the usual clichés. The name of Rivalta conjures up a picture of enchantment and magic, as does the castle itself, soaring up over the River Trebbia amidst the lush vegetation of the medieval hamlet, where the plains start to crumple and become gently rolling hills. On top of the tower flies the blue and gold standard of the Zanardi Landi, lords of the land here since the 14th century. A photo by photographer and journalist Milton Gendel, a native New Yorker but resident of Rome since 1949 and married to second wife Judy Montagu, a friend and lady-in-waiting to the Princess, shows Rita in evening dress, dropping to the customary curtsey in front of the Royal Guest. A glimmer of ancien régime resplendent with meaning and timeless grace.
«Margaret adored staying here – adds Rita Zanardi Landi – she used to sleep in the large 17th century four poster bed in the Green Room on the first floor, where my mother had had a small bathroom crammed into a space carved out of the thick walls especially for her. The Princess often invited her to Windsor, Buckingham Palace and the British Royal Family’s other homes. Italian friends sometimes made an appearance during her stay including Mario D’Urso, whom she had known for years. Princess Margaret was a favorite guest at the castle. Excursions were organized to the art cities nearby, from Parma to Cremona – she was fascinated to see how violins were made and by the Campi, a dynasty of painters working in the Flemish style – from Bologna to the myriad splendors of the Genoa of Rubens and van Dyck, from Modena to Mantua and the legacy of the House of Gonzaga. And there were regular forays into Tuscany, Lazio, Umbria and the Marches, where I clearly recall she wanted to visit Palazzo Leopardi at Recanati, as well as Urbino, a walled city with a humanistic heritage that she confessed was very dear to her. She was well versed in Italian art and culture; she understood it. She was often accompanied by art historians and experts during these visits but she always made time to stop off at cultural institutions, especially those founded by British people or linked to the history of Britain. And so, day by day, we learned more about famous or unacknowledged works of art, and aristocratic families opened up their homes and showed off their collections. They competed against one another to organize luncheons and afternoon teas in her honor, a combination of formality and cordiality that refused to follow etiquette. She had a proud gait yet she was good natured, with the complexion of an English rose and sparkling inquisitive eyes. She was witty. It might have been that she came to stay with us because she enjoyed hearing the stories about the ghosts that live in the castle, which never bothered her at all. We have also had the honor of playing host to Carlos Hugo, Duke of Parma and Piacenza, the Carlist pretender to the throne of Spain who passed away in 2010, and his wife, Princess Irene of the Netherlands, the sister of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Willem-Alexander, the ruling King of the Netherlands, has also been to Rivalta several times with his wife Máxima, as has Dom Duarte Pio, Duke of Braganza, claimant to the Portuguese throne, to attend the wedding of my daughter, Elena Ravano, with Francisco de Sousa Coutinho de Calheiros, on October 3rd 2015».
Stories of yesterday that continue into the present. The chronicles of generations of Zanardi Landis are locked in the family archives at Sarmato, the family’s other castle and home to Orazio and Rita’s two elder brothers. Traditions resurface that have been kept alive with stubborn devotion, almost like a snapshot of an aristocratic elite that is all but lost. Rita can quote thousands of similar anecdotes. Almost like a river that started flowing with the daredevil games she played as a child in her castle playground that held the promise of boundless freedom and unlimited fantasies. It still exerts the same allure today, with its various levels dominated by the spindly crenelated tower built in the 15th century by architect Pietro Antonio Solari from Milan, who is also known for having worked on the Kremlin in Moscow. From a distance, the tower looks like a missile pointing up to the sky. You enter the castle itself through a late 18th century gate with a carved scroll bearing the motto ‘Svevo sanguine laeta’, referring to the bond formed by marriage with the Royal House of Swabia in 1200. Once inside the castle, you enter an inner Renaissance courtyard like that of an urban manor house, dominated by the offset columns of the portico and the upper loggia. «Manfredo Landi had the courtyard built. He was the one who had Solari come to Rivalta to update the medieval fortress and make it more comfortable, sometime in the mid 15th century – says Rita’s brother, Orazio Zanardi Landi, president of Piacenza Turismo and of the Cavalieri degli Ordini Dinastici della Ducale e Reale Casa di Borbone Parma, as well as of the Castelli del Ducato association – and the rooms are all arranged around it. It was embellished with the decorative cornice and terracotta medallions with portraits of our ancestors and the coats of arm of related families. Giuseppe Landi had other renovations done in 1780, including the ornamental details and the neoclassical style fresco, and the staircase. He also had the grounds enlarged and the gardens designed».
In the 3rd century BC, Hannibal’s army defeated the Romans here in the Trebbia valley, during the Second Punic War. It is believed there was already a lookout tower at the time, but it might have been a more complex stronghold built for strategic purposes and control. Orazio Zanardi Landi continues «My parents, Filippo and Franca, decided to start reinstating and refurbishing the entire set of castle buildings in the 1960s, and it is still our home today, even if we opened it up to the public in the 1990s. The house and village have been restored, and now there is also a hotel and restaurant and the Locanda del Falco in the coach house. According to my mother’s wishes, we set up a family trust in 2000 that now owns the house and the collection of art inside. Its purpose is to preserve and maintain the castle and the surrounding buildings, to study the centuries of history of Rivalta and of our presence in the area, by providing scholarships. Rivalta belongs to a community; it has deep roots that have bound it to an entire area since time immemorial. At the age of ninety-plus, my mother, whose boundless energy is the envy of many, including myself, prefers to stay in our palazzo in Piacenza when the weather turns cold but she still likes to spend the summer here. Rita and I, on the other hand, live at Rivalta all year round. It is our choice but it also allows us to take care of our legacy full-time. I confess, we have never regretted it».