Massimo Bacigalupo, author of the 2017 book in Italian Angloliguria: From Byron to Hemingway, has written an article in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto about a “virtual trip” to three villas in Portofino during this time of lockdown. One of the spots he visits is Villa Altachiara which has connections to Evelyn Waugh. As described in the article (translation by Google with minor edits):
Above the square with its cafes and ice cream parlors, lace and fruit stalls, you can see the Villa Altachiara, the Italianization of Highclere, the British home of the Earls of Carnarvon known to all since it became the set of Downton Abbey. At Altachiara lived [Henry] Herbert, the fourth earl, his eccentric diplomatic son and his nephew Auberon whom many still remember as a hearty big drinker. But there was also the fifth earl, who in 1922 discovered and is said to be the victim of Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus, and later the writer Evelyn Waugh: proud and bourgeois, he converted to pre-reform Catholicism, to marry a Herbert (very ancient Catholic family) [sic], and who after the Second World War, looked suspiciously at the new English owners of Castello Brown (“middle class and Protestants!”).
In the Altachiara I remember, [there were] large halls with comfortable and simple English-style furniture, armchairs with old faded linings: a luxury camp. In the garden, you could look out over the sea as far as the eye could see and hear the perfect cadences of the young bennati [?]. It is said that during the Great War the Herberts had left an account open in the bakery for the Portofinesi; they were therefore in some way the lords of the country, they took charge of it. Characters of great smokers and drinkers, with carved and rustic faces, loved by the farmers with whom the harvest was celebrated and celebrated [sic] in September, going for the narrow bands covered with vines, enjoying here and there a glimpse of blue among the foliage. And the scent of the must, the light wine and the “musciame” (dolphin salami, I think). The contrast between the English guests and the Ligurian women who prepared those memorable lunches.
He goes on to describe Castello Brown as:
Originally a fortress-platform, it was transformed around 1900 by the architect De Andrade for Montagu Brown into a villa with a circular tower, the esplanade became an English garden, it was furnished with medieval-style stained furniture. Brown, residing in Genoa, rented it to more and less illustrious guests, including Emil Ludwig, biographer of Mussolini, and Elizabeth von Arnim, who from her stay in April 1922 drew inspiration for the novel The Enchanted April.
The other villa mentioned, Castello di San Giorgio, is:
…actually a building of “two bodies around a tower” (Caterina Olcese Spingardi, Great hotels and villas of the Belle Epoque, Sagep 2012 ). On the facade an English diplomat had [translated] some of the verses written by Catullus in large letters: “Or who is more blessed than one who returns to his home …”. From 1910 it belonged to Alfons von Mumm (1859-1924), baron, German diplomat (in China) and photographer, who apparently organized medieval dress parties with his English wife Jeanny.
His description of Evelyn Waugh’s connection is a bit brief and may suffer from translation by Google. Waugh did marry into the Herbert family (twice, in fact) but neither of them was from a “very ancient Catholic family.” His first wife Evelyn was not a Catholic. His second wife Laura (a half-cousin of the first wife), was Roman Catholic because the family of her mother (nee Mary Vesey) had converted. Prior to conversion, they were members of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy. The family of Laura’s father Aubrey Herbert were not Roman Catholics nor was he a convert. It was he who inherited Altachiara and its ownership passed to his wife Mary upon his untimely death in 1923.
Waugh met his second wife at Altachiara. He was returning home from a Mediterranean cruise during which he had met her sister who invited Waugh to visit. After their marriage, they continued to visit the Villa, and Waugh at least in part based Guy Crouchback’s pre-war Italian residence in Sword of Honour on Portofino. In a recent Town & Country magazine profile of Highclere Castle, TV and film setting of Downton Abbey and still a Herbert family residence, another Waugh connection is mentioned:
Lady Carnarvon explained that she and her husband hoped to bring back “a little of the glamour” that the estate was previously known for. “[Novelist] Evelyn Waugh would say in his letters to Nancy Mitford something was ‘very Highclere’ if it was very well done. That’s a nice way of setting the scene.”
There are references to Highclere used in this sense in Waugh’s 1930s letters to the Lygon sisters, Mary and Dorothy, and to Diana Cooper, but the collected letters to Nancy Mitford do not record such a reference on available databases.