RYDER CUP '23: A look inside the walls of the 11th-century Marco Simone castle

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Fashion designer and owner of the Marco Simone Golf Club Lavinia Biagiotti Cigna poses for a photo during an interview with the Associated Press, in her castle next to the course that will host the 44th edition of the Ryder Cup, in Guidonia Montecelio, Italy, Tuesday, July 11, 2023. Biagiotti Cignas parents bought the 11th-century castle in 1978 and then decided to build the surrounding golf course. The castle contains about 50 rooms, many of which feature Renaissance-era frescoes. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

GUIDONIA MONTECELIO – First came the castle. Then the golf course.

The nearly 300,000 fans descending on the Marco Simone club for the Ryder Cup this week will be able to see the 11th-century castle with the same name from various points of the course — it’s wedged between the sixth and eighth holes and has a big Italian flag waving from its tower — but they won’t be able to visit it.

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That’s because it’s the private residence of fashion designer Lavinia Biagiotti Cigna, who owns and runs the golf club.

Biagiotti Cigna’s parents bought the castle in 1978 — the year she was born — and then decided to build the surrounding golf course.

While the golf course recently underwent an 11 million euro ($12 million) complete restyling in order to host the sport’s biggest team event, keeping up a 1,000-year-old castle is a job that never ends.

“I don’t really feel like I own this place. I really feel I’m taking care of this place,” Biagiotti Cigna said in a recent interview with The Associated Press inside the castle walls. “That’s the attitude I have. So I really have to make a lot of maintenance because there are layers and layers of history.”

The castle, which is accessed by passing through a series of three different security gates, contains about 50 rooms, many of which feature Renaissance-era frescoes. It was named Marco Simone for the son of a 15th-century owner, Simone dei Tebaldi, who oversaw a massive restoration after centuries of invasions.

Astronomer Galileo Galilei once lived in the castle, and there are remains of prehistoric fossils that date back 300,000 years in the dungeon.

A second-floor office is the room that holds the most sentimental value to Biagiotti Cigna.

“This was my mom’s original studio where she created most of her collections,” Biagiotti Cigna said as she sat in front of a portrait of her late mother. “She was making sketches sitting right here where I am right now. I used to do my homework in that corner right there. This is really the place where everything began.”

Biagiotti Cigna’s grandmother, Delia, started the fashion house in the 1960s as a dressmaker.

“Unfortunately, she lost her father when she was only 14, and that was 1928. So she started to work to support the family,” Biagiotti Cigna said. “She was one of the very first women to become a manager in 1950s Rome.”

In 1964, Delia Soldaini Biagiotti became famous when she designed the uniforms for Alitalia’s cabin crew.

Laura Biagiotti, Delia’s daughter and Lavinia’s mother, was studying archeology in college when the family business started expanding. So she shifted her focus to fashion and eventually developed Laura Biagiotti into an international brand.

“She was the first Italian designer ever to hold a fashion show in China, in 1988 — that was really early,” Biagiotti Cigna said of her mother. “And I’m the third generation. It’s great to carry on this legacy. It’s an Italian story with three leading women.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Biagiotti Cigna hired a female superintendent — a rarity in the golf world — to oversee her course. Lara Arias, a 33-year-old Spaniard, is breaking a gender barrier for the sport’s biggest team event.

“There was so much energy here in the Renaissance and I really feel that the Ryder Cup is a new renaissance for Marco Simone,” Biagiotti Cigna said.

Not everything has gone smoothly, though.

Laura Biagiotti died in 2017, thrusting Biagiotti Cigna not only into a leadership role at the fashion house but also for the Ryder Cup — just as the family was dealing with getting the necessary work permits to finish the course redesign — no small task considering Italy’s often befuddling bureaucracy.

Then came the pandemic, which pushed the Ryder Cup back from 2022 to 2023, and a change in the captaincy with Henrik Stenson replaced by Luke Donald after Stenson joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour.

“It was not a smooth journey,” Biagiotti Cigna said. “It took a lot of effort to get through all of this. … And now we’re almost there.”

All the while, Biagiotti Cigna has also been running her fashion house, which is still named Laura Biagiotti for her mother. The fashion house is located in a building next to the castle grounds.

“We do women’s fashion accessories, home collections, kids collections and fragrances,” she said. “I work with about 50 people there.”

One other building that Biagiotti Cigna has been working on lately is a first-century Roman villa adjacent to the 10th hole that was discovered during the original course's construction.

“It has some beautiful mosaics in what was like a private spa,” Biagiotti Cigna said. “It took us about four years to dig it up and restore it. …It tells a lot about the story of people who lived here literally 2,000 years ago.”

The Roman villa, as well as the fashion house, will be closed to the public during the Ryder Cup.

“We cannot handle having so many visitors — 300,000 people is a little too complicated to handle,” Biagiotti Cigna said. “But right after the Ryder Cup, visitors who come and play Marco Simone, by booking in advance, will be able to visit the fashion house as well.

“There are so many cultural reasons to play Marco Simone,” she added. “(After) the Ryder Cup there will be an opportunity to embrace a new experience of golf, culture, fashion, food and archeology.”

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf