In the hills of Umbria, the medieval hamlet of Solomeo stands, just as it always has, above the same vineyards and farmlands that have surrounded it for centuries. It’s postcard perfect for sure, but what makes Solomeo truly special isn’t just the beautiful stone buildings in classical Italian style. It’s what’s happening inside the buildings that sets this town apart.
From a distance, Solomeo looks like any old-style town in Europe, probably barely hanging on for survival through tourism. But, while other ancient towns drift into ruin or get absorbed into modernity, Solomeo has reinvented itself.
It began when fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli made the old castle his headquarters in 1985. He was known for brightly coloured cashmere at the time, and his company was growing. Anyone else would have set up shop in Milan or another city, but Brunello saw a different way of running his business, a way of working that could add more to the world than just the products coming out of his factory. He wanted to stay in the countryside, draw power from the roots of Umbria, and he found the perfect spot in his wife’s hometown of Solomeo.
“In Italy, back then, people preferred to be free from their ties to the land of origin and felt no regret for the loss of those values and traditions that are being rediscovered and sought after today,” Cucinelli says in his online biography.
With the castle reborn as the company’s new headquarters, Brunello Cucinelli’s clothes went straight from that little hamlet to the world’s most fashionable people.
Brunello Cucinelli’s Humanistic capitalism
Business grew, and the town grew with it. Not so much in size, since there are still fewer than 500 residents today. Instead, the growth has been internal and qualitative. Cucinelli has a deep understanding of balance and harmony, concepts that he makes central in his business and his lifelong project of redeveloping Solomeo. He calls this approach to business humanistic capitalism, and it has guided him to the rarified ranking of a beloved billionaire.
“Well, what I mean by humanistic capitalism is precisely this idea, this concept of fairness. A fair and sustainable profit, a profit harmonised with giving back, and here comes the first main theme: striking a balance between profit and giving back; donating to the world as guardians of creation, leaving to those coming after us not the very same world we found, but a more amiable one,” Cucinelli says.
Cucinelli hired the tradespeople he needed for his company from the local area, which conveniently happens to be the region where the finest clothes in Europe had been made for centuries. He supported the local businesses and invested in the town’s beauty.
“In Solomeo, beauty can be found in every place where we live and work. It can be found in the medieval castle, where the School for Arts and Crafts is currently headquartered, in the houses and in the gardens, as well as in the valley, where modernity is smoothly intertwined with the agricultural heritage of the countryside, and where people can work surrounded by a widespread garden,” Cucinelli says.
“I was born into a modest family in the countryside, and there, where the stars shine brighter at night, the feeling of Creation is stronger; we felt the universe echoing within us, we intuitively perceived the great rules of its harmony,” Cucinelli says of the small region of the world that has defined so much of his life.
Cucinelli’s plans required space to think, and he needed families intertwined with the fabric of his business so his creations would arise from the family lifestyle he values. It worked so well that his two daughters and their husbands all work for the family company, stewarding it into the future.
“The hamlet is like a large family that does not forsake you. I have lived and I was brought up in such a culture, from which I have learnt the meaning of human value. It is a very special kind of life,” Cucinelli says.
Cucinelli cares as much about the beauty in how he lives as he does about the beauty of the clothes he wears. In Solomeo, not only can he live the life he wants, so can the people who work for him. The isolation of Solomeo gave him room to spread his wings, and its history of creating fine wool and other products made it ideal for his growing business.
“For centuries, craftsmanship has been one of the cornerstones of humanistic technology all over the world. Today we are all convinced that this asset—halfway between art and technique—needs to be preserved. How can we do it? This new age has changed lifestyles and circumstances. However, in Solomeo we have set up schools of craftsmanship to train the masters of several disciplines, first and foremost in the art of textile. This challenge has been very successful, the reason being that we focus on the humanistic essence of craftsmanship, fully aware of its endless creative value,” Cucinelli says.
History and future
For Cucinelli, history isn’t something you just read about, you live in it. Being connected to the past through the buildings that house his company as well as the heritage of craftsmanship at its heart somehow allows Cucinelli to think more clearly about the future.
“When I chat with my granddaughter Vittoria, I see the future of the world in her, and I imagine the children she will have, her grandchildren, I see mankind progressing. That’s why I sometimes pray for her, wishing her that Creation is amiable to her, and for her to be a loyal guardian of Creation, someone who doesn’t damage it,” Cucinelli says.
As you walk through Solomeo, quotes from the world’s great philosophers adorn the walls. Whether it is Socrates telling you, “Only the just man is happy,” or Confucius proclaiming, “I transmit but I don’t create,” you get the feeling the city is preserving more than its own heritage. It’s a place that celebrates all of humanity’s heritage.
“Guardianship is the tool of care. Each of us is the guardian of the part of Creation assigned to us, and we all know that tending to the flowerbed in front of our house means tending to the entire city,” Cucinelli says.
A tribute to human dignity
After over 30 years of stewardship, Cucinelli realized one his grandest dreams for the town in 2018, when he completed his Project for Beauty. To help preserve the town’s character, the company took over approximately 100 hectares on the peripheries and divided it into three sections: the Industrial Park, which includes the company’s new headquarters, harmoniously nestled in a large, lush garden; the Laic Oratory Park, dedicated to beloved priest Don Alberto Seri, surrounded by six hectares of land, and including a small stadium; and the Agrarian Park with its monument “Tribute to Human Dignity.”
The monument comprises a beautifully green park crowned by five arches; above them, in bronze letters, are the words: “Tribute to Human Dignity.” To convey the universal meaning of the construction, the name of each of the world’s five continents are written in bronze letters, one below each arch.
The monument is full of intricate details as well as grand statements, all with a nod to classical architecture, which its designers tried to embody. And to ensure both its beauty and its longevity, the monument was built using ancient techniques based on the texts by Vitruvius, Palladio, and Sebastiano Serlio.
Not only is the monument in Solomeo a tribute to human dignity, but Brunello Cucinelli’s whole life is a tribute to what’s possible when a talented artisan embraces the idea of goodness and is willing to see just how far he can take it.
In his writings, Cucinelli often extols Creation itself, outside any specific tradition of who or what our original creator may be. He writes as a man whose life has been dedicated to creating beauty, not just beautiful things, but making the world itself beautiful.
With regard to our current era of hardship and uncertainty, the wisdom of Brunello Cucinelli says, “If we focus on the language of Creation, we will naturally return to our usual life equipped with some extra values, fascinated by everything that is worthy of being called human.”
There’s wisdom that comes from a life lived in pursuit of genuine beauty. It’s something we can all embrace. And as for Solomeo, it’s more beautiful than ever, and will likely stay that way for generations to come.