The prince of hosts: The Blairs love his Tuscan villa. What's in it for him?

The PM is back from his fifth holiday at his princely pad. But just who is Girolamo Strozzi? By Peter Popham
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The Independent Online

But exactly what kind of man Prince Girolamo Guicciardini Strozzi is remains a mystery that baffles Italy. For despite owning one of the country's grandest estates and being descended from a legendary Renaissance family, the prince of the 21st century is still a remarkably elusive figure.

Prince Girolamo is a discreet, reserved character - one of the reasons, no doubt, why he is prized as a friend by the Blairs. "He is a simple, straightforward man," said a friend, "with none of the aplomb or the detachment of an aristocrat." And yet this is a man whose forebears were at the heart of Italy's Renaissance and associated with the Medicis.

The 67-year-old law professor at the University of Florence is the heir to a heritage built by generations of politicians and statesmen, going all the way back to Francesco Guicciardini: Florentine lawyer, diplomat, statesman, historian and thinker, a friend of Niccolo Machiavelli.

Yet now the prince keeps his political engagements by the swimming pool of his stunning home. And it is his political stance that has raised eyebrows in the UK. For here in the heart of Tuscany, ruled by Communists for the past 60 years, Mr Blair has managed to dig out a right-winger. Exactly how right wing is hard to say. He is on the record as saying he is "not mad about Berlusconi" - who incidentally came to dinner at the villa last Monday to spend time with "my old friend" Mr Blair. He has described himself as a "liberal" while one friend says his political roots are in the Socialist Party. The clearest hint of where his true feelings lie is in the fact that he is on the board of Il Giornale della Toscana, a local newspaper published as an insert in Il Giornale, the rabidly right-wing daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

But despite being linked to Italy's parties of the right during the recent general election, the prince is, say friends, more interested in wine. Under his care great wines produced from the vineyards that cover the nearby hills have continued to prosper.

The Cusona estate came into his family in 1524 when Count Girolamo Guicciardini married Costanza Bardi, who brought the 11 farms of which it was composed with her as dowry: "beautiful dwelling, beautiful possession", as her spouse remarked.

The villa at the heart of the estate is accessible only by a narrow private road, easily monitored, and guarded during the Blairs' visits by British special service officers. Deep within, screened by cypress trees and set about with olive groves, is the villa with a squat tower and a huge portico, built in the 19th century to accommodate the carriages of important visitors.

During the Blairs' first holiday here in 1998 it leaked out that the prince and his family had been obliged to move into the servants' quarters - or the stables, as one report unkindly put it - during the Prime Minister's stay, for security reasons. With the blossoming of real friendship between the two families, however, now they all muck in together. "We all stay in the main house together," the prince said.

On an earlier visit they enjoyed a recital by the tenor Andrea Bocelli, who was said to have reduced Mr Blair to tears. Those close to the Italian couple insist Cherie is particularly friendly with the prince's wife, Irina, who has an aristocratic heritage to match her husband's. Born and raised in Paris, she hails from a White Russian family.

They have two daughters: Irina, the younger, who is studying for an MA in economics, and Natalia, an aspiring actress. And it seems that their generation may finally be giving Italians and the rest of the world a better insight into the family. For Natalia recently published an autobiography in which she described how the Blairs repaid her father's hospitality by welcoming the Italians repeatedly to Downing Street. "Take me to No 10," she recalled telling an astounded taxi driver, before going on to reveal that the Prime Minister even cut up her steak for her.