Houses Leonetto Cipriani built

Cipriani built the farmhouse shown on the left in 1852 in Italy (probably Corsica, his home), had it dismantled, packed in labeled wooden crates amounting to 150 tons, shipped to San Francisco and then hauled in wagons 22 miles south to Cañada del Diablo, now known as Belmont in central San Mateo County.

In the mid-1860s, Bank of California founder William Chapman Ralston sought a country place conducive to entertaining and purchased, “tore down, built up and embellished” Cipriani’s Belmont villa (Sacramento Daily Union 1888) to create “The White House of the West.”

Mrs. Anna Lake Townsend, a.k.a. Shirley, Philip, wrote this in her column “Freehand Notes” in the Sacramento Daily Union, July 14, 1883:

Although there is very little boasting among Californians about their sumptuous homes, and while they accept with remarkable humility the patronizing descriptions given by the Eastern traveler of places on the Hudson, Long Island and in the suburbs of Boston, to say nothing of the oppressive claims of country-seats in England, they have really every right in the world to tell a reasonable pride in their possessions. After all the State is only thirty years old, and the luxurious laying out of Monterey, the magnificence of Palo Alto, the San Mateo and Menlo Park residences, and the white glories of Belmont and its ivy-covered stone stable, make a wonderful showing of wealth and taste, and, at a certain season, of enlightened hospitality.

The most historical of all these residences, the richest is associations, the most widely known outside of California, is undoubtedly Belmont, now the property of Mr. Sharon, and formerly that of the brilliant, restless and ill-starred Ralston…. The nucleus, so to speak, of the house as it now is was built by General Cipriani, an Italian patriot who had fought with Garibaldi, and came to California somewhat richer in money than many patriots-Italian or other nationality-and built at Belmont.

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“I’m a Florentine…thank God.”

Noting from his strange accent that he was not American, I asked of what country he might be.

The old fellow was Neopolitan (sic).

“‘I am delighted,” I said.

“Let me shake your hand.”

“Are you Italian?’” he asked.

“Yes, thank God.”

“And of what region?”

“I’m a Florentine,” I answered.

Falbo, Ernest, trans. 1962. California and Overland Diaries of Count Leonetto Cipriani from 1853 through 1871; containing the account of his cattle drive from Missouri to California in 1853; a visit with Brigham Young in the Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City; the assembling of his elegant prefabricated home in Belmont, the first of consequence on the San Francisco peninsula, later to become The Ralston Mansion. Portland, OR.: Champoeg Press.

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Leonetto Cipriani’s Death Announced to Italian Senate, 1888

I must announce the death of the Senator General Count Leonetto Cipriani. He ceased to live May 10 last in his castle at Bellavista, Centuri in Corsica, where he was born October 16, 1812. He was a man of mettle and of strong spirit, and gave evidence not dubious in his eventful life, sealed with the fact of having written by himself and with a sure hand, shortly before his death, the news of his death that he was sent to the Presidency. In this unique announcement he declares that all praise is read in the Senate a letter that he wrote in 1860 the King Vittorio Emanuele. To fulfill the last wishes of his colleague, I will read this document for him honorable, which was then published, and that will be what conchiusione one can say authoritatively this brief commemoration. “Colonel, the important services she has rendered to the nation since 1848, and mainly in the last year, holding the Romagna, would not let me give up avail myself of his work patriotic and sagacious . But since for reasons of personal convenience, she has to go elsewhere, and walks away before the country was able to give her a certificate of appreciation and esteem with which accompanies it, do not be disagreeable that I witnessed the senses of my grateful heart. Italians will not forget what she did in very difficult times for the national cause, and this will pel noble soul of her prize grateful. I know that in any event she future there niegherà the support of his arm and his council . This I wanted to tell her, who identified himself with the destiny of the nation, they divide the hopes and duties. Florence, April 29, 1860. Vittorio Emanuele. ”

(Senate of the Kingdom, 1888)

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The Cipriani room

Only one room recalls the original builder of the “modest villa” that was transformed into Ralston Hall; the Cipriani Room.

“Adjoining the ballroom is a drawing room believed to be the central room of the original Cipriani villa which Ralston incorporated into his home. To support this theory are three deviations from the general pattern throughout the rest of the house: 1) the fireplace is Italian marble instead of the laurel wood of the other fireplaces; 2) the ceiling is painted and there is no ventilating system around the top; 3) the floor is narrow-sawed cedar.”

-The 1977 inventory for the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for Ralston Hall, California historical landmark #865.

Ralston Hall floorplan

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Links to Leonetto

  • Ortinola Great House on the plantation established by Cipriano Cipriani and named after the Cipriani home in Corsica.
  • Photos of the Cipriani Room, Ralston Hall, Belmont, California.
  • This video explains how Cipriani’s “modest Italian villa” became Ralston Hall, “The White House of the West”. Start at 3:45. According to this video, Cipriani built a villa in Corsica in 1852, had it dismantled, packed in boxes and shipped around the horn to California, hauled down the San Francisco peninsula to Cañada del Diablo, later known as Belmont.
  • Bella Vista, Cipriani’s last building project in his hometown of Ortinola, Centuri, Corsica.
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