April 21, 2024

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A Hilltop Villa in Italy With a Strong Foundation

6 min read

This article is part of our latest Design special section, about spaces inspired by nature.

CAMAIORE, Italy — When Marco Pasanella was a boy, he began to spend summers in Tuscany, where his father, Giovanni Pasanella, an architect and former professor of architecture and urban design at Yale and Columbia, had moved in the 1970s. Eventually, Giovanni bought an 18th-century hilltop villa overlooking Camaiore, a town near Lucca, settling there and returning to his first love: painting.

Mr. Pasanella has fond memories of scrumptious, laid-back meals concocted by Lisetta Bianco Mueller, his father’s companion of 38 years, for a coterie of guests that often mixed artists and intellectuals with neighbors or someone’s visiting elderly aunt.

“It was just full of life,” said Mr. Pasanella, 59, who lives with his wife, Rebecca Robertson, 47, and their son, Luca, above their wine shop in the Seaport neighborhood, on the southern tip of Manhattan. So many visitors converged on the villa that Lisetta bought food wholesale, and local suppliers “thought she had a hotel,” he said.

After Giovanni died, Mr. Pasanella inherited Villa Cannizzaro, as it was called, and with it memories floating from the remnants of past lives. Deciding what to keep and what to clean-sweep while making the villa their own was sometimes challenging and at times a delicate balancing act between preserving family heirlooms and traditions and making the villa fit with their 21st-century lifestyle.

“We’ve taken our time with how we’ve approached the house,” he said on a recent Sunday. “I didn’t want it to be too like a museum.”

The villa is the centerpiece of a 62-acre property that is the epitome of a classical Tuscan landscape: perfectly manicured lawns, orchards of olive trees (enough to produce oil for the family and friends), sundry fruit trees and a sloping area behind the villa that was recently cleared so that the Pasanellas could stroll through a “pineta,” a shady pine-tree promenade. “A passeggiata in pineta is just pleasure,” Mr. Pasanella alliterated, using the Italian word for walk.

On one side of the villa is a bamboo grove that must be constantly kept in check lest it encroach too closely on some of the outer buildings on the estate. Giovanni “encouraged” the bamboo, and it became one of his preferred painting subjects, Mr. Pasanella said.

Credit…Fabio Ercolini

Nowadays, he has been mining the grove for a bamboo teahouse that he designed a few years ago as a hideaway for Luca. There’s a low window on one wall that looks out onto the town of Camaiore, and an open roof. “One of the things Luca really likes is just looking up,” he said.

Luca is now days shy of 17, and this summer he and Mr. Pasanella plan to visit a local company that designs with bamboo and offers courses on its qualities so they might learn how to better preserve the teahouse.

Luca’s only complaint: bad Wi-Fi reception on the hill.

Mr. Pasanella is a designer of everything from housewares to hotels, and Ms. Robertson is an interior designer and stylist, by way of a long stint working for Martha Stewart. But at the villa, he said, they had wanted to avoid “coming in with design with a capital D.”

They had a good foundation to work with. The villa’s two main stories unfold in a series of airy rooms with vistas onto the gardens or surrounding hills. Some of Giovanni’s pieces — bronze lamps topped with onyx shades, or sleek coffee tables made of fossilized marble originally designed for the Seagram office building in New York — anchor rooms that have retained many of the original furnishings.

“Mostly we did a lot of editing,” stashing excess furniture in the attic. “It was more like curating rather than a remake,” Mr. Pasanella said.

Giovanni’s paintings are a leitmotif of the villa. A large abstract work he painted at 19 hangs in an upstairs salon, a solid counterpart to enormous frames on the three remaining walls where the couple have installed mirrors that open up the space to light and infinity.

Mr. Pasanella’s father’s studio, serenaded by birds, has become the main bedroom. But Giovanni’s spirit hovers: A long shelf on one wall is lined with jars of pigments, tin cans stuffed with paint brushes and old turpentine cans.

The artist’s study on the ground floor has remained mostly untouched. A bookcase features family photographs, including of Mr. Pasanella’s late mother, a sociologist; a beloved family dog’s ashes; and several birds’ nests and parts of beehives found on the property.

They reshuffled the furniture in the bedroom that Giovanni and Lisetta shared for more than three decades, but Mr. Pasanella said he had not felt “comfortable appropriating it,” so it is used for guests.

Lisetta’s touch is glimpsed in details throughout, like the main dining room’s Stile Liberty chandelier (Stile Liberty is the Italian equivalent of Art Nouveau). She also brought in a bedroom’s leopard statue from Montelupo Fiorentino, a town famed since the Renaissance for its ceramics.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Pasanella and Ms. Robertson moved here for a year when Luca was in middle school, to see what living in Italy would be like. “Not a fantasy version, but a real version,” Mr. Pasanella said. It was a great experience but they resettled in New York for the schools. They returned to Villa Cannizzaro five times during the pandemic, as often as they could.

“I didn’t feel so isolated here,” Mr. Pasanella said. It was worse looking around New York’s empty streets.

Despite their determination to avoid making the villa look like a museum, the couple have been sensitive to its history in their reclamation.

In the kitchen, they simply moved the original sink of gray Carrara marble under a window, replaced tiles around the fireplace and mantle with cipolin, a marble quarried in this area, and added more light, “a kind of Americanism that makes this room a little bit more comfortable,” Mr. Pasanella said. What was once a “utilitarian” kitchen became something “a little less ad hoc but keeping the spirit of the house.”

Food is stored in an original pantry, carved out of the massive walls. “The kitchen person thought we were bananas; they said, ‘How come you don’t want to have a million cabinets?’” (they certainly have the space for them), Mr. Pasanella said, adding that the kitchen was great as is. “You don’t need to reinvent everything.”

The substitution of a glazed metal bathtub in the bathroom on the ground floor — big enough to house a pool table — with a 1,500-pound marble tub from a nearby town involved a crane and shoring the floor underneath with steel beams. “It was a huge job to make it seem like we hadn’t done anything.”

The bathroom armoire — which could hold the bedding of a smallish boutique hotel — is a lesson in decluttering. “That’s due to my wife who spent 13 years working for Martha Stewart,” Mr. Pasanella said with a laugh.

Once Luca goes off to college, Mr. Pasanella expects that he and his wife will spend more time here, though they will keep a foot in New York, because they love it, and they have their wine shop. “We will find whatever that balance is,” he said.

As it is, Villa Cannizzaro is still a work in progress.

He is creating a space inside the bamboo grove, a quiet place for reflection, lulled by the slow tempo of rustling bamboo reeds. “I want to develop it, make it better,” he said. “Not everything has to be done all at once.”

Elisabetta Povoledo

2022-06-02 09:02:53

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