Amid the Renaissance Architecture of Florence, an Unexpected Villa

The New York Times 1 month ago

MARCEL PROUST ONCE referred to Florence as “a city miraculously embalmed.” Milan, largely destroyed during World War II, had no choice but to remake itself during the midcentury as a hub for fashion and design; Rome, its historic ruins lending it a sense of inimitable loucheness, has recently been given an infusion of bohemian energy in neighborhoods such as Monti and Pigneto. But Florence, cradle of the Renaissance, remains undisturbed, a tableau of Medici-era palazzos, museums and monuments — a city where, as Henry James wrote in 1869, everything “seems coloured with a mild violet, like diluted wine.”

As such, Enrico Gatti, the owner of a textile company that supplies to clothing manufacturers such as Zara and H&M, and his wife, Alessandra, knew from the start of their home renovation in 2015 that they were in for a fight. The pair had become entranced by a neglected villa perched on a hill on the city’s southwestern edge, which offered panoramic views and felt far in spirit from the 18th-century riverside townhouse near the Ponte Vecchio where they had been living with their daughter, Eugenia, then 15. But convincing local zoning officials, among Italy’s most stringent, to let them transform an existing building — even one built in a 1960s style that might best be described as Tuscan-suburban — into a daring Modernist statement would be as steep a climb as the zigzagging road to the property itself.

But the owners, in their early 50s, wouldn’t be deterred. Instead of choosing a local architect to redo the villa inside and out — city officials would never permit a demolition — they commissioned the Milan-based Dimore Studio, one of Italy’s most effervescent, avant-garde designers and furniture makers. The firm, founded in 2003 by Emiliano Salci and Britt Moran, has collaborated on store installations with Hermès and Bottega Veneta, created the retro-futuristic look of Leo’s (the decadent supper club in the basement of the Arts Club in London) and designed Fendi’s Sloane Street boutique, a ’70s oasis with lush amber carpeting and mohair velvet-lined walls. “Once we decided to do this,” Gatti says, “we knew we were going to push it as far as possible.”

Dimore Studio had never before worked on a house in Florence, despite the fact that Salci, 47, had been raised in nearby Arezzo. It wasn’t a region where their signature mix — a blend of jewel tones, extravagant patterns, hyper-contemporary structural elements (often in brass) and opium-den richness — finds an easy fit. “That’s a big reason the project appealed to us,” says Moran, 46, a North Carolina native who met Salci on a hotel project in China in 2003. “We liked the idea of doing something in a context that might not be instantly comfortable.” The partners also wanted a chance to work on an exterior, a new challenge for a firm that began with interior design before expanding into furniture and textiles with their Dimore Milano collection (the couple also runs a Milanese gallery focused on 20th-century design). That the house wasn’t a new build made it the perfect laboratory; instead of having to worry about blasting into rock to sink a foundation, they could devote themselves to the creative task of turning a bland residence into a proper shell for poetic rooms.

NOTHING, HOWEVER, CAME EASY. To begin with, the road to the five-acre property, which is only a 15-minute walk from the center of the city, is too narrow and twisty to accommodate a crane or large trucks, so construction materials had to be distributed among smaller vehicles. And while the owners were open to almost anything — “They really wanted to be adventurous,” says Giuseppe Porcelli, the lead architect on the project — they were forbidden by the city government to change the overall volume of the house. “At one point, I got so desperate I planned to use a helicopter to bring materials up,” Gatti says. “Of course, the local officials told me that was not going to happen.”

Fortunately, the desire to build a home that would connect Florence with the present was aided by a historical twist that may have helped convince the zoning board to let the project proceed. In the 1960s, the designers discovered, there had been a brief, unsung spurt of contemporary fervor in the nearby town of Fiesole, which resulted in six still-standing Modernist dwellings. Squared off and elegant, with a defiant simplicity, their mere existence provided both precedent and proof that the stark house on the hill would not cause culture to crumble.

The 7,500-square-foot villa, which was completed in 2018 after a three-year renovation, now hovers over the buff-and-claret-hued city like an emissary from another time: an angular, unadorned glass, concrete and stone portent of modern life. Whereas the roof was once quaintly peaked, with large overhangs and orangy clay half-round tiles characteristic of country homes in the area, it is now a slab of slate gray, with a rooftop garden of grasses and ivy. Much of the facade has been recovered with a thick cladding of steel trowel-finished plaster, while two walls are made of roughly laid sandstone bricks. Expansive new five-to-nine-foot-high windows — glass walls, really — are trimmed with thin brass and black steel edges, defining them against the cloudless sky.

A view of Florence over the pool.

THE HOUSE’S CONTOURS and many of its details were inspired by various masters of mid-20th-century Italian design, specifically Carlo Scarpa and Osvaldo Borsani. Scarpa, who worked early on as a glassware designer at Venini, spent most of his career in Venice, a city, like Florence, that’s resistant to architectural change. He was famed for combining basic materials with precious ones, and for his renovations of ancient buildings, including Verona’s Museo di Castelvecchio, finished in 1974, in which elements of the original structure — notably the 14th-century walls — were preserved as accents to the modern surfaces. “We kept reminding ourselves through the process of this house that there is something particularly creative when you can’t just start from zero,” Porcelli says. Scarpa was influenced by Japan, and that country’s veneration of symmetry can be seen in his work; in the Gatti house, Dimore Studio cut a six-and-a-half-foot-wide round window in the back wall of the kitchen that echoes Scarpa’s interlocking circular opening for the Brion Cemetery he built in 1977 near Treviso.

Subtle tributes to Borsani also abound. A pioneer of 1960s machine-made furniture, he built a family home in 1945 in Varedo that remains a touchstone for Salci and Moran; it’s among the few intact examples of the kind of Rationalist design — a pared-down approach combining simple proportions with natural materials such as marble and brass — that was largely practiced during the Fascist era. In the Gatti house, a central staircase enclosed by a Mondrian-inflected mosaic of pink, green and amber glass sliding screens is a homage to the architect, who built a similarly imposing yet ethereal one at the core of Casa Borsani. Dimore Studio followed his lead as well in dividing the sweeping main floor into more intimate spaces by mixing elevations, as Borsani did in his family villa and other homes he designed: The dining room, on a half-landing, seems to be floating; the living area, decorated with a custom Dimore Milano sofa and fabric, is reached by descending three sculptural marble steps from the entryway.

After turning the building into a Modernist bulwark, more conventional firms might have chosen to outfit it in minimalist style, with airy pale walls and sparse furnishings. But the designers and their clients instead chose a dramatic alchemy of 1970s-era Italian brio overlaid with the operatic romanticism of Shanghai between the wars. In a house flooded by Mediterranean daylight, the colors and patterns are unusually dense and opulent, in shades of sapphire, burgundy and emerald. The walls in the living area are a bottomless lagoon hue, impossible to achieve merely with paint — they are covered with deep greenish-blue silk wallpaper by Fromental. A warm gold Lucio Fontana “slash” painting from 1962 picks up the brass embellishments throughout the rooms and mirrors the gold veining in the thick ribbon of Breccia di Versailles marble that extends partly up the wall from the resin floor in the living room. Upstairs, a dressing room is lined with closets upholstered in hand-painted embroidered silk featuring a motif of Chinese red maples.

But the space that best embodies the house’s combination of Far East meets Italian Deco fantasy — anchored, in an unexpected way, within the historical context of Florence itself — is the small, 10-by-16-foot dining room where the family eats when they don’t have guests. There, the walls surrounding the table are covered in hand-painted paper, thick with green and yellow palm fronds, and an ovoid Dimore Milano lamp with an explosion of flowers from an archival print hangs above a Gio Ponti table and a custom navy velvet banquette. The atmosphere is hushed and snug, but through giant windows at one end of the room lies the jumbled expanse of the pale city, silhouetted against the hills, unchanged.

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