Somewhere Under the Tuscan Sun

Somewhere Under the Tuscan Sun

By Paul Bennett
A complex of farm buildings from a less than glorious period in Italy’s history is magically transformed. The result? A sophisticated yet kid-friendly retreat that seamlessly fuses historical influences with contemporary design.

It’s not very politically correct in Italy, I know," says Silvio (who asked that his last name not be used) as he slips through the doorway of the 1930s Tuscan farmhouse that he and his family recently restored, "but I love rationalism and this era of Italian design—fascismo. There is something warm yet solid about the architecture."

This 1930s farmhouse on the coast of Tuscany is sited on a podere, land claimed from the low-lying salt marshes by the Fascist government in the early decades of the 20th century. The Dutch technique of "podering" the landscape refers to the process of creating a grid of levees and then draining the squares, which leaves a gridded farmscape with low, even ridges dividing it.

Silvio, who works as the creative director for an Italian luxury products brand, says that about seven years ago his family started coming up to the Maremma, a relatively quiet patch of the southern Tuscan coastline, to escape Rome on the weekends. "It’s best in the winter," says Silvio’s wife, Desi. "A little cold, but bellissima."

Clemente and her partners used the geometry of the podere as their guide for the house’s design, creating a glazed living room that is cleaved in half by a line (a hallway at one point, a wall in another) that connects visually and spatially with one of these old levees in the landscape. With Podere 43, the architects successfully emphasized and made visible the topography of the Tuscan landscape in the building itself.

Silvio, who admits to being a bit of a fetishist when it comes to modern design, says he was ecstatic when he learned, through a friend, that one of the old farmhouses designed by Marcello Piacentini as part of a Fascist land reclamation and agricultural demonstration project was available for sale. Known as Podere 43, the house is one of 55 that were built on drained marshland. Each was intended to showcase the latest modern agricultural techniques and functioned as a kind of self-sufficient mini-farm. The houses featured pigeon coops, pigsties, a cheese-curing house, a grain silo, a bread oven, as well as a stable attached to the living quarters that boasted an innovative central trough for easy bovine feeding. "What more could you want!" exclaims Silvio, thrumming his hand along the limestone wall of the old stable.

Podere 43 allows for an endless array of leisure activities like ping-pong.

As it turned out, they wanted a bit more. The house, which has obvious connections to Art Deco and some of the warmer southern expressions of modernism, had been largely unchanged since the 1930s, and lacked the space and accoutrements necessary for a weekending family of four. So, working with architect Maria Claudia Clemente and her Rome-based architectural studio Labics (founded in 2001 with Francesco Isidori and Marco Sardella), Silvio and Desi embarked on a complete renovation and restructuring of the house with the aim of preserving the structure’s integrity while transforming it into something unique.

An old grain silo in the backyard was transformed into a Turkish bath with mosaic tiles and a translucent ceiling, and the front yard was leveled to accommodate a grove of olive trees and space for morning yoga.

From a preservationist perspective, Clemente’s work was highly invasive. She began by stripping out the interior down to the bare stone—a beautiful, light-colored limestone variety quarried nearby. Along the back of the stable, which was attached to the house so that the original farm family could milk the cows on winter mornings without going outside, the architect sheared off a large wall and created a glazed rectangular living/dining room that opens up the house to the surrounding farmland.

The ever-important Italian kitchen pours out through glass walls into the living room and onto the porch. A group of benches allows guests to hang out, drink wine, and pester the chef, while stainless-steel basins on rollers underneath give hungry kids easy access to snacks. Stainless-steel-and-glass shelving by the architects provides open storage for plates and glassware.

"We wanted to create a dialogue with the landscape," Clemente explains, "because the countryside has been so important to the family. And we also wanted to reassert the geometry." By this she is referring to the old, mostly hidden levees that crisscross the surrounding fields and provide a hint of the 1930s-era drainage program that truly imprinted this part of Italy. These lines are now
carried into the house in the form of slits cut into walls, clefts in rooflines, and gutters that protrude slightly beyond the wall plane. The effect is subtle to the point of imperceptibility. "But you have the sense that you’re closer to nature," says Silvio with satisfaction. "I don’t know, it’s just different out here."   

Labics took their design cues from the original structure’s history and function: The form of the industrial-looking double chimney, for example, was derived from an old stack placed on an adjacent farm. For the water feature, at right, a moat-like trench surrounding the house was dug to reduce humidity in the foundation.

The house reflects the fact that though Silvio and his brood live in Rome and come up here only on the weekends, they actually do most of their "living" at Podere 43. Silvio travels a lot for work, and Desi is busy running the public relations department of an African aid orga­nization. Their children, Andrea, 11, and Alice, eight, are in school, of course, so during the week, the family  hardly sees one another. "We come out every weekend," Silvio explains. "We don’t even own our house in Rome, so this really had to be our home."

Though it’s inside, this light-filled room allows for a nearly alfresco dining experience.

The Fucsia pendant lamps are by Achille Castiglioni. The couch in the living area is by Antonio Citterio.

It also needed to be a place where the four of them could entertain friends and family. To help achieve that goal, one of the small outbuildings that had originally been used as an outdoor kitchen/meat-curing house and pigsty was converted into a guest apartment with kitchenette, bath, and two bedrooms.

Silvio, who has overseen the design and construction of over a hundred high-end boutiques and has worked with architects such as Antonio Citterio, is no stranger to the design process. Though this is the first house he and his wife have owned, and although the renovation was essentially a complete rebuilding, all of the work was finished in exactly one year.

"We found a group of masons from the local village who were very excited about the project, because we were asking them to cut and work with stone in an old-fashioned, handmade manner that just isn’t done anymore," he explains. They lived onsite for several months. The 1930s mortar, which had turned black, was completely grouted out where exposed and replaced with a light mortar ground from the same quarry from which the original stones had come. On the second floor, most of the interior walls were dismantled, leaving the main structural wall and the exterior shell—peeling back and exposing the original structure.

Set against this vibrant revivification of the rationalist original, Clemente’s new architectural gestures come as a surprise. Perhaps most striking is her radically contemporary vocabulary of steel, concrete, and glass. Inspired by a detail in Adalberto Libera’s striking Casa Malaparte on Capri (one of Silvio’s favorite buildings), the fireplace is formed by a fold of Cor-ten steel inserted into the glass back wall. On the second floor, all the interior walls were constructed out of painted black aluminum sheathed in light wood slats, a kind of Japanese approach that hints at the many years Silvio has spent traveling there. "We decided to make sure that the materials were still warm," Silvio says. "I asked her to use Cor-ten steel instead of aluminum, and then there is all the wood."

Enhancing this dialogue between old and new, and between 1930s Italian rural modernism and 21st-century global urbanism, Silvio and Desi decided to furnish the house with their eclectic collection of antiques from around the world, including a painted bed from India and some 18th-century Italian pieces. There are a few modern indulgences, though, such as a Citterio couch.

Sitting in the center of the house, acting as the fulcrum around which life twirls, is the spacious kitchen fitted out with top-name Italian appliances, cabinetry, and fixtures. Like so many Italians, this family organizes most of its socializing around cooking. As a result, the kitchen became the most important living space, one that conveys a sense of well-mixed luxury and informality.

"We eat. We have kids. We live barefoot," says Silvio. "And more than anything we wanted our home tailored to our lifestyle. It has become, in a sense, a reflection of who we are." 


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