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.

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.

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.

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.

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.