This article is part of our latest special Design section, about spaces inspired by nature.
CAMAIORE, Italy — When Marco Pasanella was a boy, he began spending summers in Tuscany, where his father, Giovanni Pasanella, an architect and former professor of architecture and urban planning at Yale and Columbia, had moved in the 1970s. Finally, Giovanni bought an 18th-century hilltop villa overlooking Camaiore, a town near Lucca, where he settled and returned to his first love: painting.
Mr. Pasanella has fond memories of delicious, laid-back meals that Lisetta Bianco Mueller, his father’s 38-year-old companion, prepared for a company of guests who 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 came to 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 floating memories from the remnants of past lives. Deciding what to keep and what to wipe clean while making the villa their own was sometimes a challenge and sometimes a delicate balancing act between preserving family heirlooms and traditions and adapting the villa to their 21st century lifestyle.
“We took our time with how we approached the house,” he said recently on a Sunday. “I didn’t want it to look too much like a museum.”
The villa is the center of a 62 hectare estate that is the epitome of a classic Tuscan landscape: immaculately manicured lawns, orchards of olive trees (enough to produce oil for the family and friends), various fruit trees and a sloping area behind the villa which was recently vacated to allow the Pasanellas to walk through a ‘pineta’, a shaded promenade lined with pine trees. “A passeggiata in pineta is simply pleasure,” alliterated Mr. Pasanella, using the Italian word for walk.
To one side of the villa is a bamboo grove that must be constantly kept in check to avoid getting too close to some of the outer buildings on the estate. Giovanni encouraged the bamboo and it became one of his favorite painting subjects, Mr. Pasanella said.
Today he is busy clearing the forest for a bamboo tea house he designed a few years ago as a shelter for Luca. There is a low window on one wall that overlooks the town of Camaiore, and an open roof. “One of the things Luca really likes is just looking up,” he said.
Luca is now 17 years old 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 can learn how to better preserve the teahouse.
Luca’s only complaint: poor wifi reception on the hill.
Mr. Pasanella is a designer of everything from homewares to hotels, and Ms. Robertson is an interior designer and stylist, having worked for Martha Stewart for a long time. But inside the villa, he said, they’d wanted to avoid “coming in with a design with a capital D.”
They had a good foundation to work with. The villa’s two main stories unfold into a series of airy rooms overlooking the gardens or the surrounding hills. Some of Giovanni’s pieces—bronze lamps topped with onyx hues, or sleek coffee tables made of petrified marble originally designed for the Seagram office building in New York—anchor rooms that retain much of the original furnishings.
“We mainly did a lot of editing”, which meant that surplus furniture was stored in the attic. “It was more like a curator than a remake,” said Mr. pasanella.
Giovanni’s paintings are a leitmotif of the villa. A large abstract work he painted at age 19 hangs in an upstairs drawing room, a solid counterpart to huge moldings on the three remaining walls where the couple has installed mirrors that open up the space to light and infinity.
Pasanella’s father’s studio, where birds serenade, has become the master bedroom. But Giovanni’s mind floats: a long shelf on one wall is lined with jars of pigments, tins filled with brushes and old turpentine cans.
The artist’s study on the ground floor has remained largely untouched. A bookcase contains family photos, including of the late mother of Mr. Pasanella, a sociologist; the ashes of a beloved family dog; and several bird nests and parts of beehives found on the property.
They rearranged the furniture in the bedroom that Giovanni and Lisetta had shared for more than three decades, but Mr. Pasanella said he hadn’t “felt easy to appropriate” so it is used for guests.
Lisetta’s touch is reflected in detail throughout, such as the Stile Liberty chandelier in the main dining room (Stile Liberty is the Italian equivalent of Art Nouveau). She also brought a leopard statue from a bedroom from Montelupo Fiorentino, a city famous for its ceramics since the Renaissance.
Before the pandemic, Mr. Pasanella and Ms. Robertson moved here for a year when Luca was in high school, to see what life would be like in Italy. “Not a fantasy version, but a real version,” said Mr. Pasanella. It was a great experience, but they settled 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 the empty streets of New York.
Despite their determination to avoid making the villa look like a museum, the couple has been sensitive to its history in their exploration.
In the kitchen, they simply moved the original gray Carrara marble sink 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 this room a little more comfortable,” Mr. Pasanella said.What was once a ‘utilitarian’ kitchen became something ‘a little less ad hoc, but retaining the spirit of the house’.
Food is stored in an original pantry, carved from the solid walls. “The kitchen maid thought we were bananas; they said, ‘How come you don’t want a million cabinets?’” (they certainly have the space for it), Mr. Pasanella said, adding that the kitchen was great the way it is. “You don’t have to reinvent everything.”
The replacement of a glass-metal tub in the ground-floor bathroom—large enough to house a pool table—with a 1,500-pound marble tub from a nearby town included a faucet and steel-beamed floor below. “It was a huge job to make it look like we hadn’t done anything.”
The bathroom cabinet — which could hold a small boutique hotel’s bedding — is a lesson in tidying. “It’s because of my wife who worked for Martha Stewart for 13 years,” Mr. Pasanella said with a laugh.
Once Luca goes to college, Mr. Pasanella expects that he and his wife will spend more time here, although they will keep a foothold in New York, as they love it and have their wine shop. “We will find the balance,” he said.
As it is, Villa Cannizzaro is still a work in progress.
He creates a space in the bamboo forest, a quiet place for reflection, lulled by the slow pace of rustling bamboo reeds. “I want to develop it, make it better,” he said. “Not everything has to be done at once.”