Looking at Vanessa and Giles Swarbreck's beautiful Italian villa, with its formal garden, 50 acres of pine forest and olive grove, it is hard to imagine its appearance when they bought it in 1984. 'it looked like a huge stable,' laughs Vanessa. 'Bare terracotta floors, no heating, straw, mud and cobwebs everywhere. The whole of the top floor was full of onions and potatoes!"
The Tuscan villa had been in one family for decades, and hadn't been very well maintained. An old housekeeper lived there, and had a penchant for growing vegetables, hence the top-floor storage of produce! 'You have to remember that most of these types of villas were originally built as summer homes for rich Italians escaping the hot cities,' says Vanessa. 'Fescoes were painted on the walls to serve as the only form of decoration in otherwise virtually empty rooms. They weren't designed as cosy winter homes, so we've had an uphill struggle making it such.'
The couple were virtually camping when hey first moved in. 'There was one cloakroom and a n ancient shower, and no bathrooms anywhere.' recalls Vanessa. ' The owners had left some furniture, including a prewar fridge which wasn't earthed, and some beds and mattresses that were damp and mouldy'.
As the villa is a listed building, all the work was done sympatheticall using local materials and craftsmen. Building work was entrusted to local builders, brothers stefano and marco, who were 'brilliant', according to Vanessa. Work included building a swimming pool, and installing air conditioning and double-glazing. The villa also had to be fully rewired, central heating insstalled, plumbing sorted out, and bathrooms built.
On of the most stunning original features of the villa is its frescoes, evident in most of the main rooms, which date from around the 1860's, and some possibly earlier. Giles says that past family members used to enjoy getting the paint out and adding to the frescoes themselves! 'It took two years to have them restored,' recalls Vanessa. 'A lot of the rooms had been crudely painted over during the war with green paint, as it wasn't considered correct to have lavishly decorated properties at that time in Italy.'
Much of the decor has been taken care of by Giles, who is an interior designer. Furniture left by the previous owners was restored and supplemented with pieces from seconhand shops and antique markets. Giles also commisioned local craftsmen to build units, mirrors, and tables,to his designs, and brought furniture and fabric over from London. 'I've had to buy big though,' he says. 'The rooms are so huge, you need large items that don't get swallowed up.' Other pieces have family history, and some are just plain humorous, like the stuffed chickens in the breakfast room which are Giles's favourite!
When the villa's restoration was complete, the Swarbeck's set up a cookery school and a business taking fine art trips from the villa. They also rent out private property privately and offer holiday accomidation. 'People can come and stay for a night or for two weeks,' says Vanessa. 'The idea is that guests can stay in historic, unusual or plain odd properties, and spend some time with the owners.'
A property of this size and age is a challenge to maintain. Indeed, the chapel adjoining the house recently had to have its roof rebuilt. Attrbuted to the famous architect Nottolini, the chapel is still cosecrated, and used by local people on certain religious festivals. It was also commandeered by German troops as a communications base in the Second World War. 'It was expensive rebuilding the roof,' says Vanessa, 'but we took the responsibility of the property on, and these are historic buildings.'
After nearly 20 years in their beautiful home, Vanessa and Giles have completely taken to the pleasures of Italian living, and it seems the locals have taken to them as well. 'There is a strong community here,' says Vanessa. 'People have been extremely helpful as they've seen that we have taken care of and been sympathetic with the villa.'
If you are interested in renting this villa
Contact: Overseas Connection