On the water: two Italian villas echo their breathtaking setting | Interiors
In Italy, we call them boccalone, explains Gemma Richards. “I’m going to have to look for English…” The phone goes silent for a while before she picks up again. “Largemouth bass!” she exclaims.
These ugly fish are essential to life in La Foleia – the retreat that Richards, 27, and his partner, Niccolò, 30, have created in Piedmont, northwest Italy. Without them, languid meals on the veranda overlooking the lake would be spoiled by mosquitoes. “The boccalone eats all the mosquito larvae,” explains Richards. “It was one of the first questions I asked the previous owners. At first I didn’t believe her, but now that we’ve been here for two summers I know she was telling the truth.
La Foleia is a pair of one-story neoclassical villas located on the opposite shores of a man-made lake fed by a natural spring. This dreamlike setting – which includes water lilies, stone columns and natural pools – is hidden on a gravel track 45 minutes from Milan and just five minutes from Lake Maggiore. “You reach a pair of identical green doors,” explains Richards, “and you enter this intimate and secluded botanical garden.”
Richards (who is half English but was born and raised in Milan) first saw the property in January 2018. She and her partner had just renovated two small apartments, which they had turned into luxury vacation rentals . A family friend, knowing they were looking for their next project, told them La Foleia was going to go up for sale and asked if they would like to see the property.
“We were completely amazed,” recalls Richards. “Even though it was January and the sky was gray and the trees were bare and the lake was completely frozen, the atmosphere was so magical. We told the owners on the spot, “It’s done! “”
The previous owners were a couple in the mid-1980s – a botanist and a philosophy professor who had lived there for over 20 years (the site was built in the early 1990s by a pair of maverick architects). “The previous owners really wanted to sell La Foleia to someone who had the same philosophy as them,” says Richards. “They wanted to be sure that we didn’t destroy its uniqueness.” They left behind a stack of gardening books, a dining table too heavy to move, and an overgrown garden filled with rare botanical specimens.
Richards soon realized that she needed the help of someone who “really knew the place”. The couple reunited with Gianfranco Giustina, an internationally renowned gardener who had worked on La Foleia when it was first established (until recently Giustina was the head gardener on two islands in the middle of Lake Maggiore). Giustina sensitively restored the lake and surrounding grounds while Richards and his partner focused their attention on the two villas.
Villa Ottagonale and Villa Padiglione are located on either side of the lake and connected by a path that crosses a bamboo forest, a wisteria tunnel and a grove of Japanese red pines. Villa Padiglione was originally designed as a “winter lounge” – a large frescoed room with a roaring fire. Richards decided to expand the lodge by adding two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a small kitchen to the rear of the main room, making it a low-key property with both villas available for rent.
“When we first saw the pavilion, it was loaded with over 12,000 pounds,” recalls Richards. The entire room was shielded with bookshelves, so Richards employed a team of specialist decorators to restore the fresco.
At Villa Ottagonale, the same team of craftsmen embellished the walls of the glazed winter dining room. “We noticed a Virginia creeper coming in through the windows,” says Richards. “It was so beautiful that it gave us the inspiration to cover the walls and ceilings with hand painted leaves.
“Nature is the protagonist here,” she continues. “We didn’t want the interiors to dominate the space or the setting. It was extremely important for us to maintain that feeling we had when we first saw La Foleia – that feeling of style, sophistication and character. “
Before the pandemic, Richards scoured local markets for vintage furniture that would work in space. “We have a mix of antiques: oriental pieces that reflect what is planted in the garden and more eclectic pieces, like the French lighted boat that’s in the window, ”says Richards. During confinement, each room was carefully restored and re-upholstered in fabrics that echo the exterior palette: the pink facades and the green that engulfs the two villas.
There are perhaps two pieces that stand out on purpose: a pair of armchairs that Richards upholstered in a shiny vermilion fabric. “These were left by the previous owners,” she says affectionately. Bold and full of character, they were left in their original position, facing the lake.