For Paolo and Gabriella Mazza, restoring the more than century old Villa Concetta was a heady mix of delight, exhaustion and surprise. “Fixing up old houses is like a drug for us. It is love and addiction”, Paolo says wryly. There is the apartment in Milan, the summer house in Sardinia and the imposing stone Villa Concetta overlooking Lake Como that Paolo says is, by far, both the most compelling and challenging of all their projects.
“When we found the house it was an abandoned disaster,” says Paolo. “But,” he continues like a man speaking of an elusive lover, “there was just something about it!” The couple first experienced the mysterious “something” that drew them to the old villa back in 1992, when they were traveling by car from Brussels (where they were living) to Rome. It was a beautiful summer day, the children had fallen asleep in the back of the car and the couple decided to stop to look at the scenery. What they saw was the storied Lake Como, covered by a low band of fog just as a small ferry was was coming in. “It was a magical atmosphere and I said to Gabriella, ‘Can you imagine the kind of life people here are living?’” It was a moment of reverie stored quietly in the back of their minds when they returned to their high stress lives in Brussels.
It was not, however, until a few years later that Villa Concetta, overlooking that same beautiful lake, became theirs. By then the Mazzas had returned to Milan from years abroad and decided they might look in Como for a house and commute into the city for work. Purely by chance, they ran across the very same abandoned place they had seen during their trip several years before. “We climbed over the back fence,” Paolo says with a kind of child’s joy at some slight naughtiness. “The garden was overgrown. All the windows were broken. It was a mess!” And they loved it. “We decided to buy it in a minute. The view was perfect. The façade was perfect and the house was a disaster!”
Taking on complicated projects was not new to the couple. The investment banker and the microbiologist have been working as a team for years. They grew up in the same apartment building and had their first kiss with one another as young teenagers. They even went to the same university. “Forty-six years together” Paolo says with joy in his voice. This, he says, is a relationship with such an enduring alchemy that it weathered not just the usual winds of marriage and child rearing, but complex renovation after renovation.
The crumbling Villa Concetta suited the romantic inclinations of its new owners. The stone home, with its elegant concrete and plaster detail, elaborate ironwork and terracotta floors, was originally built between 1911 and 1913 by a wealthy industrialist for his lover, Concetta. But to restore the house to its original beauty would take years of work. “We moved in and made one floor at a time livable,” Paolo recalls. He remembers sitting at breakfast with his wife and two children (who were now commuting by ferry to school in Como) amid dusty ironmongers, plasterers, stucco artisans, plumbers and stone workers who carried tools and buckets through the dining room as the family ate.
Each day of the construction had its surprises. There were stones that had to be carefully cut and arranged so pipes could pass through the walls. There were excavations that yielded nests of electrical wires and shards of village history. But nothing prepared them for a backyard discovery that had the whole region talking, a giant and peculiarly carved rock resting thirteen feet under the ground near a small cave formation. The rock was so unusual that Paolo says he called over a neighbor who had some familiarity with such things. “Hey, I said, come look what I found.” He admits he never could have anticipated the response he got from his acquaintance. “You, my friend, have just found a birthing chair!” To his surprise, Paolo had uncovered a Neolithic “pietra gestatoria” which was used by Stone Age women during childbirth.
Today that stone sits just outside the villa’s main gate not far from a small and artfully fashioned church called S. Sisinnio. Admirers of Winston Churchill, reputed to have spent his holidays at Villa Concetta, may even remember the 17th century church from one of Churchill’s small watercolors. Not only does Villa Concetta (which is surrounded by oleander, magnolias and lemon, palm, arbutus and camphor trees) have a view of the lovely church, there are also vistas of the Alps and the lake from the home. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Paolo, what is the best view from the house?’ I just can’t answer that. I would have to say everywhere is the best view!”
While the magnificent stone house with its Liberty façade and interesting antiques is reminiscent of the turn of the last century, the couple has a uniquely contemporary style. They are great fans of modernism and have decorated the house with that in mind. The pale yellow and off-white interior with its grand marble floors is a perfect setting for their Bauhaus furniture (the couple’s favorite period) and their small but distinguished art collection.
Will this ambitious couple ever be content with their Lake Como retreat? Not a chance, says Paolo who says their ideas for new projects start over dinner. Currently, they are hammering out a plan to turn a big storage space in the basement into an authentic Turkish bath. “We’ve changed our minds about it thirty times,” he says laughing. “We have to have very patient workers to accept our madness!”
Paolo insists that the couple does find time to relax during the several months they spend at the villa. They sit in a spot that Paolo says is like a winter garden. From there he can see the lake, the pool and an incredible blue sky over the snow-covered Alps. And think about what? The house of course, he answers, and what should be their next project! “I guess the two of us should have just studied architecture!”
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