“Sometimes the valley below is like a bowl filled up with fog. I can see hard green figs on two trees and pears on a tree just below me. A fine crop coming in. May summer last a hundred years.” Frances Mayes from Under the Tuscan Sun.
Who hasn’t had a fantasy of living in Tuscany among the fig trees, olive groves and vineyards, falling under the spell of the undulating green Tuscan hills and sweet odor of the cypress trees? British-born bankers, Joanna Fielding and Affie Hussein had traveled the world from Dubai to Shanghai, New York to Bangkok, but even they were not immune to the siren song of a hideaway villa on an Italian hillside. “We looked at other countries for a place, but we wanted something that felt authentic and as soon as I saw Villa San Luigi,” says Affie of the five-hundred-year-old property, “I felt like I was home!”
Of course, at the time “home”—the stone and terracotta villa designed centuries ago by Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi—was derelict, overgrown and had not been lived in for almost half a century. Its earlier occupants, aristocratic local families, had long ago sold the historic villa. The forsaken home sat empty for years. It could be Joanna’s and Affie’s if they wanted it… and, Affie says, could afford it! Out came the spreadsheet (they are both accountants) and sitting in the car outside the overgrown estate, Affie ran the numbers. Meanwhile, Joanna, who has a passion for design, clambered through the gate and explored the dusty interior in which she would, over a period of five years, make magic, says her admiring husband, who in conversation never loses an opportunity to praise his wife of fifteen years.
The couple had already lived in six different countries over a dozen years, vagabonds on the global finance trail. What better place to settle, or at least spend extended periods of time than this wonderful village, Buonconvento, itself once a historic resting place for tired vagabonds on their pilgrimages from Canterbury to Rome.
Joanne set to work (in between taking on a brand new job as CFO for one of the largest global banks). Working with designer William Yeoward, historic textile company, Busatti and furniture maker Tim Moss, she began creating her and Affie’s dream home. Both husband and wife are big fans of buildings “with a sense of occasion” that are rooted in their local cultures. The villa they had just purchased had grown out of the region’s deep history, a history so significant that as Affie explains, “In order to move a single stone you need ten different permits.” The interior, Joanna decided, would reflect all the cultures in which the couple had lived. “We wanted to recreate in one place all the things we loved from around the world.”
Watch the Video: Owner Affie Hussain shows us around Villa San Luigi
Each of the seven bedrooms does just that. For example, Bleu resonates with influences from the Arab world. The beautiful cupboard doors have arched glass windows “like the arches of a mosque,” Affie says. Cinese, a guest room designed with Asian references has the famous Thai-made Jim Thompson fabric, “Enter the Dragon”, and furniture from China. Joanna is so committed to the transcultural aesthetic that she has even chosen themed books for the individual rooms such as Travels with Marco Polo for Cinese and Arabian Nights for Bleu.
Inside the social areas of the villa where the ambiance is warm and inviting, the art on the walls also reflects the couple’s international lives. On one wall is a piece by one of China’s celebrated “horse painter”, Zhao Guo Hua. Affie points to a landscape over the drawing room fireplace which he says, though executed by Vietnamese artist, Nguyen Phan Hoa, reminds him of Tuscany. One of the most exciting artists’ works that the couple has on display is a piece by Pakistan’s figurative abstract painter, Mashkoor Raza. “He paints horses,” says Affie, a longtime polo player with a large collection of polo memorabilia, “so naturally we were excited to find the painting at an exhibit in Dubai.”
More than anything, of course, says Affie (whose rare leisure time is spent studying Italian language and culture), “the house is about Italy!” The old wine cellar, the terracotta walls, travertine floors, indoor bread oven and the ancient Etruscan stones now in the garden, are all rooted in the centuries. And the traditions in the area are centuries old as well. One of those traditions Affie loves to talk about is the very Tuscan event, Palio di Siena, a horse race. The bareback competitions (there are two each summer) date back to late medieval times and are cause for great celebrations in the area including a pageant with swords, flags, and period costumes. Thousands of onlookers come to nearby Siena for the event and line the streets of the city’s Piazza del Campo.
But while the festivals are grand (there is also a cycling competition and a vintage car race) it is, after all, peace and solitude that the couple sought in Tuscany. Away from the raucous and celebratory events, up on the hillside, one of their favorite spots on their estate is by the pool, among the ferns and date trees. From there in the early morning, they can see deer, wild boar, rabbits in the forest and just beyond the small lake below, the gentle hills of Val D’Orcia.
And what does Affie Hussein think about when he is jetting around the globe unable to squeeze in a visit to his sanctuary? “I am just sad I am not there. Every time I go, winter, summer or fall,” he says with an audible catch in his throat, “I say, ‘this is my favorite time of the year here!’ But the truth is, he admits, every time of the year is the best time to be there at their beloved Villa San Luigi.