A former bishop’s boathouse adjacent to an ancient basilica in Venice has been masterfully renovated to marry the old with the new.
My husband went out to buy a fridge and came back with a house.” That’s the joke Italian designer Ilaria Miani likes to tell about how her husband found Casa L’Arsenale, their elegant three-storey, six-bedroom villa on one of the oldest island districts in Venice. About eight years ago, he’d come up empty-handed after a long day’s hunting for a refrigerator that would suit the couple’s small apartment on the Venetian island of Guidecca. He sought a moment’s peace in the gardens surrounding San Pietro di Castello, a basilica that dates back to the 7th century, and it was here, next to the ancient church — the cathedral of Venice until 1807, when Basilica San Marco claimed that honour — that Giorgio found what was once the bishop’s boathouse for sale. “Giorgio bought the house right there and then, without telling me,” exclaims Miani. “He said, ‘There’s nothing to do to it, you’ll see — just the floors.’ ” In truth, “everything was rotten”, she laughs. “It took us three years to renovate and we had to sell three houses to pay for it!” Luckily one of Miani’s passions, and indeed greatest talents, is breathing new life into ancient structures that have seen better days ( see page 172). As one of Italy’s leading interior designers, she is sought after for her sensitive approach to restoration and singular flair for marrying traditional building techniques and craftsmanship with clean, contemporary interiors. Having originally trained as an art historian and gallerist, Miani first turned her hand to interior ››
“I looked backwards to find the building’s story. This always gives me all the inspiration I need”
‹‹ design in the early 1980s, when she created a small workshop at the bottom of her house in Rome, producing frames for paintings when she couldn’t find any she liked. “At the same time, Giorgio and I had started to do up farm houses in Tuscany to rent out,” she explains. “So I began designing all the things I needed for that — everything from tables, chairs and sofas to plates, napkins and trays.” In Venice, faced with a house in a state of serious disrepair and stripped of its original detailing after years of neglect, Miani did as she always does: “I looked backwards to find the building’s story. This always gives me all the inspiration I need.” She searched the city’s museums for answers and found them in paintings of Venice by the great 18th-century masters Francesco Guardi and Canaletto. In one painting she saw the boathouse had a cavana (boat shelter), long since walled up and subdivided, so Miani sought permission to reopen it. In another, there was an altana (roof terrace), “so we asked to redo that, too”. She kept the decoration simple, creating a cool, soothing oasis of exposed brick, salvaged woods, and smooth seminato floors (lime mixed with ground pieces of marble and coloured pigment — or terracotta in the cavana — and then polished) against an all-white backdrop of walls, furniture and curtains. Furniture is loosely covered, long sheer curtains flutter in the breeze, and modern art lends an unexpected twist — like the punk painting by Miani’s eldest son, Orlando, boldly taking centre stage in the kitchen. It’s the perfect rebellion against the lavishly decorated and gilded interiors of the palazzos that famously line the Grand Canal. Miani has lent many of her signature design touches as well: ceilings supported by thick, grainy beams; custom- designed furniture (the design of the wrought-iron four-poster beds are inspired by those Miani grew up with at her grandmother’s house, the historic Villa dei Collazzi, outside Florence); and a textural mix of the rough and patinaed with the sleek and smooth. Bottoms of antique cupboards have been cropped and steel kitchen shelves elevated to cope with the rise and fall of the canal water outside; wood used in the cavana and loft was rescued from a builder’s yard. “When they redo a house here, they think the salt is in everything so they throw it all away,” she says. The “very ancient” green of the dining room floor was inspired by Venice’s Palazzo Grimani. For Miani, it’s proved the perfect place not only to rest and relax (it can sleep up to 16 with multiple spaces to eat, cook, sleep and entertain) but to work, too. “It’s so quiet and I like being able to walk everywhere,” she says. “It feeds my love of art and architecture, old and new. Venice is a city that is truly very different — here, the spirit of everything floats so freely.”