– the in­te­rior of the Ital­ian am­bas­sador’s home re­flects his no­madic life­style


Fol­low­ing post­ings in Buenos Aires and New Delhi, the Ital­ian am­bas­sador to New Zealand and his in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor hus­band brought their in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tion of fur­ni­ture, ob­jets and art to Welling­ton.

The big­gest ben­e­fit for those liv­ing a peri­patetic life­style has to be their ac­cess to unique pieces and ex­otic finds, each im­bued with its own colour­ful story. Just ask His Ex­cel­lency Carmelo Bar­barello, Ital­ian am­bas­sador to New Zealand from 2014 to 2016, and his Span­ish hus­band Javier Barca. Be­fore meet­ing Barca in Athens in 2002, when he was Ital­ian am­bas­sador to Greece, Bar­barello was posted in Ethiopia. To­gether, they’ve spent the two-to-four year stretches ex­pected of these diplo­matic mis­sions in Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina, and New Delhi in In­dia.

It goes with­out say­ing that prior to ar­riv­ing in Welling­ton, the am­bas­sador and the in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor were well-versed in the art of col­lect­ing spe­cial pieces. Over the years, they have also be­come ex­perts at edit­ing their be­long­ings be­fore ship­ping them across the ocean to fur­nish – and of­ten re­fur­bish – their tem­po­rary new home. “Each res­i­dence is com­pletely dif­fer­ent and of­ten comes with its own fur­ni­ture,” says Barca. “We never know what we’ll find and we’ve had to fit our be­long­ings into spa­ces that are dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent in size.”

Barca wouldn’t have it any other way. Ever since he can re­mem­ber, he has been fas­ci­nated by in­te­rior spa­ces. Af­ter re­lo­cat­ing to Rome, he be­gan work­ing at Bel­gian in­te­ri­ors store Fla­mant. There, he says, he learned first-hand how to work with tex­tiles, cur­tains and wall­pa­pers. He showed such nat­u­ral flair that his em­ploy­ers soon gave him free rein to cre­ate a depart­ment ded­i­cated to res­i­den­tial re­fur­bish­ments.

In 2012, while based in Buenos Aires, the cou­ple mar­ried at the Span­ish con­sulate. Home in the Ar­gen­tine cap­i­tal was in the Reco­leta dis­trict, where their enor­mous 500sqm apart­ment in a 1927 French-style build­ing re­called an era when Ar­gentina was the fourth-rich­est coun­try in the world. “Our flat was a dream,” says Barca. “The build­ing’s fa­cade had been brought over in pieces from France and we had an en­tire floor to our­selves. It had Slove­nian oak floors, French mar­ble fire­places and mul­ti­ple bal­conies with French bronze han­dles.”

New Delhi was the op­po­site. Af­ter view­ing 80 ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions, the pair de­cided on a tiny 1950s house in the diplo­matic area of Chanakya­puri and Barca went to work cre­at­ing an oa­sis among the heat and chaos. “I ren­o­vated the bath­rooms, ter­race, din­ing and liv­ing rooms and then com­pressed our fur­ni­ture into less than half the space we’d had in Buenos Aires, but we’re very flex­i­ble like that,” he laughs.

In Welling­ton the house that was bought by the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment in 1961 for its am­bas­sadors comes with its own

in­ter­est­ing his­tory. It was orig­i­nally ar­chi­tect Thomas Turn­bull’s home and was built by him in 1877. Turn­bull also de­signed sev­eral heritage sites in Welling­ton in­clud­ing the Wil­lis Street churches of St Peter and St John, the for­mer Na­tional Mu­tual

Life As­so­ci­a­tion build­ing, the Gen­eral As­sem­bly Library, and the for­mer Bank of New Zealand head of­fice.

The two-storey villa boasts first-floor Ital­ianate bal­conies that sit over dou­ble-bay win­dows on the ground floor and a large ve­randa. A faux ter­ra­cotta floor and car­pets were raised dur­ing ren­o­va­tions in 2003 and 2007 to re­veal orig­i­nal matai and kauri floors in the down­stairs re­cep­tion rooms. The par­quet floor in the liv­ing room is a mag­nif­i­cent mo­saic of al­ter­nat­ing dark matai and light kauri wood, sep­a­rated at their ends by di­a­monds of Aus­tralian wood. Up­stairs is a mas­ter bed­room, two guest bed­rooms and a stu­dio.

Ar­riv­ing in Au­gust 2014 with a mis­sion to pro­mote Ital­ian cul­ture, trade, lan­guage and sci­en­tific en­deav­our and to in­crease Italy’s $1.3 bil­lion in an­nual trade with New Zealand, Bar­barello says he was en­thralled by the ar­chi­tec­ture but unim­pressed with the qual­ity of the fur­ni­ture. “The in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion was so poor,” he says. “A rad­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion was ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary.” Barca im­me­di­ately be­gan cre­at­ing a home that was live­able, in­ti­mate and warm, re­flected an Ital­ian sen­si­bil­ity, and that would also meet the de­mands of diplo­matic life.

Af­ter re­fresh­ing the walls of the re­cep­tion rooms us­ing a pal­ette of light and dark grey, he con­cen­trated on re­plac­ing the drapes. “Tex­tiles are very im­por­tant to cre­ate a wel­com­ing space that also has an el­e­ment of the­atri­cal­ity about it,” he says. To cre­ate a co­he­sive frame­work for the re­cep­tion rooms on the ground floor and ren­der the space mod­ern and light while en­hanc­ing the orig­i­nal wooden win­dow frames, Barca worked with C&C Mi­lano to cre­ate be­spoke ‘re­laxed’ Ro­man blinds in cream li­nen with a black gros­grain trim.

Barca, who claims he doesn’t have a sin­gle iden­ti­fi­able style, mixed the cou­ple’s fur­ni­ture from dif­fer­ent eras with some of the ex­ist­ing fur­ni­ture and added iconic Ital­ian Artemide and

Flos chan­de­liers and lamps. Favour­ing a pal­ette of greys, greens, blacks and petroleum blues, his sig­na­ture touches in­clude plac­ing mid-cen­tury fur­ni­ture in pale wood in front of dark walls. “Many mu­se­ums in the world use dark walls as this adds a sense of the value of the ob­jects and art on dis­play,” he says.

Next, he de­cided on an at­trac­tive fo­cal point for im­por­tant

pieces, whether art, an­tique fur­ni­ture or con­tem­po­rary de­sign. “I can’t buy pieces for spe­cific spa­ces as we move around the world. But I be­lieve it is the ob­jects them­selves that find their own place within an in­te­rior,” he says. “The se­cret lies in se­lect­ing pieces full of char­ac­ter over ba­nal, anony­mous pieces.” A sculp­ture by Ar­gen­tine artist Enio Iommi has pride of place in the liv­ing room and a mag­nif­i­cent 1960s Joe Colombo Elda chair, which they bought at auc­tion in Auck­land, sits in front of a col­lec­tion of Vene­tian Venini glass.

Barca has a pen­chant for heavy vel­vets and jacquard but in a diplo­matic home, all tex­tiles must be func­tional and, in the case of the lemon yel­low Art Deco arm­chairs, re­mov­able so they can be cleaned. “Diplo­matic res­i­dences are not nor­mal homes,” ex­plains Barca. “There is a lot of en­ter­tain­ing, from more in­ti­mate break­fasts and lunches to for­mal din­ners and elab­o­rate events. These tran­sit spa­ces re­quire a prac­ti­cal at­ti­tude.”

Barca ar­ranged the in­te­ri­ors in the down­stairs rooms in a man­ner that al­lowed peo­ple to move eas­ily within them. “I had to en­sure we could ac­com­mo­date up to 70 peo­ple and that there were plenty of ta­bles or sur­faces to place glasses and plates,” he says. Fur­ni­ture was of­ten moved when larger groups were en­ter­tained and some­times this meant sac­ri­fic­ing their own pref­er­ences for the com­fort of their guests. “There is noth­ing more em­bar­rass­ing, for ex­am­ple, then to see a wo­man in a skirt and high heels strug­gling to get up from a very low, mod­ern sofa,” ex­plains Barca.

Light­ing, he adds, is an­other of his se­cret weapons. “Dim­mers are es­sen­tial and I might change the lamp shades to freshen things up,” he says. “Small things like can­dles, fresh flow­ers and plants can also re­ally change how a space feels.”

To add a per­sonal touch to their col­lec­tion, the duo al­ways buy an art­work by an artist from the coun­try they are liv­ing in. But while they al­most al­ways agree on in­te­ri­ors, their taste in art of­ten dif­fers. “Art is more per­sonal, more in­tro­spec­tive. The per­cep­tion and mean­ing of colours and forms changes from one per­son to an­other,” says Barca. “We don’t buy art as an in­vest­ment, we choose art we want to live with.” To memo­ri­alise their time in

New Zealand, a Dick Frizzell litho­graph called Red Har­ing was, for them, an in­ge­nious com­bi­na­tion of Maori and con­tem­po­rary art lan­guage.

When his two-year term as am­bas­sador came to an end in Septem­ber, Bar­barello re­turned to Rome with Barca and their con­tain­ers of in­cred­i­ble art and fur­ni­ture. So what will he miss most about their Welling­ton home? “Javier man­aged to com­bine our per­sonal pic­tures, sculp­tures and other pieces of art in a won­der­ful way,” says Bar­barello. “The res­i­dence con­tained the essence of Italy and be­came a place that we loved to spend time alone or sur­rounded by friends and of­fi­cial guests.”

Right: a col­lec­tion of Venini vases and carafes are dis­played be­hind a vin­tage Elda arm­chair by Joe Colombo. Be­low right: Barca (left) and Bar­barello pose

in front of a paint­ing by Ar­gen­tine artist Ed­uardo Pla.

Right: Barca de­signed the sofa, which is up­hol­stered in Pepe Peñalver fab­ric. Bronze

fig­urines from Italy and France stand on a Fla­mant con­sole. Be­low right: the cabi­net and

blue vel­vet arm­chairs be­long to the res­i­dence. The wooden stools are in­spired by a Max Lamb

de­sign and the rug is from Turkey.

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