If I were to show you an illustration of a villa (above) and a photo of that villa (below), with no previous knowledge of its location or who designed and built it, would you be able to suggest where it is, who designed it, and from what era it originates?
Though the taste for Tuscany in American residential architecture and interior decoration has waned in the past few years in favor of French country (again) there are certain locales and climes where this style feels right at home, no matter the trends. In the 1990’s, when the Tuscan-style was gaining popularity, Becky and Lee Hudson decided they wanted a Tuscan-style villa of their own for their property in California’s Napa Valley – a natural instinct given that Italian immigrants introduced grapes into the Napa valley in the 1850’s and Italian-style dwellings soon followed. It began with a month-long trip to Tuscany with their friend and architect Ned Forrest, visiting as many villas as they could fit in, making note of room, door and window heights, color combinations, and sketching ideal floor plans. They came to realize that they were attracted most to villas with classical proportions inspired by the Palladian villas from the 15th-century in the Veneto, with rooms branching off one centered great room. Their journey from conceptualization to realization would take ten years, studying and working out every detail to their satisfaction. The end result would be as close as one can get to an Italian country house in California. Combining the classical architectural canon of Palladio with the rustic material and finish of a Tuscan farmhouse, Forrest created an Italianate villa with Old World ambiance set amidst the Western grasslands of Napa Valley.
Burnt sienna, umber and ocher are predominantly featured inside and out the villa. The symmetrically balanced facade washed in burnt sienna blends into the Napa Valley landscape as naturally as any Tuscan farmhouse in Italy. The intense color interacts with the sunlight favorably, absorbing and diffusing the harsh light, as in Tuscany, and blends with the earthen colors of the landscape during the hottest months. Characteristic of the classically-inspired Palladian villa are small windows and few openings, to ensure that the villa’s rooms remain cool during the summer. In the Veneto, much further north of Tuscany, Palladio built villas for the wealthy to escape the unbearable heat of Venice in the summer (and the resultant stank produced by the warmed canal waters). When Palladio’s vernacular began to filter into Tuscany these design characteristics carried over.
In their quest for authenticity the Hudson’s allowed for no modern amenities, such as skylights, to brighter their interiors. Instead, they called on an old friend who happened to also be one of America’s preeminent interior decorators, the late Mark Hampton, to introduce life into their rooms – which during the gray winter months could become quite chilly in the subjective sense. A trio of French doors punctuated by clerestory windows allows light to flood into the large living room, above. A classic but casual mix of Italian and French furniture gathered during their sojourn to Europe includes an Italian cabinet on the back wall, a chest as table in the Italian tradition, and a pair of leather covered Louis XIV fauteuils, barely visible, far right. In the winter the sofa’s slip cover is removed to reveal its rich brown velvet upholstery. There is nothing slightly American about this room, save for our love of sisal floor covering. It is perfectly Tuscan – simple, evolved and unselfconscious. If anything it resembles a British expat’s Tuscan villa: the pair of comfortable upholstered armchairs look more English than Italian.
For the double-height living room Mark Hampton selected a rich ocher deep enough to envelop the space with character. As in Tuscan country houses, dark wood furniture plays to great affect against the luminous, glowing color-integrated ocher of plaster walls layered on with a trowel. Simple Florentine tile floors were finished only with wax and linseed oil to allow them to age. Loose damask slip covers, with ruffled skirts so popular in Italian interiors, dress the sofa and fauteuils in the summer.
The picture of Tuscan style: an earthen palate, rustic materials, and classic but casual furnishings and decorative art. The painting above the English mantel came from Madrid; the leather chairs are Louis XIV.
Despite the painted and slip-covered Louis XVI-style chairs the terra-cotta painted dining room feels “ripe” for a Tuscan meal overlooking vast vineyards. In fact, this room is so perfectly classic and unaffected that, in addition to Tuscany, it could be a country house in France, Portugal or Spain. “These are not rooms for black ties” said Hampton. “They are rooms for living. It’s a house where people do a lot out doors, and when they come inside, they want to get away from the outside.” Interesting point of view for a home in California where views, and an indoor-outdoor quality of life, always intercede.
The painting and chandelier are Italian.
Elements of a perfect dining room: a (nearly) round table for easy conversation; a fireplace for ambiance and warmth; a candlelit chandelier and wall sconces for romance; and expressive terra-cotta glazed walls to incite conversation and appetite.
A portico viewed from the dining room glows afire in the sunlight.
The pretty breakfast room glows from a rose-and-white color scheme and comforts with traditional European country house furnishings and decor.
A side entrance off the living room is washed in a variation of the same ocher color to provide continuity. Another trunk, favored by Italians, plaster walls – with imperfections – lined with map drawings, Italian jugs, rustic hurricanes, a worn kilim and a hall chair appear to have been collected over generations.
As often is found in Italian country houses the master bedroom is furnished with more elegant, prettily painted Italian furniture. A simply dressed bed with pineapple finials allows the view to take center stage.
The stout presence of a 19th-century American bathtub contrasts the elegant lines of an Italian parcel gilt console and French slipper chair.
A child’s room is anchored by an antique needlepoint rug which informed the choice of Brunschwig & Fils textiles for the daybed and screen.
A garden room with a pond is lush with Mediterranean foliage.
This concludes my series, Under the Tuscan Sun. I hope you enjoyed this rather extensive, if not long, journey into the Tuscan countryside, its villas, and influence on American Tuscan-style residential design.
Reading list: Local Color, written by Christine Pittel for House Beautiful, with photographs by Dominique Vorillon; California Tuscan, written by Jacqueline Gonnet for House and Garden, with photographs by Michael Mundy; and Mark Hampton: An American Decorator by Duane Hampton, with photographs by Dominique Vorillon and Michael Mundy.