Grace and sensibility

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    Grace and sensibility
    By Sophy Roberts

    Waking up and throwing open the windows above the waters of Lake Como remains one of my most powerful memories of Villa Maria Taglioni. I hear the splash of boys from the village of Blevio jumping off a floating pontoon into the cool water. And the ring of bells from the village, its steeple almost concealed by the villa’s rich and tumbling gardens. Then quiet – total quiet. This is a villa without the bustle of an awakening hotel, a view without pool attendants straightening the sun loungers, and a lake without jet-skis and noisy speedboats. Instead, an empty jetty sleeps on the still water beneath me.

    Not that the experience comes cheap, for I’m staying in one of the finest houses in Italy, which recently became available to rent. It belongs to Italy’s super-league: top historical properties where prices are spiralling – some are going for as much as £50,000 a week in summer – and sometimes that’s without air-conditioning, marble bathrooms or free-flowing vintage Barolo.

    What’s appealing about the Italian super-villa – houses that are little-known, generally only by word of mouth or through a very select group of agents – is how much history is loaded into their fresco-lined walls. Many of these properties won’t suit the luxury hunter seeking a perfect finish; on-site spas, power showers and infinity pools are expectations better met by newly built properties in St Tropez. In Italy, you’re paying for a sensibility, a mood, and exceptional gardens, art collections and architecture where some of the bathrooms, frankly, could do with going en suite, where the cook could learn some English, and where the tennis court is flanked by walls of unpruned rosa banksiae concealing balls lost circa 1973. They’re for travellers taking that other fork in the high-end villa market, towards the quirky, memorable, authentic experience instead of have-it-all, flash-it-all, gold-tapped luxury clichés.

    US-born agent Pamela O’Shea, whose Florence-based agency Custom Italy represents some of the country’s best private houses, says: “Even the Americans are prepared to pay anything to get the original experience. And this despite the weak dollar. The very top end of the market is moving faster and faster. Some properties – on Como, for instance – are getting booked up more than a year in advance. Yet, in all honesty, the properties don’t always have the amenities you’d think they should have for these kind of prices [but] they have something else which is much, much harder to find.”

    In coastal Sorrento, just south of Naples, the 12-bed Villa Vesuvio is the perfect example, and available to rent though London-based agency Lanza & Baucina. Its location is unbeatable, with views of Vesuvius and Capri from the cliffs of Sorrento. It has a private jetty beside a Roman grotto cut into the rock.

    The villa, whose current incarnation dates from 1888, goes back to Agrippa Postumus, grandson of Emperor Augustus. The gardens are exceptional: 20,000 sq metres packed with rare exotics, pines and succulents planted by William Waldorf Astor, who lived here from 1906 to 1919. Roman marble heads peer out between arches along clifftop, rose-covered balconies. You could sit here for hours, absorbing the textured history, which seeps into the interiors packed with art, sculpture and books – including original manuscripts by Republican philosopher Benedetto Croce, who lived in the villa during the second world war.

    Villa Pisana, which can be rented through agent Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda at the Best in Italy, is even more private. The villa, three miles from the Etruscan coast at Viareggio, was built in 1850. Situated in a garden of approximately 50 acres, it gives on to an estate of 3,000 hectares of oaks and Mediterranean pines. Pisana is a mega-rental, sleeping 18. Built in 1830, rooms are high-ceilinged and loaded with marble, frescoes, silks and satins. The vast drawing rooms are crowded with gilded portraits. More modern facilities include a gym, pool and tennis court. Whom would it suit? An extended family who want vast lawns all to themselves, great home-cooked Tuscan food, quietly efficient butler and maid services, and days spent sleeping, reading and talking long into the night over silver and crystal-bedecked meals.

    A smaller family with a similar sensibility might be tempted by Villa Quiete on Lake Como, also available through Best in Italy. Built in the 1700s, and still owned by the same Serbelloni family, it sleeps 12. The property is placed just back from the lake (caveat: a road that runs between the shore and the villa’s elegant rose gardens) and is packed with Gobelin tapestries, frescoes by students of Tiepolo and scores of Meissen figurines. On the piano nobile, which is a private museum, there’s a cream damask bed where Napoleon slept. Here, all rooms have ensuite Carrara marble bathrooms, box-sprung mattresses and high-speed internet access.

    In 2006, a 16-year restoration was completed by the owner of Villas Maria Taglioni (seven doubles) and Serena (six doubles). The two houses share a history that dates to the 1840s when an Italian ballet dancer and her son-in-law, a banished Russian prince, made the property their home. The pale houses seem suspended over the water; In front, there is a seaplane and helicopter dock. Behind them lies a hillside garden with bamboo, lawns, ancient trees and moss-green statues, a heated pool and onion-domed Russian chapel. The interiors, while not packed with heirloom antiques, are unique because they’ve very quietly received the high-luxe overhaul. Like Villa Quiete, it has air-conditioning, all rooms have striking ensuite bathrooms, internet and well-trained, uniformed staff.

    This growing trend for delivering more consistent standards without destroying a property’s soul will also soon be true of Tre Ville in seaside Positano. From 1968 until last autumn, the property was owned by the film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli. Now under new ownership, the property will be available to rent in summer 2008 for £300,000-plus for the month of August – without doubt making it among the hottest of Italy’s private rentals for next year (available through Lanza & Baucina). While not well-suited to multi-generational families – the precipitous stairs down to this cliffside perch aren’t the safest – the property, made up of three houses (between them, sleeping 16), is a place of dreams. It is constructed on multiple terraces with views that look out towards Rudolf Nureyev’s former home on Isola Li Galli. The gardens are cut into the rock and include great clouds of roses and ancient vines, as well as the vegetables and herbs used in the villa’s cooking.

    Is it the glitziest place to stay on this glittering stretch of coast? Under Zeffirelli’s ownership it was certainly among the most chic, with interiors styled like romantic stage sets. Untouched for decades, details included collectable Catholic art, outsize antique puppets, chipped mirrors and Chinese silk-covered walls – the sort of place that was slightly peeling at the edges but of rare and intelligent beauty.

    The new owner intends to bring in the marble, the wireless, the ensuite bathrooms. I just hope he keeps Tre Ville’s greatest quirk: no pool. There is a Jacuzzi cut into one of the lower terraces, but otherwise, just a perfect little jetty at the foot of the property from which you can jump naked into a gorgeous cobalt sea. Simple luxury unadulterated.

    Sophy Roberts co-authors the FT’s hotel review column Check Out and is the editor-at-large of Departures magazine
    Published: December 28 2007 16:41 | Last updated: December 28 2007 16:41 Financial Times

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