(The New York Times – S.Keenan) Elisabetta Bruscolini and Giancarlo Astrologo are passionate collectors of friends, objects and, yes, homes. She is the general manager of the national film school in Italy, a producer known for spotting gifted young filmmakers and nurturing them through their first major projects. He is a former high-end fashion designer who has turned his attention to collecting art. But while they have been together for 16 years, they have never felt the urge to wed.
“Marriage? I don’t think it’s important,” Ms. Bruscolini said. “A relationship is something that you choose every day. We amuse each other and never get bored because we like to do the same things: friends, talk, art, cinema, traveling.” And the large community of friends they have cultivated melds with their combined extended families (three adult sons and several grandchildren) not just in Rome, where they have their primary residence, but also in Tuscany, where they spend most of their free time.
Early on in their relationship, they renovated a house in the Tuscan town of Castelmuzio, meticulously preserving the medieval exterior while turning the interiors sleek and modern and white — an ideal backdrop for their easy entertaining style, art collection (his) and vintage film photographs (hers). The project was a three-year collaboration with a small Sardinian firm, VPS Architetti, led by Giuseppe Vallifuoco, a man Ms. Bruscolini lived with for 13 years when her twin sons were young. (Some people might find such a situation uncomfortable, but as Mr. Astrologo explained, as Ms. Bruscolini translated from Italian: “Giuseppe has become one of my best friends. We are like brothers. There is no friction working together.”)
Mr. Astrologo and Ms. Bruscolini, now both in their 60s, adored that house. But one day in 2007, while out walking in the countryside, they learned that the striking hillside property they most coveted, a large parish house attached to an ancient church, was for sale, Ms. Bruscolini said. “We bought it in two days,” she said. “It’s one kilometer away from the village, in the middle of an olive grove — a magical site.” The church, the Pieve di Santo Stefano in Cennano, was consecrated Catholic in 1285, but dates to around A.D. 715. (Events like baptisms, weddings and concerts are still held there, but church services take place in town.) And for centuries, the adjacent stone residence sheltered priests and pilgrims, knights and peasant farmers. “For the first five months, we undid what had been done in the last 100 years, and the original structure began to show itself,” Ms. Bruscolini said. “We followed the same idea of the old, old house: all large open rooms, and where the priests slept was a big chimney. When pilgrims stopped in, they could sleep there, too. The bottom floor is where the animals were.”
No one imagined that renovating the more than 5,000-square-foot structure, which they bought for about $1 million, would cost almost $2.6 million and take nearly four years. Turns out, getting approval to remodel a historic building can be downright byzantine in Tuscany. But that wasn’t the only obstacle.
Designing away pungent, age-old smells is not something architects normally have to contend with, but the stench on the lower level was omnipresent, recalled Ilene Steingut, an American architect on the team. “The smell was overwhelming,” said Ms. Steingut, who is one of three partners in the firm and also happens to be married to Mr. Vallifuoco, Ms. Bruscolini’s ex. (That complication didn’t seem to trouble anyone much, either. As Ms. Bruscolini said, “In our circle of friends, it is not considered something that is that unusual.”)
The porous stone walls of the lower level had afforded the animals a place to relieve themselves for centuries, and the only way to get rid of the smell, the architects decided, was to create an insulating structure around it. “To ensure that the smell would not re-emerge,” Ms. Steingut said, “we decided to use a cavity wall system with an air space between the existing and new walls in hollow-core terra-cotta units.”
Many of the home’s other walls had also been built up or added onto throughout the ages, and everyone involved described the puzzle of figuring out how to deal with them as a similarly daunting challenge — or, to put it another way, an organic design process. Changes were made mid-construction (bookcases were carved into the thick walls, internal windows were added), unnerving local craftsmen who were accustomed to dealing with a predetermined blueprint. “The workers on the job were very resistant at first,” Ms. Steingut said. “But in the end, they were all curious about the work we were doing and eventually satisfied with the outcome. Today, the exterior retains its Old World patina. But inside, the home is a marriage — or, should we say, a partnership — of modern finishes and original structure. The lighting is subtle, playing up the owners’ art pieces and architectural details like the enormous ceiling beams without drawing attention to itself. As Mr. Vallifuoco wrote in an e-mail, it “is hidden from view or emerges from fissures and holes in the walls and ceilings.”
Not surprisingly, the house, which sleeps 12, is usually filled with an international assortment who derive joy from the arts. Many will gather there in April for the local film festival Ms. Bruscolini helps to organize. “The house is something we like to share,” she said. “Just as it was in old times.” How long this finished work will hold the couple’s interest is anyone’s guess. The attraction of art and design can be a fickle business. Recently, Mr. Astrologo came to the sudden realization that he was over Art Deco, and he up and sold nearly all of his collection, in favor of mid-20th-century Sino-Tibetan art.
As for Ms. Bruscolini, after finishing the filming of her latest work, “Elementary Love” (a difficult movie, she said, in that it features prepubescent actors in all the major parts), she will move on to her next project, a comedy. One recent Saturday, while waiting for houseguests to arrive, she speculated about why her relationship with Mr. Astrologo works (“We spend our time together always doing very interesting things and not in front of the TV.”), and about their next collaboration. She envisions a house somewhere in the Greek Isles, she said, perfectly close to the sea.
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