A 17th-century palace renovation
Interior designer and stylist Francesca Orsi has transformed an ancient palace into a family home by filling it with theatrical flourishes and surprises at every turn. Feature & Styling Francesca Davoli. Photographs Fabrizio Cicconi/Living Inside
Twelve years ago, when interior designer Francesca Orsi first viewed the rambling 17th-century palace that is now her home, she turned it down. Despite its evident beauty, it didn’t feel right for her, so she moved her family into a smaller, 18th-century villa instead. ‘It was much more in keeping with my style at the time,’ she explains.
But, seven years later, Francesca’s style had evolved and she felt the urge to work on a new project. ‘I wanted something I could mould,’ she says. ‘A starting point from which I could give life to a space I’d been dreaming about.’ It was time to sell up and move on.
After several months of fruitless searching, Francesca received the details of an ancient palace in need of complete renovation. The wonderful palace she’d seen seven years earlier was on the market once again, this time in a parlous state. Francesca arranged a viewing without a moment’s hesitation. ‘I understood it had been waiting for me all along,’ she says. ‘I realised I’d established a deep connection with the space when I first saw it all those years earlier. Finally, the moment for me to embrace its beauty had arrived!’
On her first visit after getting the keys, the full extent of the structural issues were revealed. It was ‘rather unsettling,’ she admits. Having decided from the outset that she wanted to work autonomously, without the assistance of an architect, Francesca’s taste for the challenge grew in direct proportion to the problems the property kept throwing her way. ‘My ideas were very clear. I knew my goals and I wanted to reach them on my own – my work as an interior designer has helped me to develop long-term visions for gravely damaged spaces.’
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With parts of the house dating back to 1600, including a central courtyard garden, Francesca wanted to preserve as many of the ancient features as possible, including the original plaster on the walls and hardwood flooring. Where elements had decayed beyond repair, she opted for sympathetic alternatives such as glass in order to maintain the clean, rather stark lines of the 17th-century architecture.
Having completed the restoration, Francesca found herself with a blank canvas on which she could finally realise her vision, which she describes as a wunderkammer, or a cabinet of curiosities. ‘I wanted to create an atmosphere and a look that would hold the visitor’s gaze, regardless of their taste.’
Because of the building’s open-plan nature, ‘the rooms needed to interact with each other’, Francesca explains, and views through doorways, from room to room, were as important as the individual spaces themselves. Finding a balance between the various elements – furnishings, architecture and decoration – was essential. ‘I thought the best method was to mix up the styles, so that vintage intersected with contemporary, along with Nordic colours, Baroque lines and pieces from the 1940s.’
Francesca spent many happy months scouring interesting markets, antiques fairs and jumble sales across Europe to gather the decorations and furnishings for her home. Cast-iron radiators, sourced from a palace in Genoa, were installed to provide heating, antique chandeliers light the rooms, and vintage furniture was shipped from France, Sweden and the UK. However, not everything she bought made the final cut. ‘Some pieces were just the starting point for creating the right environment.’
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Walking through Francesca’s house is like wandering through a series of elaborate and slightly surreal film sets. The most striking room is undoubtedly the kitchen: dominated by a wall covered with giant poppies, a nod to the courtyard garden outside, it is also the most dramatic of the many wonderful focal points that punctuate the interlinking rooms.
‘I told Eva [a mural artist] I wanted a ‘home garden’ – a garden wall within the house,’ Francesca says. Over the course of many discussions the idea matured into the full-scale mural installed above a run of kitchen units so sleek and minimal it’s possible to miss them entirely. She is delighted with the outcome: ‘It was in perfect synergy with my feelings. Eva painted my dream.’
Francesca’s work means that she is continually re-evaluating her ideas, and responding to new sources of inspiration. As a consequence, she doubts the house will ever be finished. But she’s happy with that. ‘It’s a work in progress,’ she says, and it’s clear she prefers it that way, so it will remain forever, ‘a canvas on which to sketch dreams and visions’.
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