Elegant early 20th-century Italian architecture makes for some of the most beautiful homes in the world, and a growing number of tour companies now offer exclusive access to these luxurious properties. Get your camera ready for some serious touring.
Some of the best villas in Italy are hidden in the hills or down on the beach. While many people know heavy-hitters like Le Corbusier, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Hans Wegner, and Arne Jacobsen, Italian designer cum architect cum magazine publisher Gio Ponti, is less familiar, like his other Italian counterparts Achille Castiglioni, Vincenzo Scognamiglio Pastore, Carlo Scarpa, and Carlo Mollino.
Villa Tramonto, on the Amalfi coast of Italy just south of Naples, was built in the 1960s by renowned architect Vincenzo Scognamiglio Pastore. It’s dramatically situated over the Tyrrhenian Sea, with a stairway descending to a private beach. The villas are hidden away in secluded corners; some are close to famous towns like Positano or Ravello — beautiful spots to enjoy the area’s stunning coastline and lively nightlife — while others sit farther from it all, overlooking Capri and the island of Ischia from hillside properties.
The living rooms of mid-century designer Italian villas are usually the piece de resistance of the homes — and Villa Ponti Bellavista’s main living room is a unique example. The living room’s centrepiece is the sunken, Mad Men lounge with what was once an open fire with a giant pregnant plaster belly above it. The open fire has since been replaced with a wood-burning slow combustion stove, but the cosiness of the pit, for chatting with friends, aperitivi in front of the fire, was what it was designed for. Germans would call it the geborgenheit centrepiece of the villa.
Villa Ponti Bellavista is a jewel in the crown of Italian innovation. Italy’s villas of Mid-Century Modern Architecture are jaw dropping, and each one could be a trip. Like Villa Ponti Bellavista on Lake Como, these vacation homes were designed for wealthy families who didn’t live in them, often only using them for holidays. Some are quite famous thanks to celebrity owners, such as Greta Garbo and the Agnellis. Others are just stunning architecture that will make your mouth drop.
Villa Ponti Bellavista is a masterpiece overseen by Gio Ponti, who handed the project to two young protégés working for Domus magazine, Ponti’s baby – the world’s first well-known architectural monthly publication.
Ponti and young Cesare Casati, an enthusiastic young architect who later was nominated creative director of Domus, worked on various housing estate projects with Ponti, most notably in Tuscany.
Before, Ponti had made a name for himself with his mid-century chair design, the ‘superleggere’, named for being super light and strong with a strong modern design. In industrial circles, he was also knowns for designing the interior of luxury transatlantic ships. This influence can be seen everywhere in Villa Ponti Bellavista, nestled, like an eagle’s nest, on the side of a hill in Lake Como, near Bellagio. From the ship’s funnels on the flat roof, for the chimney, to the ship’s light at the front door, the stylish wood panelling entrance hall and marble spiral staircase, Ponti ensured the villa design would stand the test of time.
Like many of the most beautiful villas on Lake Como, this one is nestled in the hills above Bellagio.
Also in Italy’s north, the historic and culturally rich town of Turin and its nearby Alps, home to skiing in the winter and trekking and climbing in the summer, provide a compelling backdrop for Casa Mollini Turin’s (CMT) luxurious accommodations. Included among its entirely Italian furniture, modern art, and decorative accessories are pieces from internationally-renowned designers such as Castiglioni, Giacudini, Rizzato, Saarinen, and Zanuso.
The villa is located just outside of Turin, in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Valle D’Aosta, offering spacious rooms, private bath, and classic Italian style. Positioned in an estate called the Colonia Montana, billed as a residential colony for those looking to escape the city. The design of Casa Mollini is driven by light, which enters the grand home through unique silhouettes and shapes found around each room.
Other villas in Italy
Further south, overlooking the Mediterranean, visitors can now stay in historic villas in Italy overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, formerly the home of renowned Italian architect Achille Castiglioni. All of the mid-century masterpieces he and his brothers designed are at your fingertips, from the Arco lamp to the Brionvega television.
Mid-century design enthusiasts will adore this recently renovated Italian villa that’s right out of the pages of Dwell. The heating and cooling system, window screens, and doors have all been replaced, while the original 1950s flooring has been restored to its former glory. For more information about the architect’s projects, visit the foundation set up to preserve his works.
For those interested in a piece of mid-century design while staying in Venice, visiting the luxury retreat in the heart of the floating city, with its stunning garden and private access to the canals, is a once in a lifetime treat. The house can be visited either on its own or as a continuation of Palazzo Querini Stampalia, an elegant patrician palace with one of the finest private canalside gardens in Venice. Carlo Scarpa’s masterpiece is filled with mid-century modern design and contemporary art from his personal collection. The space was used as a summer retreat for family and friends and has been lovingly recreated by the Scarpas’ descendants to reflect the amazing life of one of the most interesting and influential architects of the 20th century.
For the architect Carlo Scarpa the 1960s were his heyday of villa design. In 1963 he finished the Querini Stampalia Foundation in Venice and the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona. He also worked on famous projects in Italy and Switzerland during this period. It was due to these works that in 1964 the Venetian collector Loredana Balboni (1920-2013) asked him to renovate her house on the Grand Canal, Ca’ Marioni-Mainella.
If design is your passion, and mid-century is your period, Italy is a window into the mind of architects fed by history but stamped with the passion of the modern age.