Viva Italia, Ambassador House Wellington
On the west side of Grant Road, in Wellington’s Thorndon, stands a grand 1877 home designed by architect Thomas Turnbull. In the garden, two women are having lunch alfresco, discussing the past three years of continuous work on the house and its surroundings and the final touches needed to complete their labour of love. One is Italian ambassador Liana Marolla, the other is Milanese architect Maurella Boifava. The location is the ambassador’s New Zealand residence.
Liana was appointed to New Zealand in October 2003 after a long diplomatic career that has taken her to various countries, including Argentina, France and Austria, and back to her native Rome many times over.
Her appointment to New Zealand has been extended to include Pacific Islands – Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall and Cook Islands and Nuie – and Antarctica, where Italy has two research bases.
It’s a busy life but Liana was determined to find time to take on the task of restoring the historic residence to its former glory. Step one was summoning Maurella from Italy to inspect the residence and project-manage the renovation work. “The house hadn’t been renovated for twenty years,” says Liana, “and it wasn’t just a question of aesthetics or fashion – structural repairs were seriously needed.”
So Maurella returned to Milan and began an extensive design project, including a new colour palette and replacement heating and electrical systems, while Liana supervised the work personally, using local builders and artisans.
“The challenge with historic buildings such as this one is to respect the original intention and design of the place while still making it liveable and modern,” says Maurella.
Light was a problem for Liana, who found the residence dark and severe. It was the reason she chose Maurella, who had worked in Milan with design, lighting and architectural genius Achille Castiglioni. She learned the art of inserting modern lighting into a traditional context, providing not only better light but also new points of interest to a residence. It’s no surprise that many of the pieces chosen by Maurella are among Castiglioni’s best designs: the ‘Fucsia’, ‘Taraxacum’ and ‘Brera’ lights can also be found in the world’s most famous museums of modern art and design.
The downstairs reception rooms now have the look of a classic English residence but there is still a final touch to come. All upholstery will soon be replaced with fabric from the prestigious Italian company Rubelli. A damaged faux terra-cotta floor and carpets were raised to reveal a beautiful kauri and matai floor.
Wooden architraves and other details were painted a warm white to lighten up the rooms and light colours from Dulux’s Refine range were chosen for both upstairs and downstairs walls. The exception is the living room, which now has a rousing cherry red feature wall.
The staircase and the upstairs rooms (three bedrooms and a studio) feature more Castiglioni lights and, to add a touch of warmth and comfort, a sandy New Zealand wool carpet, which the Italian architect describes as the best she has seen. Liana’s room boasts a new Italian bed with fittings and lights that reflect her personality. But the clean lines, soft colours and enduring style will also be likely to appeal to future ambassadors enjoying the same amenities.
A little restructuring was also necessary here. Originally the dressing room entrance was in the outside corridor (not very convenient) so a new entrance was opened from the master bedroom. The dressing room was also connected to the en suite bathroom, whose original door was closed to make room for a shower. Italian tiles from Treviso with a delicate leaf pattern were then installed to break up the pure white colour scheme.
The garden was also in drastic need of attention. Rampant ivy and overgrown branches were removed to let in more sun and a small path was laid, leading to the French doors that open into the main hall. On colder days the garden can be admired from the living room’s double windows.
The residence now shows the unmistakable signs of a feminine touch. The ambassador enjoys arranging the flowers herself, as well as graciously setting the long table, sumptuously lit by two eight-light ‘Fucsia’ lamps. She was delighted to discover a beautiful collection of Murano glass vases in storage at the embassy and now has them on display in one of the newly painted cabinets in the main hall.
The historic residence is once again a setting for many prestigious events, which have included the garden launch of a four-door Maserati and the inauguration of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina in New Zealand. There are also piano recitals and classic guitar concerts, receptions and elegant Italian dinners fusing the best that the Mediterranean and the Pacific have to offer.
Liana is pleased with the results of her grand project. The residence has retained its character as a New Zealand historic building, now harmoniously combined with some of the best of Italian design. It’s a style that will be enjoyed by present and future generations of Italian ambassadors and their guests.
For web exclusive images see the Photo Gallery attached to this story
Story: Alessandra Zecchini
Photographs: Hamish Trounson