Grand houses proverbially have grand souls, but the striking thing about Villa Gastel, on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como, is its mixture of the fabulous and the familial. The immense villa was a Benedictine convent, dating back to the 12th century, before it became the property of one of northern Italy’s most important families, the Visconti di Modrone. During the second part of the 20th century, the legendary director Luchino Visconti hosted Maria Callas, Helmut Berger, and Coco Chanel, among many others, at Villa Gastel. But for all its aesthetic charm, the house also exudes the homey warmth that comes from being loved by many generations.
“It has historically been a house of great art and elegance, but also of parents and children—the country life of a big family,” says the present chatelaine, Anna Gastel, who is the niece of the director. “Uncle Luchino grew up here and always adored the place. He enjoyed the huge dinner tables of us nieces and nephews, and sometimes put private family jokes into his movies, just to make us laugh.”
Gastel, a regal beauty with a throaty Milanese accent and a signature long plait of chestnut hair, is a pillar of the insular world of Italy’s haute noblesse. For years she headed the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, the trust that oversees Italy’s vast and magnificent architectural heritage; she is now the president of the MITO SettembreMusica classical music festival. She is also known for her adventurous personal life: After university she traveled the world, sang jazz in London, and then became the first female auctioneer at Christie’s in Rome. At 20, she had a small role in Visconti’s last film, L’Innocente. This morning, as sunlight streams over the Lombardy hills, she is curled up on a couch in Villa Gastel’s airy neoclassical central salon. She projects effortless glamour in a patterned Indonesian dress as she poses for a rising young photographer, 29-year-old Guido Taroni—who happens to be her son.
Fashion, like art, runs in the family: The fashion photographer Giovanni Gastel, Anna’s brother, also spent summers in the villa. Guido apprenticed with his uncle and has since racked up campaigns for Bulgari and Fratelli Rossetti. (He has also modeled, appearing in Italian Vogue and in ads for Tod’s.) It was his idea to do this shoot, the first ever of Villa Gastel, which he and his older sister, Virginia—who works in film production and lives in London—first knew as their grandparents’ house.
“We grew up in another family place nearby,” he recalls. “Mamma used to bring us on bicycles here, so this was a second home—full of beauty and a sense of the past.” And he is at home in the role of director, calling the shots: “This way, Mamma. Tilt your head. Beautiful. I think we’ll take the coat off the shoulders. Doesn’t it look a bit... middle-class?”
Later, Anna gives me a tour, recalling the history of the villa—which is intertwined with the history of Italy—and the ancestors whose faces crowd its walls. To summarize: After centuries as a convent, Villa Gastel became the home of Countess Vittoria Calderari during Napoleonic times, and then that of other assorted aristocratic owners before being purchased in 1893 by Luigi and Anna Erba. (The Erba clan made its vast fortune in pharmaceuticals.) Their daughter, Carla, married Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, first Duke of Grazzano Visconti. The Viscontis are descendants of Charlemagne, and ruled parts of northern Italy during the Renaissance. Carla and Giuseppe were Anna Gastel’s grandparents: Their seven children included her mother, Ida Pace, a famous beauty; the second duke and Anna’s favorite uncle, Guido, a war hero who left Italy to live an adventurous life in Libya and who died at the battle of El Alamein, in Egypt, during World War II; and, most famous of all, Luchino Visconti. Ida married Giuseppe Gastel and also had seven children, including Anna, who inherited the villa along with her brothers after Ida’s death.
Exploring Villa Gastel’s countless rooms, it is hard to fathom that this is just one of a host of the family’s properties both past and present—villas, castles, and palaces—scattered around Italy. A few miles south, for example, along the lake bordering the property, is the monumental Villa Olmo, which once belonged to Anna’s grandparents—a house so huge one servant was employed just to open and close all the windows. Next door to Villa Gastel is Villa Erba, a sprawling Newport-style Gilded Age showplace built by Luigi and Anna Erba, who decided Villa Gastel was too modest for their taste. While Villa Erba is now a conference center, Villa Gastel has remained rigorously private. That may soon change, though—the family is considering opening it for exclusive events. Maintaining the estate is quite an undertaking: In addition to the graceful yellow stucco main building, there are staff quarters, stables, two guesthouses—one designed to look as if it were built inside of a tree—a rustic amphitheater, and a 66-foot swimming pool. Gastel cautions that any events or tenants would have to be carefully vetted. “I wouldn’t want to put away all of our treasures,” she says plaintively.
Briskly, she leads the way through a ground-floor enfilade of formal salons decorated with neoclassical trompe l’oeil frescoes, ancestral portraits and statues, tapestries, and antiques. One of the highlights is a white Venetian neo-Gothic dining suite, presented by Luchino Visconti to his sister. Still more fascinating are the huge vaulted kitchen and laundry rooms, nearly unchanged since the days of the convent, where walls of cupboards hold exquisitely arranged bed and table linens, as well as dozens of colorful breakfast services kept under protective cloths.
Back in the days of enormous household staffs, everyone had breakfast served in their room. Nowadays, when three servants and a few part-timers must suffice, Gastel reminisces about the family chef who would present her mother with the next day’s menu every evening. “You ate wonderful things in this house that you found nowhere else,” she says. “Eggs baked in potatoes smothered in béchamel sauce and truffles…”
Upstairs, a labyrinth of corridors leads to country-house bedrooms beautifully decorated by Gastel. Particularly appealing is a wing of small rooms that until 1940 housed a community of nuns from the original convent. Ensconced in the life of the villa, they kept their own rule and ran a needlework and embroidery school for nearby village girls founded by Carla Erba. Their patterns were designed by important architects like Gio Ponti and Emilio Lancia.
The sheer mass of possessions accumulated through the centuries testifies to the ancient power of the family. Wardrobes and attics hold the clothes of generations. Guido Taroni’s first gallery show, presented in Milan when he was 21, featured photographs of his great-grandmother Carla’s flamboyant dresses, discovered in an old trunk; more recently, Italian Vogue published a spread starring Guido himself modeling an array of vintage colonial outfits that belonged to his adventurous great-uncle Guido.
Collections are everywhere: 18th-century French perfume bottles gathered from all over the world by Ida; walls of family caricatures done by the artist Fulvio Bianconi; toy soldiers in the boys’ bedrooms; rare porcelain, crystal, and ceramic wares, including Gastel’s personal favorite, a 19th-century Portuguese ceramic tea set with serpent handles. The heart of the house is undoubtedly Luchino Visconti’s gray bedroom, with its Napoleonic swan bed and sweeping view of the garden. It is unchanged since the days when the director, in ill health, retreated to his childhood home to finish his film Ludwig, and his loving sister transformed the stables into an editing room.
As a little girl, Gastel was well accustomed to the comings and goings of brilliant guests. Visconti, she says, was an affectionate uncle who used to check on his sleeping nieces and nephews after returning from the theater. “He ate mountains of chocolates all day long. And he gave extravagant presents, just like that: a cartload of books, a sports car tied up with a big bow.”
He indulged a Nabokovian nostalgia for Villa Gastel all his life, writing in his journals and in letters of his memories of summer thunderstorms and scents of wildflowers and mown hay. He loved the family atmosphere of a place that was, with its ample nursery rooms, vast garden, and old-fashioned gymnasium, a paradise for children.
There are endless stories about how Luchino and his brothers were required by their parents to build up their physiques by climbing in and out of the upstairs windows on a rope, or how they practiced musical instruments for two hours every morning and played in family concerts in the evenings (Luchino was on the cello). Gastel herself recalls the wild playtimes of her own childhood, with her brothers and sisters and their army of cousins: birthday parties and lavish Christmases, a menagerie of pets ranging from ponies to tortoises to donkeys, plays, family contests of daring and knowledge. “It was a universe in itself,” she says.
A relic of that time, Gastel’s marvelous playhouse still stands in a corner of the garden. As large as some vacation cottages, it has electricity, running water, a working stove, and even a chicken yard where she kept bantam hens as a child. “This is where I learned to be the mistress of a house,” she says gaily. “Preparing meals of different courses, coffee, liqueurs in the proper glasses, having visitors sign the guest book.”
Back at the villa, Gastel has an old photograph of the playhouse with a glamorous, smiling woman waving from the doorway: Maria Callas. “She was fantastic, very sweet with us kids,” she says. “She spoke Italian with a strong Veronese accent, and I used to wonder, How can a lady who talks like that sing?”
The photo shoot concludes in the great salon. Briefly, Guido Taroni steps from behind the camera into his other life as a model, dressed in a 1920s tropical linen suit made for his great-uncle. His mother is struck by his appearance: “Do you see how perfectly it fits!” she exclaims. “He looks just like my uncle Guido. It is as if he is here.”
It is often said, too, that Anna Gastel exactly resembles her grandmother Carla Erba Visconti di Modrone. As she sits in a gilded Napoleonic chair, leaning warmly against her elegant son, their chiseled features echo not just each other’s but those of the faces in all the family pictures scattered throughout Villa Gastel. For one transcendent moment, past generations seem hauntingly alive in the room. The opulence of the setting makes the image of mother and son grand, even cinematic: not just a domestic portrait but a fragment of a film Uncle Luchino never made.
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