02 Apr 2020

Opulence and elegance: a hidden gem in Italy

Villa Veneto is an historic and elegant 1930s Liberty Villa laid out over four floors, covering some 4467ft2. The three-bedroom, three-bathroom home includes three terraces with breathtaking views and an underground Cantina cave that provides a quirky, atmospheric wine store for the villa’s owners. Once owned by the former wife of Diego della Valle – the creator of the luxury brands Tods, Hogan and Fay – the house hadn’t been lived in for several years when Dawn Cavanagh-Hobbs and Michael Hobbs came across the property in March last year.

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On the lookout for their next renovation project, husband-and-wife team Dawn Cavanagh-Hobbs and Michael Hobbs – who run fractional ownership property company, Appassionata – recognised the potential of Villa Veneto and undertook an extensive renovation project in earnest.

Here, i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, talks to Dawn about the Hobbs’ decision to take on such an inspiring project and finds out more about her infatuation with the rolling hills and serene vistas of Italy’s Le Marche region.

RK: Talk us through your history of renovating properties?

D C-H: I started renovating properties in the early ‘80s back in the UK. My first project was a small terraced house in Nottingham – after that, I was hooked.

RK: What inspired you to take on this project?

D C-H: I have always wanted to restore a Liberty-style villa, and as soon as I saw the property; it was love at first sight! I loved the ceiling height and the elegance, however, it was the spectacular views that clinched it for me.

RK: Why did you choose this property to renovate?

D C-H: This property wasn’t a huge challenge in comparison to the previous ones we had done in the past. The bones of the house were right, and it was very well built but hadn’t been lived in for many years.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?

D C-H: As soon as I walked into the property, I could instantly see what needed to be done…I see the finished project and then work backwards!

I always like to keep as many of the original features as possible and enhance the existing beauty, all while adding all the modern conveniences for 21st-century living.

All the bathrooms needed upgrading, and the kitchen area was knocked through to create a large free-flowing living space. The lower ground floor had never been used; this was where the majority of the money was spent. Here, we created a bathroom, bedroom/study, games room and utility room.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?

D C-H: It was in my head from day one, room by room – always considering clients.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?

D C-H: Gaining planning permission in Italy is very dependent on each town comune. Luckily, Villa Veneto is in the heart of beautiful Medieval town, Lapedona, and this commune is a joy to work with. They really appreciate people investing in the restoration of these beautiful old buildings for future generations.

RK: And, what do the local community think of the refurbishment?

D C-H: The locals embraced the fact we were restoring and preserving such a beautiful property in the centre of this Medieval town. After the repointing and exterior painting, we planted brightly-coloured flowers on the terraces.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?

D C-H: A couple. Firstly, the underground wine cellar restoration was a challenge. Dating back to the 13th century, we had crumbling brickwork and arches to replace and stabilise, and there was no floor to speak of – just soil and dirt. We also decided to install a spa on the top terrace, which was no easy feat when it needed to be lifted over 40m from the road below as the crane couldn’t fit along the narrow cobbled streets close to the property. Once in place, everyone agreed they had never seen such amazing views from a spa, with the sea over to the left and the mountains to the right.

RK: Did you project manage the build yourself?

D C-H: With the help of my son-in-law, Charlie, who’s a very capable and patient man and a vital member of the team.

RK: Did you work with an architect at any point in the process?

D C-H: I never use an architect, but always work closely with our wonderful engineer, Vitale Gristostomi. He does the initial survey of the house and advises us throughout the restoration. It’s a standing joke with him and our building team that I always want to knock at least one structural wall down!

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?

D C-H: In the early days, you have to do your homework when working in a different country. I asked around, spoke to the locals and listened to their recommendations. I am so lucky to be working in Italy where we have a wonderful selection of marble, stone and ‘Cotto’ (Italian brick tile). I’m surrounded by artisans; I love working alongside them designing bespoke pieces for the houses.

RK: Are there any particular materials that you would recommend to others looking to renovate?

D C-H: I love the practicality of Venetian plaster for bathroom and shower areas, a natural waterproof product which gives a lovely, rich marble effect to the walls. If wax is reapplied every couple of years, this effect will last a lifetime.

RK: How long did the project take and was it the timeframe that you originally predicted?

D C-H: From start to finish, it took about 10 months. Over the years, I have learnt the Italian deadlines don’t quite match up to those in the UK; if you want something finished by June I tell them the deadline is March – it works well! I visit the site daily and give lots of encouragement and compliments.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?

D C-H: We came in slightly under budget…after spending the contingency! The extra costs were for the scaffolding and repointing at the back of the house.

RK: Is the finished space everything that you hoped it would be?

D C-H: And more! Bringing an unloved home back to its original glory is so satisfying. It’s a wonderful feeling when you walk through a finished project and close the front door with a smile on your face.

RK: What do you love most about the new home?

D C-H: It has to be the spectacular views from all three terraces. The mountains, sea and rolling hills. The view is the one thing you can’t change, and as they say ‘location, location, location’.

RK: Do you have a favourite room?

D C-H: The hallway; it’s the first room I saw and instantly fell in love with. I love the hand-painted design, the height of the ceiling and original tiled floor.

RK: And, finally, do you have any advice to others looking to renovate?

D C-H: Yes, make a list of all the essential work that needs to be done and get accurate costs…always add in a contingency and keep a careful and regular check on your expenses. I love to take lots of photos…before, during and after, it’s great to look back at the progress you’ve made.

The guided tour

Following Dawn and Michael’s renovation, Villa Veneto is now packed with traditional Italian features and quirky touches, from a marble fireplace and parquet flooring to original stone staircases and a hand-built kitchen with Okite work surface and Ilve appliances. The three double bedrooms include air conditioning, and the villa has three full bathrooms, including an en-suite for the master bedroom. A smaller, fourth bedroom has been repurposed as a study and tasting room. There’s also a games room with a pool/billiard table and a comfy snug/TV lounge.

The main, open-plan living space flows beautifully between the kitchen and the marble fireplace of the lounge area, which serves as the focal point of the room. Two marble-topped, gold leaf console tables sit either side of the fireplace, while a large, bespoke mirror hangs above it. Meanwhile, two sofas sit between a hand-made square marble coffee table.

This level of elegance and attention to detail is reflected throughout the villa, from its antique lamps and fabulous chandeliers to velvet liberty chairs, hand-made tables and floaty silk curtains. On a practical note, Villa Veneto includes a laundry room with washer and dryer and a garage for owners’ storage.

Externally, the villa has three superb terraces. The main terrace features a BBQ, sun loungers, a comfortable outdoor sofa and a dining table with chairs. An automatic blind provides shade when needed, while the pergola outside the main bedroom features a variety of climbing plants to add some dappled shade. An automatic watering system feeds the flowering tubs. Meanwhile, the smaller terrace, which overlooks the piazza, has a bistro table and chairs, with tubs of colourful plants. The spacious roof terrace has a four-person spa and love seat. Spectacular 360° views encompass the sea, mountains and surrounding countryside.

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