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A well-to-do middle-class family of Tuscan textile entrepreneurs built Casa Orlandi in the late 18th century. The house, meant to fill the class difference between the rising middle class and the ancient aristocracy, was richly decorated by one of the leading Tuscan fresco painters of the day, Luigi Catani, who worked for the grand duke of Tuscany.
When Architect Sabrina Bignami, who specializes in the restoration of period buildings, found this 18th century palazzo three years ago, it was a Brown Building. “Time and again, I find these beautiful old houses and apartments that are filled with nothing but dark brown furniture. I call them the Brown Buildings. It’s as if they have fallen into a deep sleep, frozen in time. I see my job as waking them up.”
[caption id=”attachment_25558″ align=”alignleft” width=”400″] Sabrina and Alessandro are two architects; the house is located in the center of Prato, a half-an-hour drive from Florence.[/caption]
“The old woman who lived here was from a noble family, but she lived in medieval conditions, with candles for light and no heating or bathroom,” she continues. Though Casa Orlandi had fallen into despair, Sabrina Bignami sensed its magic and spent her every last penny toward its renovation. The restoration of the house and its frescoes was a long and difficult process due to the terrible condition of the large space – 230 square meters left unoccupied for 20 years. The approach to restoration had been two sided.
On the one hand, it was a minimalist restoration, not at all inclined to remaking. A thick coat of white paint had covered all the frescoes. A friend, who restores old frescoes, helped Bignami uncover the wall paintings throughout. “We decided not to add anything,” she says. Wherever the decoration was partially missing, it was accepted just as time had handed it down to them. The result is a stunning painting running throughout the palazzo, from the formal architectural scheme in the living room to the pastoral scenes in some smaller rooms. The ancient floors have been saved and preserved, even with missing bits and faults. Ancient casings are all original, kept in their fragile lightness.
On the other hand, there was the strong desire to introduce elements of contemporaneity, a mix of very simple elements rather than stereotypical pieces by Italian designers. With a garage full of mid-20th century lamps and other furnishings purchased from flea markets, Bignami didn’t have any trouble filling the place. “My mother gave me the Saarinen table and chairs, as they are the same models I grew up with,” she shares. “I love the simplicity of the design.”
The contrasting styles complement one another perfectly. The rich colors and ornate detailing of the frescoes and floors throw the clean lines of the contemporary furniture more clearly into relief, while the modern fittings bring a light, quirky touch to their historical setting.
For her living quarters, Bignami settled on the first floor, or “piano nobile,” with its high ceilings and unusual U-shaped layout; almost all the rooms open onto a central courtyard terrace. Bordered on one side by one of the earliest attempts at a wall of glass windows, the terrace is now a glorious outdoor dining room, with table and chairs in the shade of a potted acacia tree. She assures that “the house is in the centre of Prato, but sitting here, you would never know it, as the terrace is so peaceful.”
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