Jane sacchi recounts the experience of updating a twelfth-century tower in Italy, originally restored by her architect husband bruno in the seventies
Buno sacchi and i married in 1969 and bought an attic overlooking the arno in florence. However, by 1975, a top-floor flat without a lift was no place for small children, so we started to look for a permanent home. The brother-in-law of a friend of bruno’s had long owned a property and land above bagno a ripoli and now wanted to sell it.
Bruno went to look and was fascinated by the building. A small medieval borgo comprising a tower and three internal courtyards, torre di sopra dates from the twelfth century. The tower and courtyards were in total disrepair and were being used for agricultural purposes, housing cattle and chickens. Bruno was captivated and we bought it in 1976.
The property was originally built as a watchtower set on the advantageously positioned hills 10 kilometres from florence, on the pilgrims’ route to rome, at the same time that henry i was rebuilding westminster abbey.
It would have originally been a tower of probably five or six storeys, with a fortified courtyard with battlements and arrow slits. One hundred years later, the property had become a gentleman’s residence. One side of the courtyard has an open loggia above which was originally the banqueting hall.
The ground floor of the tower, now our dining room, is decorated with rare frescoes dating to before 1345, when the black death decimated europe.
The design is known as vaio in italian, a typical medieval pattern depicting a tent made of shield- hape pieces of squirrel fur; the pole with curtain rings is visible.
the frescoes in the banqueting hall, now our main bedroom, bear the crest of the peruzzi family, bankers to henry iii and subsequently to henry viii. The torre pre-dates chaucer,
brunelleschi’s duomo and michelangelo’s david.
Born in mantova in 1931, bruno studied architecture at florence university, before forming the architect’s collaborative studio forte 63. He later became assistant to italy’s most eminent post-war architect, giovanni michelucci, co-signing projects with him.
He went on to design the marino marini museum in the church of san pancrazio in florence and work on the palazzo del tau in pistoia – originally a monastery, restored by bruno, who also designed the museum and neighbouring chapel – as well as doing extensive work for the contrada di valdimontone in siena and numerous private projects, many of which were in casa vogue.
“bruno’s project for the torre was innovative and ahead of its time in its solutions to the technical problems of a building of its age.”
It took three years to transform it into an exceptional family home, during which period bruno often wandered about with a hammer and chisel picking plaster off the walls to expose the frescoes. He took time to consider each space and how the light falls at different times of day, making every angle, aperture and window a picture in itself.
He created contemporary interiors that managed to contrast with and yet enhance the ancient setting. On the first floor of the tower, he discovered the frescoes with a cross-shape motif. It is here that, when faced with the technical challenge of delicate flooring unable to support more weight, he ingeniously designed the hanging staircase that is suspended from the beam above.
‘visual truth, nothing fake,’ he would say. ‘you cannot restore a medieval tower to its original condition – you would have only stone. so be honest with what you add.’
He used white travertine alongside black slate for the floors, insisting on primary materials being used throughout, such as wood and steel, usually painted in his beloved orange minio – the anti-rust undercoat paint used in tuscany and a signature note in many of his houses.
‘Visual truth, nothing fake,’ he would say. ‘You cannot restore a medieval tower to its original condition – you would have only stone. So be honest with what you add.’
On the ground floor, he designed a travertine table for the kitchen inlaid with orange stucco and supported by steel girders. The dining-room table required such length that he simply used wooden planks resting on builders’ trestles, surrounded by eames chairs.
The sitting room was furnished with blue arflex ‘strips’ sofas and ottomans set against the black-and-white flooring. The study still has the original kartell stackable unit.
In the four bedrooms, on the first, second and third floors, the medieval surroundings were punctuated by artemide’s ‘eclisse’ bedside lights and le corbusier chairs.
in 1985, i returned to england and bruno continued to live at the torre. In his latter years, he amused himself by decorating the external doors and painting a ‘mondrian’ on the loggia wall. This is where i have created the summer sitting room, a corner of shade and the perfect spot to watch the sunset over the distant tuscan hills.
During the last years of his life, the torre fell into a state of neglect. After his death in 2011, our children and i decided to restore it to the former glory of bruno’s original plan. The vast, arched, steel window frames throughout had rusted and had to be replaced, the entire property rewired, floors relaid and stucco work restored. Extensive interior redecoration included hanging new curtains and having the eames chairs’ cushions re-covered in antique linen. sadly, the original ‘strips’ sofas are no longer in production, so simple ikea ones were found to recreate the same layout. Bruno’s collection of african masks are where he hung them, on the stone wall of the tower.
The kitchen is almost exactly as he designed it, in white, black and orange. astonishingly, it looks as contemporary now as it was in the seventies and only required a coat of paint. The garden has been landscaped and a new entrance driveway created through the olive grove in order to maximise the impact of the tower on arrival.
In the 25 years that i have been away from italy, the bureaucracy has not got any easier: I queued, i telephoned, i applied, i queued again, i went to endless offices that weren’t open on that particular tuesday. Despite the challenges, it has been a thoroughly satisfying two-year project made enjoyable by the team of extraordinarily talented and good-humoured craftsmen, all of whom had worked with bruno and had great personal respect and affection for him.
It has given them, as well as us – bruno’s family and friends – immense pleasure to see his torre and the legacy of his style live on.