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Sally with baby visitor

Palladian Days
Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House

Sally Gable and Carl I. Gable


Q & A with Sally :

Question:  So you began looking for a second home in New Hampshire. How on earth did that search lead you to a Palladian villa in Italy?

Sally:  First of all, Carl and I didn't really have a consensus about looking for a second home. Since I was born and raised in the White Mountains, and since Carl and the children also loved that part of New England, I had decided that a cottage near Littleton, maybe in Franconia or Sugar Hill, would provide an ideal summer spot. Carl had not agreed with this idea, but he hadn't disagreed either. That was all the commitment I needed.

One Sunday afternoon in April 1987, as I curled up on our living room sofa to begin the New York Times crossword puzzle, I decided to flip through the real estate ads at the back of the magazine to see if any homes in upstate New Hampshire were offered. No luck on that, but another ad caught my eye: an alleged "Palladian villa" not far from Venice, Italy. The attraction was two-fold. First, Carl and I had already made reservations to meet friends from London in the Veneto in June for the precise purpose of visiting some of the Palladian villas. Second, Venice was Carl's favorite city.

When I showed him the ad, Carl reacted with a disturbing amount of interest and phoned the real estate agent the next morning. Two years of on-and-off negotiations lay ahead.

Question: Why did you buy the villa?

Sally:  I've realized over time that I had a cluster of reasons. Yes, I fell in love with the villa.  To think about buying it and living there was like being asked to become a princess and live in a fairy tale.

But I was ready to fall in love with an adventurous undertaking. Our youngest child was preparing for college, the older two were off and launched in their lives. Carl had always been engrossed in his career; he still traveled a lot. Villa Cornaro would--at least initially--be MY adventure: I would be the first to learn Italian, I would be the first to make our home in this new country and become friends with our new neighbors, I would be the first to study this architectural treasure and learn its myriad of secrets. I could escape the totally familiar landscape of Atlanta, where I was often known as Carl's wife or our children's mother, and create my own world in Piombino Dese. It was the opportunity for a new, fascinating life on my own.

But as I spent more and more time in Piombino Dese -- indeed, living in my own world abroad -- I realized that one reason I fell in love with the villa is because I felt from the beginning and still believe that the villa, this great living work of art, needs me--me specifically--to take care of it. To tend to its physical needs, such as a new roof or new electrical switches; but more important, to bring life into it, with visits from family and friends, with concerts for the townspeople, with croquet games in the backyard, with luscious smells emanating from the kitchen. The villa needs me as much as I need the villa.

Question: Was there ever a time (like when you had scorpions as roommates!) that you thought: Oh my goodness, what have we done??? Tell us about some of the more harrowing homeowner experiences.

Sally:  Have you ever seen a scorpion up close? They're really sinister-looking beasts. But they never bothered me that much, because I knew they were basically no more dangerous than a yellow jacket--which we get plenty of in Atlanta. Pigeons are another story: they look nice but are really flying guano machines.

Only twice have I shuddered and asked myself, have we acquired a white elephant pastured 5,000 miles from Atlanta? The first was in our early years when I suddenly realized why Giacomo, our part-time custodian, came running over from his caffè every time it rained. Yes, he came to close the shutters on the north windows in order to protect the old leaded glass. But he was also gathering large containers from the basement to place in the upstairs grand salon to catch rainwater streaming down from leaks in the roof. Replacing the roof was a big, immediate, monetary challenge.

Our second major problem was worse. Investigating a mysterious sag in the original terrazzo of the south upstairs porch, Carl and our contractor Angelo discovered that the wooden beams supporting it had mostly turned to dust! We were lucky the whole porch hadn't collapsed on us while we were having an evening prosecco on the porch below. Angelo immediately erected support scaffolding all across the south face of the villa, and we launched into a long, long repair project.

Question: How did the people of Piombino Dese greet the arrival of their newest residents?

My introduction to the Piombinesi was really quite remarkable, particularly since I think they have an initial tendency to be cautious with strangers. Maybe it's because in our first spring there I arrived at the villa entirely alone. A certain circle of women--Silvana Miolo, Bianca Battiston and a few others were the ringleaders--decided that I must be lonely at the villa by myself, so one evening they planned a welcome-to-town pizza party. There must have been 30 or 40 women there! Some of them are still among my best friends, more than 15 years later.

That seemed to break the ice, partly because it put me more at ease. After a while, strangers waiting in line at the butcher shop would offer me recipes. Others would stop me on the street to say that as children they attended the parochial kindergarten that was operated in the villa in the 1950s.  One day the pilot of an ultralite airplane, someone we had never met, waved at us as he flew by.

Simple curiosity, of course, was a factor in the community's early interest in us. But I think they sensed right away that we wanted to be Piombinesi ourselves. We wanted to be neighbors, not just visitors. And, for the most part, that's the way we've been accepted. Don Aldo, the head priest, even publishes our Christmas card/letter in the parish newsletter.

The Piombinesi seem glad that the villa is in the care of a family. They respect the fact that thousands of people each year visit the Palladian villa in their town. They appreciate the opportunity to visit the villa themselves for concerts and plays. And when, like other local grandmothers, I parade my visiting grandchildren all over town, the Piombinesi make the same fuss over them that they do for their own!

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