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
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.
Was there ever a time (like when you had scorpions as roommates!)
that you thought: Oh my goodness, what have we
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
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
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!