Situated midway between Lake Garda and Lake Iseo, at the southern foot of the Italian alps, the city of Brescia is sleepy but handsomely built, its cobblestone lanes flanked by the occasional Roman ruin and a wealth of Renaissance-era palazzos. Among the most impressive of these is Palazzo Martinengo della Motella. Built in the Brescian Baroque style, its yellow-hued stone facade has large windows topped with dramatic pediments and a tall arched entryway carved with images of shields and of knights on horseback. The palazzo was constructed in the 15th century by its namesake family — “one of Brescia’s most aristocratic,” says the designer Paola Moretti, who in December 2020 was commissioned by an Italian art collector and her husband, the owner of a steel foundry, to reimagine the 5,000-square-foot second-floor apartment they’d recently purchased in the storied building.
Known as the piano nobile, a palazzo’s second floor is typically the most highly prized, and the most lavishly decorated. The Palazzo Martinengo della Motella’s is no exception. Over the centuries, generations of the family commissioned the region’s most sought-after artists to cover its walls with elaborate frescoes. In the 1700s, Pompeiian-style friezes of Greek legends and botanical motifs, attributed to the painter Giuseppe Teosa, were added to the primary bedroom and its anteroom. In the 19th century, the Brescian architect and painter Luigi Basiletti made a series of frescoes detailing the myth of Theseus in what is now the sitting room.
A culture of artistic patronage is still alive in Brescia, which is well known in Italy for its collectors. Though small — its population is less than 200,000 — the city is home to a large number of aristocratic families and industrialists with strong ties to the art world. When the Bulgarian-born artist Christo, who died in 2020, was looking for a place to stage his “Floating Piers” installation in 2016, the Brescia-based Beretta family, owners of the nearly 500-year-old arms company, offered up their private island in Lake Iseo as the landing point for his marigold-coloured bridge.
As a native Brescian, Moretti is no stranger to this worldly pool of clients. At the palazzo, she says, her greatest challenge was balancing the grand proportions and lavish wall decorations with her own minimalist style — not to mention the owners’ diverse collection of contemporary art. In the entranceway — which functions as a gallery space, with a concave mirrored work by the British Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, a bronze head by the Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft and a cast bronze branch by the Israeli artist Ariel Schlesinger, among other pieces — Moretti skirted the walls with tall, reflective steel baseboards to coax the eye down from the sixteen-foot-high frescoed ceiling toward a tangled blue velvet Boa sofa by the Campana Brothers, a wooden Osvaldo Borsani sideboard and a vintage woven Tuareg mat. In the dining room, at the centre of the apartment, she used height to her advantage, hanging a nebulous Frank Gehry-designed Mamacloud pendant over a wooden AT-324 table by Hans Wegner and a set of glossy black Gio Ponti Superleggera chairs.
The apartment’s previous tenants, who had lived there for several decades, had lined the walls with wainscoting, treating the extravagant frescoes as if they simply were not there. And in the sitting room, a television blocked Basiletti’s most impressive and detailed imagery. In resuscitating the house, Moretti made minimal interventions to the existing architecture — “I tried to recuperate the original atmosphere,” she says — but in places where centuries-old elements had been destroyed, she took advantage of a clean slate. Some of the original Venetian terrazzo flooring, for example, had been removed and replaced with parquet, so she painted the reddish-toned wood pale grey, the outline of the herringbone pattern now just an apparition through the finish. In the bathrooms, she installed deep soaking tubs and monolithic wash basins in Tundra grey limestone, both of her own design, and used the same stone to fashion a round pedestal table for the kitchen.
With the sitting room no longer oriented around a television, Moretti was able to position the furniture — a 1949 Knoll living room set upholstered in pale pink and a trio of spindly, round-topped wooden Osvaldo Borsani coffee tables — away from the walls, allowing the room’s occupants ample space to appreciate Basiletti’s brightly rendered tableaus. She took a similar approach in the bedroom, designing a hollow mirrored closet that sits behind the iron four-poster bed, which is swathed in antique organza sari fabric hand embroidered with gold thread. Rather than covering Teosa’s dramatic scenes, the wardrobe reflects them on all sides. “It’s a journey,” says Moretti, “through the past, present and future.”