Inside a 17th-Century Italian Palace, an Untouched Sanctuary

In her Venetian home, the British cookbook author Skye McAlpine savours the pleasure of not changing a thing.

Article by Gisela Williams

ITALIAN INTERIOR_1The writer Skye McAlpine’s apartment is part of the 17th-century Palazzo Gradenigo in Venice. In the dining room, portraits of doges from the Gradenigo family hang on rocailled plaster walls, and candlesticks by Bassano del Grappa ceramists decorate the table. Photography by Diego Mayon.

For Skye McAlpine, who writes cookbooks and guides to entertaining, Venice is more than just a floating city of marble palazzos and Baroque churches — it’s a refuge. In 1990, when she was six, her father, Lord Alistair McAlpine, the irreverent, high-living heir to a giant British construction company who became one of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s closest advisers, moved the family from England to a house near Venice’s fortified Arsenale. It was to keep them safe: soon after they left the early 18th-century estate where they lived, West Green House outside of London, it was the target of an IRA bomb, which exploded a metre or so from what had been the younger McAlpine’s bedroom.

Although the family intended their Venice interlude to last only a year, they never left. McAlpine recalls “a magical childhood of great freedom”. So it’s not surprising that the 38-year-old author, most recently of “A Table for Friends” (2020), who now has two sons, decided to split her time between London and the Italian city she came to feel was her salvation.

An 18th-century fresco on the ceiling of the living room. Photography by Diego Mayon.

For many years, she would stay in her family home, where her mother still lives, on her frequent visits. (Her parents divorced in 2001; Lord McAlpine died in 2014.) But several years ago, she and her husband, Anthony Santospirito, an Australian-born financier, began looking for a part time residence there. Despite Venice’s opulence, it is the city’s handmade qualities that most appeal to McAlpine — the intimate scale of the less touristy areas and the stubborn lack of right angles. Her mother’s home is modern, with well-chosen Italian pieces from the mid-20th century, but McAlpine wanted to live surrounded by the mark of the hand, in a place where her boys, Aeneas, 10, and three-year-old Achille, could experience some of the unfussy ease that informed her youth. She also longed for a garden and needed a large open kitchen; neither was easy to find in an ancient city dredged from a lagoon. 

Then, three years ago, a family friend, Francesco “Toto” Bergamo Rossi, a restorer who is among the city’s most important conservationists, had a suggestion: why not rent a part of the piano nobile — the main public rooms — of the approximately 5,600-square-metre 17th-century mansion in which he lived? Like most of the city’s stately homes, Palazzo Gradenigo, on a dead end on the Rio Marin waterway off the Grand Canal in the neighbourhood of Santa Croce, had been divided into multiple units at the turn of the 20th century. Still, the palace had an irresistible provenance.

The Gradenigos had been one of Venice’s oldest and most prominent noble families, and the palazzo’s architect, Baldassare Longhena, also designed the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, diagonally across from the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal, which was immortalised by both JMW Turner and John Singer Sargent. The manor he created for the Gradenigos inspired its own aesthetic rapture: according to Bergamo Rossi, the director of the Venetian Heritage Foundation, the house, along with the neighbouring Palazzo Soranzo Cappello, was the setting for two atmospheric 19th-century works of fiction, Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” (1888) and Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “The Flame” (1900).

Bergamo Rossi’s part of the piano nobile, on a floor above the entry, was a mess when he bought it and restored it in 1999. Different branches of the Gradenigo family had retained the other apartments on that floor, which was mostly intact, if a bit neglected. When one older relative became amenable to leasing out her living space, Bergamo Rossi immediately thought of McAlpine and Santospirito. 

From top: a small dining room typically used for breakfasts or informal dinners. Photography by Diego Mayon.

The couple were instantly taken with the space, but there was one big caveat: virtually nothing could be changed. They could only move some furniture and add their own pieces. McAlpine and Santospirito remained unfazed. Although they’d entirely gutted and rebuilt the interiors of their large terraced Victorian in southwest London with the help of the designer Ben Pentreath, in Venice it seemed natural to live amid the gracefully decaying layers of a storied clan’s history, as if moving onto a theatre set. They decided to do even less than they were allowed, bringing in almost nothing. “Even if we had bought this and could renovate everything, I wouldn’t touch a thing,” McAlpine says.

The approximately 370-square-metre three-bedroom home, which has a labyrinthine layout, is approached off the Rio Marin via a side entrance of the palazzo, through a stone archway carved into the ivy-covered, nine-metre-tall garden wall. A towering doorway painted jade green in the white limestone facade makes coming inside feel like entering a Fabergé egg; the 4.5-metre-high-
ceilinged, dark brick-walled entry paved with crumbling tiles of white Istrian stone and red marble from Verona is hung with a giant gilded Venetian lantern flanked by elaborately carved wooden sconces. 

In the apartment, a faded elegance defines nearly all eight rooms, from a small pale pink parlour where McAlpine and Santospirito each have antique desks to the living room with walls covered in chocolate brown jacquard silk (discoloured in places from moisture) and a ceiling with a round canvas insert painted in the mid-1700s by Jacopo Guarana, a prodigy of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. In many rooms, there is a flowering of rocaille — a decorative treatment begun in Louis XV-era France with undulations modelled on nature; in the grand salon the couple use as a formal dining room hang enormous portraits of the Gradenigo ancestors, including three doges; smaller circular oil portraits of other forebears are embedded in whorls of rocailled plaster. A 19 square-metre room with pale blue walls that the family uses for breakfast is as ornate as a wedding cake, with white scrolled medallions that hold oval paintings of allegorical females. (Bergamo Rossi assumes that, while the plaster ornamentation is original, at one point the canvases were sold and replaced with amateur paintings made directly on the wall.) In the entrance, built-in glass-and-polished-wood corner cabinets hold porcelain vessels, including a tureen whose carved lid recalls the dome of a mosque. McAlpine has no idea what era it’s from or what purpose it once served, conceding that the history of the house interests her less than the feelings it evokes: “I’m just seeing all the yellow-and-pink ice cream colours of the mouldings,” she says. “I don’t really notice the ancestors.”

All the prewar kitchen furniture was in the apartment when McAlpine moved in. She added plates and cake stands collected over the years from flea markets across Italy, vintage tea towels to disguise a hanging light and a free-standing KitchenAid mixer. Photography by Diego Mayon.

The most modern room — by at least two centuries — is the kitchen, redone in the prewar period with baby blue-trimmed bright white tile walls. It’s flooded with light from two overhead windows, setting it apart from kitchens in other Venetian palaces, which tend to be small, dark and hidden away. During the day, the Mediterranean sunlight bounces off the terrazzo floors and the marble top of the 100-year-old table at the centre; in the evening, the room is illuminated by a hanging fixture that McAlpine has draped with white linen. Here is where she tries out recipes and sketches new pieces for Tavola, her collection of tableware co-designed with artisans in the Veneto region. 

But the heart of the property is the walled garden. Bergamo Rossi says that several hundred years ago, it had been joined with that of a neighbouring villa to form the largest private green space in the city, “a remarkable extravagance, like owning a four-acre [1.6-hectare] park in Manhattan”. Although Mussolini’s regime claimed much of the land in the 1920s, the couple and Bergamo Rossi each have a plot of about 140 square metres. The duo’s space is largely Santospirito’s domain — he has grown everything in it from seeds — with plumes of fennel and spikes of scarlet kniphofia amid the irises and lilies.

As in the house, there is no formal plan or protocol in the garden. McAlpine doesn’t know what once grew there — it may have been an orderly confection with roses and pergolas, as Bergamo Rossi has created — but chasing either the formal past or the fashionable present holds little interest for her. She prefers to occupy a Venice of her own imagining, a city electrified with her memories, eternally her sanctuary.

The front entrance of the palazzo, with a view of the neighbour’s garden through the windows in the wall. Photography by Diego Mayon.