Amalia Pizzardi wanted to build a country place reminiscent of home. So, in the middle of Goochland County, among acres of horse farms, miles of split-rail fences and scores of English-style houses, she built an Italian villa. Not some pink stucco edifice with a spewing porpoise fountain, but an honest-to-goodness villa in the style of those found in the countryside of northern Italy. There, dotted throughout the landscape near Vicenza, you'll find dozens of such homes designed by 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio. He played a major role in the revival of what we know of today in art and architecture as neoclassicism. As a student of ancient Roman buildings and of the Roman architect Vitruvius, Palladio reintroduced the concepts of proportion, harmony and balance into an architectural world that was then dominated by the asymmetrical Gothic.
Pizzardi knew of Palladio most obviously from being born and raised in Italy but also from her involvement with the arts, first as a doctoral student, and then as owner of several art galleries in Mexico City, Milan, and most recently right here in Carytown. So it was no stretch for her to immediately think of this architectural style as the inspiration for her country house.
What would prove to be more problematic was finding a proper setting for the home, which could have been built anywhere. But when it came down to it, this well-traveled art dealer who is married to an international lawyer decided upon Virginia. "We were living in Mexico in the mid-1990s when I decided that I wanted to build a country house in a place that would expose our two daughters to the American culture," says Pizzardi. "I also wanted them to have a point of reference, a safe place where they know they could come if something happens around the world. My husband [Kenneth Lee] is American and was born in Richmond and has family in the area. So I said, ‘Let me go to this Virginia. Virginia is for lovers, is it not?' First I came to Goochland County and found this lovely piece of land. Then I visited downtown Richmond and saw the State Capitol and other buildings of classical beauty that made me know that my Palladian-style house would fit in well into this general setting. Now I just needed to find the right architect."
The right architect turned out to be Charles Aquino of Richmond. "Besides being a good architect," says Pizzardi, "Charles is one-third Italian. When I told him I wanted a small imitation of a Palladian villa, but a contemporary version of it, he understood perfectly. I liked his set of drawings immensely."
Aquino, on the other hand, was somewhat stunned by the request. "I thought to myself, ‘Are you serious? Someone wants that house in Virginia? No Virginian would ever request that.' "
From Blueprints to Building
There would be challenges, of course. First, there was the matter of integrating a full second floor and making it work with the scale of the façade. Classic Palladian villas contained second stories, but they were used as attics or storage for grain and often didn't even have windows. In this contemporary version, however, the second floor would contain the family room as well as three of the four bedrooms in the house. To retain the all-important exterior proportions while still accommodating a second floor with 9-foot ceilings, Aquino would need to use shorter windows and set them lower than the tops of the interior doors, an unusual move. In most houses, the windows align with the tops of the doors. Second, there was the steady stream of imported building materials being delivered on what seemed like a daily basis: limestone from Mexico, cherry flooring from Brazil, marble and hardware from Italy. As Aquino recalls, it was both a blessing and a curse. "One of my favorite things about building this house was working with all of these natural materials. But it had its downside. A crew from Mexico had to be brought up to fabricate the stonework because the limestone found there is far less dense than what's found in, say Indiana. The mahogany that was shipped for the exterior shutters was also supposed to be used for the interior cabinetry. In the end, the cabinetmakers found it too difficult to work with and ended up using their own woods."
Balance and Harmony
In all, the house took two years to complete. The result successfully incorporates Palladian ideals of proportion and balance with Pizzardi's desire for a home with flowing space and natural light to accommodate her extensive collection of contemporary art from around the world.
Unlike the "McMansions" of today that frequently combine oversize windows, turrets and any number of disparate architectural elements in a jumbled fashion, the façade of this house emits a quiet elegance. A series of graceful steps lead to the four-columned portico that resembles a small Greek temple. Windows are equally balanced both in size and in number, with the lower ones topped by ornamental pediments that echo the larger architectural pediment resting upon the columns. On either side of the main façade is an extension. As Aquino explains, "The family wanted a two-car attached garage. To realize their request, I put the garage to one side and topped it with a loggia that wraps to the back of the house. To make it symmetrical, however, I added a wall to the other side that obscures the stairway leading from the basement." The entire exterior is covered with cream-colored stucco that provides a gentle contrast to the soft gray of the stone columns and stairway, as well as a deeper contrast to the mahogany shutters.
The same attention to proportion and scale continues in the house's interior. No room on the first floor is disproportionately larger than another. Entering from the front door, a generous-sized entrance hall leads down two steps to a sunken living room, a device that Aquino used to make the ceiling appear taller. Flanking these two central "core" rooms are a kitchen and guest bedroom off the entrance hall, and a dining room and music room off the living room. Limestone tile floors and white walls throughout provide additional lightness and serve as an ideal backdrop for the art. Pizzardi intentionally underdecorated the rooms. "You know, I didn't make this house to be pretty," she says. "I made it to be comfortable. The most beautiful part of the house in my estimation is my paintings. Otherwise, my idea of a house is that everything must be useful. In my family home in Italy, my grandmother designated rooms for special purposes: a yellow room to receive guests in the evening, and so on. You couldn't go in there because you might mess it up or make it dirty. I don't want that."
Accordingly, the living room is furnished with a simple cream-colored sofa and matching chairs set over an Oriental-style rug. The dining room houses a contemporary table by French designer Harold Paris that is juxtaposed with more traditional French chairs. A pair of red-silk-and-gilt Empire upholstered chairs off to the side and the small console resting between them are family pieces. The music room contains only a grand piano with oversize paintings on the wall. The bathroom features the first of the trough-style sinks designed by Pizzardi that are found throughout the house. These one-piece sinks/countertops made from huge slabs of limestone were fabricated in the driveway. Special framework was built to assist in hoisting them up through the windows to the upstairs bathrooms. Down the hall from the bathroom is the guest bedroom, the only room on the first floor with formal window treatments. It also houses the bed of Pizzardi's grandfather, a bed that she had shipped and then reconstructed by a furniture maker who works with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The other remaining room on the first floor is a kitchen, which Pizzardi admits to using infrequently. "I am not a cook, but when I get inspired, I do a good job."
Up the stairs from the first floor, the mood changes. The white and gray tones that dominated downstairs shift to warm browns in the large family room, with Brazilian cherry floors, comfy leather furniture and built-in bookcases. The family uses the three second-floor bedrooms: one for each daughter and a master for Pizzardi and her husband. The bathroom adjoining the master is especially noteworthy for its striking red and black color scheme, gray Italian marble, and an oversize abstract portrait of the Icelandic singer, Björk, whom Pizzardi admires. In addition to the second story, there is a basement that houses the laundry room and other utility rooms.
Despite the fact that the house was completed in 2000, it stood unused until last year when the family moved from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. Because of her new gallery in Richmond, Pizzardi has found herself coming to the area more often, and therefore using the country house with increased frequency. In fact, it has almost evolved into her very own home — the Villa Pizzardi, if you will. She has found it a true sanctuary. "When I'm absolutely tired from my travels, from the stress of everyday problems, I have a retreat where I can play my piano, listen to my music till four in the morning, and do whatever I want to do. There is a kind of peace that I feel when I open the window and hear the birds chirping and the other sounds of the country." Perhaps not coincidentally, Andrea Palladio echoed similar sentiments about the calm and reflective qualities of country life more than four centuries ago:
"By exercise, which one can take in the country on foot or on horseback, they will preserve their health and their strength, and there finally their spirits, tired of the agitation of the city will take great refreshment and consolation, and they can attend quietly to the study of letters, and contemplation. ..."