Ambassadors for Italy
Posted on May 29 2015
The house at 57 Laurens St. sits proudly off this quiet street, grounded in beauty and stateliness. Perhaps because it survived the fire of 1838 here, and the Civil War; perhaps because afterward it provided housing for freed slaves. Or perhaps because at sunset, rays of light reach in from the west like elongated fingers and spread luminously through its windows and vast porches.
The house seems fit for contemplation and celebration, a mission it has come to embody under the ownership of Giulio and Donatella Della Porta. Hailing from the tiny and proud Italian region of Umbria and steeped in ancient culture and sensitivities refined through the generations, the Della Portas have become genuine ambassadors of the Italian arts in Charleston as well as sponsors and promoters of excellence in things Italian, from film to music to gardens and food.
Much of the ambassadorship takes places in their historic home, now a classic blend of the best of Charleston and the best of Italy, filled with Italian art and statuary and marble.
The event featured, among others, chef Giovanna Tarli Tomassoni from Spoleto and Charleston chef Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca, whose lineage is half Italian. The Della Porta house and garden were full of elegantly dressed polyglots talking about food, art and music.
“Their home and the message they send represent what we wanted the event to stand for ... They have exquisite taste, great art, the garden is beautiful, and what they touch becomes gold,” says Joe Spector, publisher of The Local Palate. About the Della Portas’ house he says, “I love the space ... It’s beautiful yet comfortable. You feel at home in a royal kind of way.”
Built around 1836 by a member of the Taft family of New England (and of presidential fame), the Della Porta house, white-painted black cypress, is noted as an exceptional example of Greek Revival style. Clean, unfussy and sober-minded, the feel is Jeffersonian, even Palladian, reminiscent of Monticello.
The house maintains its original floor plan, with the front door opening to stairs leading to the second floor and a long hallway; to its side are airy, elegant double parlors leading to a dining room and, at the end, what used to be a three-story brick kitchen and guest quarters. Flanking its side are colonnaded porches that at the end of the day fill with the soft glow of the western light, and an elegant garden that occupies a full second lot.
The house features three fireplaces in black striated Tuscan marble; palatially tall ceilings; warm, unpolished pine floors; wide, flat plaster molding; and doors that are clean and unfettered of caprice or ornamentation.
An interior and exterior easement held by the Historic Charleston Foundation (granted by a previous owner) protects the house from any change or remodeling. The owners cannot change a door knob or light fixture or molding, which confers a certain kind of specialness to the property.
The house is included in a forthcoming coffee-table book of photography featuring 40 or so properties that have interior easements held by either the Historic Charleston Foundation or The Preservation Society of Charleston, as well as 20-plus examples of exterior easement properties also held by the two organizations.
“As Italians, this moves us because we have respect for this kind of preservation,” says Donatella, whose tentative English spoken in a bird-like voice disguises a deep body of knowledge of the arts and a humor-filled eloquence.
One of the most special features of the house is the many triple-sash windows that come to the floor and fill the house with light (on the second floor are triple-sash windows with a bottom section in wood that open like a door).
The abundance of windows created a challenge in furnishing the house, Donatella says, but also the opportunity to make light and art the focus, with a sense toward openness and conviviality. As a result, the house “reflects our wish to be hospitable,” she says.
The house is home to many exquisite things from Giulio’s family, whose prestige dates back to a day in 1516 Umbria. That’s when ancestor Giovanni Maria Della Porta loaned money to his good friend, the Duke Francesco Maria I Della Rovere of Urbino, to fund the retaking of his duchy from the Medici family, who had usurped it. To thank him, Della Rovere gave him properties and made him a count, and as these things go, property begot property.
The Della Porta family eventually acquired the territory of Le Carpini, counting a castle and dozens of houses. There, in the hamlet of Montone, Giulio grew up.
Centuries and generations ravaged the properties and many of the belongings of the Della Porta family, but Giulio managed to salvage some. Now they’re displayed on Laurens Street: inlaid marble-topped tables from 1800s Tuscany; marble busts, among them Julius Caesar; a precious oak chest from 1700s Piedmont; a hand-painted door from Umbria, which is a Romantic piece from the late 1800s; and a baby grand piano of uncertain provenance but poetic nonetheless. “It’s a brand nobody knows but whoever plays it is happy,” says Donatella.
Warm landscapes from the 1700s fill the dining room walls, while lively portraits from 1700s and 1800s Umbria, including a nobleman in black robe with cartwheel ruff, look out onto the double parlors, giving the rooms the feeling of being populated. There are small portraits of an entire family from Gubbio, spirited yet masterful; the portrait of an eager, intelligent man, also from Gubbio, equally masterful; and, hanging among them, a John Doyle portrait of General Robert E. Lee, instructing the Italians in the room, Donatella muses, about the art of warfare.
Overall, the feeling is classical but eclectic, grounded in the past but without severity or surprisingly, formality. It’s also free of frilly ornamentation or idols, like the house itself.
“We do not like hyperformality. We wanted pieces that reminded us of our old home in Montone,” says Donatella, whose father was an expert in statuary molding techniques of ancient Rome. “We are inclined to reminiscence ... and now all of these things are beneficiaries of the warm light of the South.”
Donatella and Giulio — Donatella was a journalist in Perugia when she met Giulio — are imbued in cultural and artistic references, personally and through their store, the Hidden Countship, on Burns Lane in downtown Charleston. They sell artisanal Italian products ranging from small paintings to jewelry, stone carvings, ceramics, knives and fabrics. Both have a discerning eye and a deep respect for quality craftsmanship.
Those references have rippled into broader and deeper circles as Donatella and Giulio have opened themselves to this newfound assignment as ambassadors of things Italian here in Charleston. It was a role that fell in their laps as organizations began to associate their last name with Italy and came seeking a beautiful place for an after-party or a tribute.
“It started with someone needing a venue and we gave the house,” Donatella says.
One thing led to another.
Since they bought the house in 2012, they have hosted several after-parties for Spoleto events. They also have supported events promoting Charleston’s Nuovo Cinema Italiano Film Festival, its movies and their casts.
In 2013, they hosted an event for Italian playwright and actor Massimiliano Finazzer Flory, and last year they hosted and sponsored a visit by Florentine Princess Giorgiana Corsini, who came to lecture about the culture of gardens in the Italian Renaissance.
In short, any time there is an Italy-related event in Charleston, you can bet you’ll find cast or writers or someone involved sleeping in the guest rooms of the Della Porta house.
“We like to do it,” says Donatella. “We are interested in supporting things about Italy that are substantial, that are important, and that say something interesting about Italy — not pizza and mozzarella.”
Julia Forster, director of development for Spoleto Festival USA, praised the Della Portas for being gracious and welcoming. And, being from Umbria, the Della Portas do have a cultural affinity for Spoleto Festival events.
But their interests are far more wide-ranging.
“They are the Lorenzo il Magnifico of Charleston. If there were such an award, it should go to them,” says Giovanna De Luca, founder and artistic director of the Italian film festival and a professor at the College of Charleston. “They support arts entirely for arts’ sake ... and they have opened their house, literally, for that purpose. They have a big vision, not only about importing Italian culture but about finding commonalities and points of reference and connections locally. They empower ideas.”
The Della Portas say the openness and hospitality shown to them by Charleston from the start has made their mission a pleasure.
“We like the city and we like to live here, and it’s nice to do things that bring enjoyment to everybody,” says Giulio. “In Italy, people would say, ‘What are they getting out of it? Why are they doing it?’ Here we have been greeted and well accepted and it’s a great satisfaction.”
“Here,” adds Donatella, finishing his sentence, “here we can do something because it’s a pleasure, and that’s all. And that is a great luxury.”