Palace of Memory
In a tranquil corner of Italy, four hundred years’ worth of frescoes in a former aristocratic residence see the light once more
It’s not every day you get to renovate a palazzo—much less one in the village of your maternal ancestors. But Patrizio Fradiani, an Italian-born architect and designer whose specialty is bringing historic homes back to life in unexpected ways, got to do just that.
What began as a creative side project has turned into a lucrative business for the Chicago-based Fradiani, whose lovingly transformed vacation properties now include a thatched-roof compound on the Pacific coast of Mexico and an ancient stone villa in an Italian hill town accessible only by footbridge. “We wanted to give people the kind of experience we look for on our own travels,” he says. This particular restoration, however, went deeper still.
Located an hour and a half south of Florence in the Umbrian town of Monteleone d’Orvieto—where the main piazza is named after Fradiani’s great-great-grandfather—the medieval structure, now reborn as a luxury rental known as Mazzini 31, was an aristocratic dwelling in the 1800s but had been carved up into humbler apartments since its heyday. Uninhabited since the 1980s, the dark and dingy residence was in a serious state of disrepair when Fradiani and his partner, Mark, purchased it in 2012. Yet it didn’t take long for the couple’s leap of faith to pay off. Once the restoration began in earnest and hundreds of years’ worth of plaster, paint, and wallpaper were peeled away, an abundance of frescoes revealed themselves on the ceilings and walls of almost every room. “What felt like an overwhelming effort began to excite us as more and more details began to reappear,” Fradiani says.
The overarching vision: to bring “new light into the space in every sense.” In contrast to the old-world atmosphere created by the frescoed walls and original terrazzo floors, Fradiani installed contemporary design elements such as a translucent corridor of glowing chartreuse glass. (Similar glass panels serve as headboards in two of the three guest suites, the beds dressed with crisp white linens.) The decor strikes a balance between streamlined and ornate—a sleek white sectional is juxtaposed with an intricately carved fireplace and gilt-framed mirror in the living room, and a crystal chandelier is suspended in a bathroom above a modern soaking tub. Moments of humor and idiosyncrasy surface throughout: white shag stools, towel hooks shaped like bull heads, even the occasional dinosaur figurine.
A door tucked underneath the grand central staircase leads to the former stables, now a private spa area with a pool and hot tub. Nearby is one of Fradiani’s trademarks: a wine cellar hewn into layers of volcanic and sedimentary rock and stocked with more than 300 bottles of Italian vintages. It’s a natural spot to pause for guests whose evening plans involve nothing more than a lazy recap of the day’s adventures on a terrace overlooking olive orchards and Monte Cetona in the distance.
For Fradiani, who still nurtures memories of childhood visits to his grandparents’ hometown, the restored palazzo only serves to strengthen the connection to his distinguished forebear, Pietro Bilancini, a 19th-century poet and literary critic. “I had an intriguing sense of belonging when I came back to Monteleone—as if I could feel the souls of my ancestors roaming the streets,” he says. He returned earlier this year to open the property with two of his nieces in tow, a vital link to family history and to hundreds of years of tradition. As he explains, “It felt as if something in my life had come full circle.”