La Belle Époque in Italy

Villa Argentina: When art and culture were a status symbol

24 DECEMBER 2014,
Ballroom, Villa Argentina  in Viareggio, interior © Serena Giovannoni
Ballroom, Villa Argentina in Viareggio, interior © Serena Giovannoni

It is difficult to understand the culture and lifestyle of the past, when it turns so much different from the present. One hundred years ago, an upper -middle class family would not use social networks to get in touch with their peers, but simply called on a famous architect or designer to decorate the house interiors or facades, as the fashion of the moment required, and expected invitations for tea or dance parties. When choosing the perfect location to build their own summer residence, they would rather be at the hedge of a forest, rather than in the middle of the town. Public relations were devoted to private meetings within the household fences and the spaces covered by ball rooms and parlours, were highly relevant in the house overall distribution. We might say that by the end of 19th century and beginning of the 20th people would rather contemplate the beauty of art and culture among few elects.

Galileo Chini was an artisan prior than an artist and managed a ceramic factory near Florence. His works are considered unique and extremely refined and he is recalled as being one of the best designers for Richard Ginori ceramic ware. He has drafted a huge production of tiles which embellished many public and private building interiors and exteriors. The ‘putti’, or little charming angels, usually holding a wreath of exotic flowers, are probably the most copied. Some would think that people would call on him for new designs, maybe richer and unique in their genre, whether ‘putti’ used to decorate the house frontage had become a sort of status symbol, which identified a cluster of people.

The same rule could be applied to wrought iron, wood carving and floors. How far from our time, where we build high fences to prevent the passenger to peek into and when a car or a pair of shoes are considered as luxury. Of course, The Belle Époque in Europe, that is the period we are referring to, was characterized by optimism, peace, new technology and scientific discoveries, during which literature, music, theatre, and visual art gained recognition. The joy of living resembled not only in the people attitudes, but also in their willingness to share the beauty of past and present translated into an eclectic style.

When I stepped into the garden of Villa Argentina, which is now a public building, fully restored after a long period of decadence, I feel as if I am one of those dames ushered to meet the new comer Ms Arborio Sant’Elia, coming from Argentina and engaged to a Sicilian nobleman, to spend the summer in Tuscany.

As if in a flashback, I listen to the birds twitting in the silent park around the villa, instead of the cars horning with insistence at the traffic light and I see the villa with its colourful ‘Putti’ tiles and Art Déco glass windows wrapped up in light and charm.

A lady is waiting for me inside, wearing a typical oriental dress with large sleeves and golden needlework which perfectly match the ceiling of the ballroom. Viareggio at that time was Giacomo Puccini’s hometown and he used to stroll around its liberty promenade. His taste with Siam and the Far East is widely acknowledged by his major masterpieces, Turandot and Madama Butterfly, which simply resembled the growing popularity of an exotic aesthetic.

Viareggio, a small town on Northern Tuscany coast was the most famous beach resort in Italy and probably one of the symbols of the Belle Époque . The Prince and Princess of Piedmont were in fact sunbathing in Viareggio. All members of the nobility met on its elegant broad walk or in the cafes dehors and were introduced to the high society attending parties and concerts in the several villas built between the sea and the pinewood park, as Villa Argentina was.

I wake up from my daydreaming as Roberta, my guide, is showing me around Villa Argentina, which, she says ‘Represents one of the last examples of liberty style in Viareggio and a lucky one in terms of original pieces. In fact the World War II not only cancelled the blessed days of the Belle Epoque, but also forced the owners to donate gates, banisters and any other iron pieces to the Fascist Regime. At Villa Argentina you can still touch the original cast iron balustrade as memory of a golden age.’

Villa Argentina is now and exhibition hall and Museum and can be visited on demand. We need to re-connect with our past traditions, culture and lifestyle to know where we come from and where we are aiming at. I am thankful to the local government, Provincia di Lucca, which devoted its funds, in time of both economic and cultural crisis, to restore this magnificent example of Liberty architecture and bring it back to its original use, that is welcoming guests and elate them with music, art and amusement.