Il buco della suora is the latest project from The Lovely Brothers, the team responsible for Building Brooklyn Award-winning Bell End – the restoration of an old stable in a landmark neighborhood of New York. Il buco picks up where Bell End left off, applying principles learned in Brooklyn to the unique landscape of a city built on water.
We were looking for a raised ground-floor apartment in Dorsoduro; high enough never to be troubled by acqua alta, with outdoor space and a private entrance. That we found it in our favourite neighborhood – with friends on the doorstep and the bells of Carmini in our ears – was perfect serendipity.
Dorsoduro 2658, on Calle Degolin had been only fleetingly occupied in thirty years and had slumped into an advanced state of deterioration. Plaster hung off walls and ceilings, the kitchen was derelict, the bathroom unsavory: essentially a ruin. The only option was to tear out everything – ceilings, walls, floors, plumbing, electricity, drainage, windows, doors – and go back to the bones of the building; Jonah in the whale. Difficult enough anywhere, but in Venice, the definition of Sisyphean absurdity.
On the day we signed the papers, the previous owner wandered out of a bar and dropped dead. We were left negotiating with a coterie of ex-wives and fist-waving creditors in Morocco.
Two months later we gathered in a raw, murky hole and stared for an hour at nothing. No power, no light; rubble, broken windows, darkness, cold. Water and salt everywhere: seeping from the walls and up through the floor. The ceiling was the only place not drizzling water; it was too busy raining ceiling. This was the first of several epiphanies; that we had boarded a ship of fools and would be eaten by sharks or each other. The only solution was to climb into a burlap bag full of rocks and jump into the nearest canal.
The process of rebuilding took two years. We surmounted all obstacles, each byzantine edict of Venetian bureaucracy, every exasperating eccentricity of tradesman politics. If you want a refrigerator brought up the canal from the east, have Marco speak to Paolo. From the west, Enrico. Under no circumstances speak to Paolo about the west. Your refrigerator will be bobbing about in the lagoon off Torcello. And don’t speak to Giovanni at all about anything unless you want to be taken up the Arsenale with the rough end of a gondola.
But it got done; by hand, boat and rubber wheel. The collective efforts of an incredible team of Venetian artisans doing a credible impersonation of characters from the Commedia Dell’Arte. They’d seen it all before. They know how to shuffle and look at their feet when the Englishman playing Pantalone is having his third stroke of the afternoon.
We reclaimed an old Venetian home, dragging it up from the mire by its fundamentals. Unusually for a city steeped in artifice and disguise, Il buco embraces nakedness. It trusts the functionality of raw materials; brick, stone, ancient wooden beams and architraves, salvaged oak, rough plaster, hand-made tiles, iron, steel. The central flow of the apartment has been retained, with rooms repurposed for a contemporary way of life. Some doors and walls were removed to facilitate space and openness, whilst retaining the rough, natural textures that afford warmth and the feeling of a home. Very little is concealed or embellished. The apartment uses what is endemically beautiful to peel back a century of remodeling, returning to the core principles of the building itself.
Walls are of brick or rough plaster, ceilings of the original wood. Floors were taken back to dirt then resurfaced with hand-made Moroccan tiles, employing a perspective-enhancing design that echoes the floors of Basilica San Marco. Closets and cupboards were eschewed in favour of rough-hewn shelving, so the contents of the apartment – books, records, pots, pans, hooks, hats, coats – become its visual landscape, unique to each group of people who stay in it.
All systems are new and state-of-the-art. Under-floor radiant heat provides a perfect antidote to Venice’s damp winter chill (there are few things more life-affirming than climbing out of bed and planting sleepy feet upon a warm floor). The city’s summer heat is mitigated by air-conditioning. There is an endless supply of on-demand hot water.
The heart of the house – living/dining room – adjoins the kitchen and yard. The notion that nobody comes to Venice to cook or hang out is a bummer. Tiny kitchens and spindly tables often give way to beds with tented canopies and headboards worthy of Casanova. At Il buco, we put emphasis upon the collective urge to gather, placing a farmhouse table in the middle of the space, chairs around it. The same outside; table, chairs. It’s not a home we want people to feel compelled to leave. Communion and sanctuary – talking, cooking, coffee in the morning, wine at night – were guiding principles. Proximity to the kitchen, with its Bertozzoni range, farmhouse sink and array of tools and equipment, means guests can live as a family, in a home. Passing plates of fresh pasta through the kitchen window to waiting hands outside is one of the seminal experiences of being here.
The living/dining room adjoins the largest room in the apartment. It’s big, with armchairs, books, turntable, vintage records, typewriter, and an eclectic array of modern American antiques, including vintage megaphones, clam rakes, meathooks and a bass drum from a church marching band. Iron-shuttered windows look out onto a small garden. The leather couch from Spazio Boselli provides the perfect surface for horizontal dozing. However, a couple of easy maneuvers and it becomes a beautiful double bed; the space is instantly transformed from living room to bedroom, with its own en-suite bathroom. Roll the massive barn door shut and you’re in your own private suite. The same maneuver in reverse, you’re back to a living room.
Bedroom 2, in the front of the house, has a double bed with oak headboard, 50’s Murano chandelier and antique Italian military cabinet. It has two large windows onto Calle Degolin for great light, and full-length iron shutters for privacy.
Bedroom 3 has a single oak bed, crystal chandelier and large iron-shuttered window onto Calle Degolin.
Mattresses are new, cotton sheets and towels by Bassetti, blankets from a farm in upstate New York. There is a choice of down or synthetic pillows.
The main bathroom (large enough to stroll around in) has a shower, double sink, toilet and bidet spray.
We avoided the intrusion of a TV in favour of an iMac exclusively for guests, which can be used as a computer or television using your own subscription service. It comes with a superdrive for DVD’s and sits in a small office with a window onto the yard (but can be moved to wherever you like). Alternatively, the apartment has high-speed wireless internet, so if you’ve brought your laptop, you can work or watch stuff on that. Music plays through a wireless Sonos system, using the free Sonos app on any smartphone.
The outside yard is simple and rustic, backing on to the crumbling walls (and windows) of the church catechism school. At certain times of day you can hear the kids in the playground on Calle Lunga. Our rear neighbour is the priest, who took pity on us before furniture arrived from Brooklyn, loaning us two folding chairs. We repaid his generosity with a 50’s formica table, gifted from the owner of a palazzo where we found chandeliers; brought home by us along the Grand Canal in a friend’s tiny boat. This mutual exchange brought us closer to God (but we’ve drifted since). There’s an old metal table and chairs from Portobuffolé, and a single slab of mahogany sits on saw-horses, providing an impromptu planting table.
There’s a front-loading washing machine and drying rack in the closet. And – most critically – un carello with sturdy wheels for frequent trips to the supermarket and beyond. With this and a swift gait you will be able to pass as a Venetian. Just don’t speak.
The name of the apartment refers to a 16th century passageway – il buco – that connected Santa Maria dei Carmini to the convent at San Sebastiano. According to legend, cloistered nuns – le suore – would use this dark corridor to attend services at Carmini without being spotted by lay-folk. The Nun’s Hole, long-vanished, passed through our little corner of Dorsoduro. We’ve gone some way to fostering its restoration in Calle Degolin with our own little buco.