A mother & daughter's restoration of a 16th-century Tuscan convent (2024)

Simon Watson

Henry James once described his friend Edith Wharton as a ‘great and glorious pendulum’ swinging back and forth across the Atlantic. In a similar fashion, Holly Lueders, a designer from New York, has returned to Greece every year since she first visited the country as an 18-year-old student. Holly grew up in a sleepy town in Missouri with little in the way of culture or local craft, but her family was artistic and good with their hands. ‘Anything we wanted, we made for ourselves,’ remembers Holly. She studied art history and archaeology at Columbia University and completed her studies in Athens.

‘I went to Greece for the ancient world,’ she explains. Indeed, in Holly’s life, the past is always present. She has collected and worn antique Greek traditional clothing since her teenage years and was inspired by classical statuary to create her own fashion label in New York. Summers were spent on the Greek island of Patmos with her three children, restoring two houses that she had bought there in the Seventies. It was the sort of household where if you required a Byzantine mosaic floor, you created it yourself.

In 2000, Holly turned her sights on Italy, where she has always wanted to live. Her youngest daughter Venetia Sacret Young, then 18, shared her mother’s passion for old houses and agreed to help her find a restoration project. ‘I thought that it would only take a couple of years at most,’ says Venetia. ‘But, in fact, it took far longer.’ Holly and Venetia’s search for an untouched and inexpensive house involved driving all over Italy. Finally, in 2006, a friend told them about a derelict convent outside the tiny medieval hill town of Pitigliano in southern Tuscany. It was rumoured to be the work of the Florentine architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who designed Palazzo Farnese and Villa Madama in Rome.

Holly remembers their first visit to the convent, which had been uninhabited for 60 years. ‘It was late summer, the ground was dry and there were no trees. The building had no glass in the windows, running water or electricity.’ They thought it was perfect. ‘We both had the same feeling that this was the best version of the fantasy we had in mind,’ adds Venetia.

Having bought the place, they moved in at once. They used only two rooms, even when Holly’s partner Bill Gruy came to stay. ‘The dogs slept in suitcases in the fireplace,’ she recalls. Holly found a drawing in the Uffizi archives dated 1522, which showed where Da Sangallo had sited the original walls. Digging down to the original level of the building made it appear taller and slimmer, and its proportions more elegant.

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While waiting for planning permission, Holly and Venetia started work on the 26-acre garden. They planted concentric rings of lavender around an ancient fig tree, and roses in the cloister and outer courtyard. They also planted cypress trees near the house and olive trees in the fields. Eventually, work on the house began. ‘We ended up being our own project managers, putting together teams of contractors and working alongside them,’ says Holly.

Their aim was not to restore the house to its original state, but to reveal its intrinsic character. ‘We took away everything that had been added in the past 100 years. Beauty was more important than any amenity.’ Because of the cold, for two winters they had to sleep in a friend’s house in town until the windows were installed. The internet proved invaluable. In order to age the areas of new plaster on the exterior walls and grow lichen on their surface, Venetia found a recipe online for a potion of live yogurt, which was boiled for two days and then sprayed on using a water cannon.

The house is still entered through a tinaio – the place where monks traditionally stored wine in huge vats, which have been left in situ. ‘My theory of decoration is that every room should be filled with as many places as possible for people to lie down,’ says Holly. Other hallmarks of her style include small sinks, which are conveniently placed throughout the house to facilitate flower arranging. For the kitchen, however, she prefers to use a capacious additional tub with a wooden lid ‘to hide washing-up until someone else comes to do it’.

A mother & daughter's restoration of a 16th-century Tuscan convent (2024)
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