When M. Robert Guggenheim purchased a stately mansion overlooking Rock Creek Park in 1942, he named the residence after his mother, Florence. Ironically, the name could not have been more appropriate when, 34 years later, the Italian government acquired “Villa Firenze” as an embassy residence in Washington. Set on 22 secluded acres near Cleveland Park, the magnificent home has witnessed a steady stream of cultural, diplomatic and political activity over the years. But recently, Villa Firenze has been infused with a fresh and glamorous new look—as well as the laughter of bambini—since Italy’s new ambassador, Giulio Maria Terzi di Sant’Agata, Antonella Cinque and their two-year-old twins moved into the home last fall.
While the architecture is Tudor in style, the interiors are decidedly Italian. "The house is really a meeting point of two traditions and two cultures,” says Ambassador Terzi on a recent tour. Cinque agrees, “When Americans come to the house, they love it, and so do Italians.”
Visitors are ushered into a large foyer that opens to a grand, three-story hall complete with enormous arched windows and elaborate timber beams. A large Flemish tapestry hangs above the dramatic staircase. The hall opens on one side to a formal salon with teak parquet floors and on the other to a large dining room. European antiques, 17th- and 18th-century Italian art and custom Murano glass chandeliers adorn these public rooms.
Ambassador Terzi arrived in Washington after serving as Italy’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York; he was previously director general for political affairs at the Foreign Ministry in Rome and, from 2002 to 2004, Italy’s ambassador to Israel. While in New York, he and Cinque, the former chairman of the board of the Italian Drug Administration, lived in an official residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that was once home to Calvin Klein. A far cry from this urban New York brownstone, Villa Firenze, with its picturesque grounds, makes visitors feel as though they’re somewhere in the countryside rather than in the heart of the nation’s capital.
"The house is so strong emotionally, with its story and tradition,” says Cinque. “I loved it immediately.”
Upon their arrival, the couple decided to make some improvements that would restore and rejuvenate Villa Firenze to its original splendor. “We have tried to enrich and to contribute to the embellishments and the importance of this residence, creating an environment that is very much reminiscent of the 17th- and 18th-centuries in Italy,” says Terzi, “giving new value to the things which have been here a long time. We have been trying to work intensely toward their restoration, to make Villa Firenze really vibrant again.” Italian antiques experts from New York have painstakingly restored many pieces of furniture and art in the home, including the marble-topped 17th-century Florentine table in the foyer and ornate mirrors that hang in the salon. They have also replaced the home’s previously dark upholstery and carpets with fresher, more vibrant silk fabrics and luminous Persian rugs.
"All of the colors you see are new,” says Cinque, walking through the salon. “Light is very important in this home. It is about the garden, the park, the flowers. Dark colors are not the right image for this house.”
She points out the study, located off the foyer, where the paneling replicates the library of Sir Christopher Wren’s 17th-century home in Oxford, England. And in the dining room, she reveals the newly restored table that can seat 34 for formal dinners. “It’s an important Luigi XVI,” she says.
Since arriving in Washington, Ambassador Terzi has hosted a wide array of dignitaries at Villa Firenze: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her Italian counterpart President Gianfranco Fini, Italian government ministers and members of Parliament, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito and business leaders including CEOs from Fiat-Chrysler Group, Eni, Enel and Finmeccanica. Plus, journalists such as Thomas Friedman and Arnaud de Borchgrave.
"Villa Firenze is not only a symbol of our countries and a meeting of cultures, but it is also an extremely useful and appreciated facility,” says Terzi. “We are asked by many important cultural, scientific and humanitarian organizations to give use of this place and we are very keen on making it available.”
When Villa Firenze is not on official duty, the Ambassador and his family enjoy meals in the intimate sunroom off of the dining room, with its expansive view of the gardens. In their private apartments on the second and third floors, photos of family members—rather than famous faces—dominate the tabletops, along with a wooden chess set that Cinque has had since her childhood in Rome. She and Terzi enjoy games together on quiet evenings after twins Giulio and Nina go to bed. Cinque decorated the nursery and its adjacent playroom in bright green colors with animal motifs to echo the home’s verdant surroundings.
The twins enjoy daily jaunts through the grounds of Villa Firenze and will soon be playing on the estate’s very first swing set. Ambassador Terzi also plans to upgrade the home’s outdoor areas. “We want to make better use of the verandas that we have on the north and south sides, which we use for smaller parties, business luncheons and so on,” he says.
"In the program of restoration, we bring things back to life.”
Photographer Lydia Cutter is based in McLean, Virginia.