An Italian affair

When Jill Foulston travelled to Italy, she fell in love with its landscapes, its food, its people - and its exquisite homes
Like so many northerners before me, I crossed the Alps and fell completely in love with Italy. I made the initial trip as a child. We’d come from Switzerland to the lakes, and I remember vividly my first sight of Lake Maggiore, with Isola Bella rising up out of the mist like a mirage. From that time on, no matter the virtues of other travel destinations, it was to Italy that I always wanted to return – for the sunniness of its people, the beauty of its landscapes and its incredible cities.

House-Sept26-01-5901. Colourful pottery, an aluminium teapot and simple cooking utensils on open shelves bring charm to this farmhouse near Lake Como 2. The sundrenched terrace is the social hub of this exotic cave house

From a base in Umbria, further visits have gradually taken me deeper into the south and on to Sicily. The country’s complicated history has resulted in a rich layering of culture that’s reflected in its food and buildings, even its language. And although no one can afford to miss the magic of Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan, it is just as rewarding to visit out-of-the-way places, such as the northern town of Sabbioneta, where classical gods and goddesses look down on you in the Renaissance Teatro all’antica, or Pitigliano, in southern Tuscany, where the Jewish population once baked their matzoh bread in a cave. Italians often prefer to holiday in their own country, and it’s easy to understand why. Like everyone else, they also love travelling outside of it, of course. But in a land that extends from the Alps almost to Africa, it really is possible to be continually surprised by the landscape and regional customs.

House-Sept26-02-5903. In the dining room of a Roman palazzo, vintage steel chairs are paired with a long oak table supporting a sculpture by Franceso Ardini 4. In the spare bedroom, Philippe Starck’s horn-shaped lamp and a 1940s rattan armchair stand against a work by Domenico Bianchi 5. From the roof terrace of a 19thcentury building in Rome you can see the Santissima Trinità dei Monti, which crowns the Spanish Steps 6. See number 1.

La Vita è Bella celebrates Italy’s surprises, its past and its present. Focusing on four well-loved regions, it moves from the beauty of the lakes in the north through the gentle heartland of Tuscany and Umbria. Plunging headfirst into Rome’s glorious chaos and then meandering down the breathtaking Amalfi Coast, it ventures into the wilder landscape of the extreme south before hopping across the Strait of Messina to Sicily, where a succession of occupying powers – Arabic, Greek, Norman and Spanish – have left their marks on a complex culture.

House-Sept26-03-5907. Cushions covered in bright linens and cottons contrast beautifully with the pale, natural stone of Modica’s architecture 8. An antique Ashanti footstool sits beneath a striking artwork by Alberto di Fabio 9. The apartment in a 19th-century palazzo, with views of Palermo, has dark furniture set against white walls, which prevents the space from feeling cluttered

My new book explores Italy through its food, customs and architecture, but also opens the door to 15 individual homes. There’s an ivy-clad waterside tower house on Lake Como with an industrial aesthetic; a converted Tuscan farmhouse boasting its own chapel; an exotic 18th-century merchant’s house on the Amalfi Coast and a mysterious cave house in Modica in Sicily. Through careful borrowing from the past, each owner has designed a home for contemporary living, with an eye to the future.

House-Sept26-04-59010. In Modica, the owners’ kitchen features patterned Sicilian tiles 11. High ceilings, French doors and marble balconies provide plenty of light in the apartment in Palermo, while kilims and  oor coverings, designed by the owner, add drama and richness

La Vita è Bella, by Jill Foulston, is published by Ryland Peters & Small, priced £25.