In Italy, we call them boccalone,” explains Gemma Richards. “I’m going to have to look up the English…” The phone goes silent for some time before she picks up the receiver again. “Largemouth bass!” she exclaims.
These ugly fish are crucial to life at La Foleia – the retreat Richards, 27, and her partner, Niccolò, 30, have created in Piedmont in northwest Italy. Without them, languorous meals on the veranda overlooking the lake would be blighted by mosquitoes. “The boccalone eat all the mosquito larvae,” Richards explains. “It was one of the first questions I asked the previous owners. To start with, I didn’t believe her, but now we’ve been here for two summers, I know she was telling the truth.”
La Foleia is a pair of single-storey, neoclassical villas that sit on opposite shores of a human-made lake that is fed by a natural spring. This dreamlike setting – which includes water lilies, stone columns and natural plunge pools – is hidden down a gravel track 45 minutes from Milan and only five minutes from Lake Maggiore. “You reach a pair of identical green gates,” explains Richards, “and you enter into this intimate, secluded botanical garden.”
Richards (who is half English but was born and raised in Milan) first saw the property in January 2018. She and her partner had just renovated two small apartments, which they had transformed into luxury holiday rentals. A family friend, knowing that they were looking for their next project, told them La Foleia was coming up for sale and asked if they would like to see the property.
“We were completely awestruck,” recalls Richards. “Even though it was January and the sky was grey and the trees were bare and the lake completely frozen over, the atmosphere was just so magical. We told the owners there and then: ‘It’s done!’”
The previous owners were a couple in their mid-80s – a botanist and a professor of philosophy who had lived there for more than 20 años (the site was built in the early 1990s by a pair of maverick architects). “The previous owners really wanted to sell La Foleia to someone who had the same philosophy as them,” explains Richards. “They wanted to be sure we wouldn’t destroy its unique character.” They left a stack of gardening books, a dining room table that was too heavy to move and an overgrown garden filled with rare botanical specimens.
Richards soon realised she needed the help of someone who “really knew the place”. The couple tracked down Gianfranco Giustina, an internationally renowned gardener who had worked on La Foleia during its inception (until recently, Giustina was the head gardener on two islands in the middle of Lake Maggiore). Giustina sensitively restored the lake and surrounding grounds while Richards and her partner focused their attention on the two villas.
Villa Ottagonale and Villa Padiglione are positioned on opposite sides of the lake and linked by a path that leads through a bamboo forest, a wisteria tunnel and a grove of red Japanese pine trees. Villa Padiglione was originally conceived as a “winter salon” – a large, frescoed room with a roaring fire. Richards decided to extend the pavilion, adding two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a small kitchen to the rear of the main room, making it a discrete property, with both villas available to rent.
“When we first saw the pavilion, it was filled with over 12,000 libros,” recalls Richards. The entire room was armoured with shelves, so Richards employed a specialist team of decorators to restore the fresco.
In Villa Ottagonale, the same team of artisans have embellished the walls of the glazed winter dining room. “We noticed a Virginia creeper coming in through the windows,” says Richards. “It looked so beautiful it gave us the inspiration to cover the walls and ceilings with hand-painted leaves.
“Nature is the protagonist here,” she continues. “We didn’t want the interiors to overpower the space or the setting. It was incredibly important to us that we maintained that feeling we had when we first saw La Foleia – that feeling of style, sophistication and character.”
Pre-pandemic, Richards scoured local markets for vintage furniture that would work in the space. “We’ve got a mix of antiques: some oriental pieces that reflect what is planted in the garden and some more eclectic pieces, such as the French lit bateau that sits in the window,” says Richards. Durante el encierro, each piece was carefully restored and reupholstered in fabrics that echo the palette outside: the pink facades and the green that engulfs both villas.
There are perhaps two pieces that purposefully stand out: a pair of armchairs that Richards has upholstered in bright vermilion fabric. “These were left by the previous owners,” she says affectionately. Negrita, characterful, they have been left in their original position, facing out across the lake.