Salento's Secret Gardens
We take a trip to Benesse Villas, two palazzi dating from the 16th century that are tucked into labyrinthine gardens in Italy's boot heel. Recently restored by Salento native Alessandro Giuliani and his wife Priscilla Daroda, they're a great example of what the couple call "sympathetic restoration", celebrating beauty in the layers of old stones.
For more than 20 years, Alessandro Giuliani and Priscilla Daroda have combined their restoration and design talents with those of local artisans in Italy’s Salento region to preserve abandoned historical villas. Oases of refinement and calm, with enchanting interior gardens and delightfully time-worn walls, their elegant Benesse Villas take guests back to simpler times in a charmed, off-the-beaten path medieval village.
Their two palazzi—Palazzo Bevilacqua and Palazzo Ferramosca—are noble residences that housed local aristocracy for generations before falling into near ruin. Unassuming old doors on the streetfront mask the magic of the residential palaces and their lush gardens, giving the properties a fairytale-like, Secret Garden appeal. Rescuing this maze of structures and crumbling spaces and restoring it into comfortable modern living quarters has required patience and vision, an eye for detail, and a respect for local architectural traditions. Luckily, they had all of those in abundance.
“I see the house as a whole piece on which I’m constantly working,” says Giuliani, a native of the region who returned home after years abroad to reconnect with the charms of his youth. “It’s not separated into art, or architecture or the garden. It’s all one piece that reflects my thoughts.”
Recreating beauty from the noble rubble first involved crafting pretty courtyards and unexpected vistas outside of the ancient palazzi in their charmed pocket gardens. The couple’s transformation began with the taming of long abandoned arbors and neglected beds into lush, fragrant spaces overflowing with herbs, shrubs and flowers. The varied small garden plots became the palaces’ very heart, spaces where ancient slabs peek out from under dense vines and wispy ivy, stone pathways wend between manicured lawns, and glossy trees shade ancient cobbles.
Aromatic shrubs add to the magic, and the gardens have also been updated by strategically cultivated screens of bamboo, big pots of leafy tropicals, and prickly stands of paddle cacti mixed in with Italian landscaping classics such as fragrant jasmine, wisteria, and sage. Pergolas offer alfresco dining, chaises allow for sun-soaked poolside lounging, hammocks hide under trees, and decks and a roof terrace add to the places for outdoor rest and leisure.
Next up, Giuliani and Daroda shifted their focus inside, where they found design inspiration in the traditional masserie of Italy, Morocco’s dazzling riads, stylized Japanese gardens, and Danish modernism. Simplicity, ease, and comfort were the goals, with the duo’s preservation efforts also relying on a healthy dose of whimsy and mystery.
Avid art collectors, Giuliani and Daroda have selected a varied collection of works, some the creations of local artisans who have assisted in the villas’ restoration. The contemporary pieces include works in iron, wood and stone, in addition to art signed by Giuliani himself. But the couple insist that some of their favorite craftsmanship is found in the form of the homes’ “functional” art. In particular, they love the massive stone hearths that take center stage in many of the palaces’ rooms, carved-stone fireplaces that have connected people in their warm glow for centuries.
Dedicated to what they term “sympathetic restoration”, they understand that local materials and traditional techniques are best for returning the properties to their original standing. The challenge, they say, comes in “integrating modern comforts into the old walls while maintaining the home’s original feel and flow.
“Bringing a property back to life is a multisensory undertaking,” they insist, noting that their renovation approach is a holistic one. They design so that the weight, feel, history and traditions of a space are integrated into its modern reincarnation, celebrating the beauty in the irregularity of old original stones, in the star-vaulted ceilings, and the wide ancient fireplaces. And they’ve preserved these features throughout the villas with stunning results. “People should recognize that there is something new and beautiful in the old,” they say.
Giuliani’s and Daroda’s passion for preserving old stones continues in Muro Leccese’s center. The couple recently expanded their work next door, where they are restoring a garden property, celebrating its history and, perhaps most importantly, protecting its time-tested architectural vernacular from demise at the hands of modern development.
Start your journey to these enchanted palazzi here.