Why Casa Labia is the Palazzo for the People
Casa Labia in Muizenberg is a sumptuous echo of 19th century Venice, with an elegant restaurant to match.
Just beyond the surf shops and cafés of Muizenberg, on the coastal road to St James, is an astonishing piece of history. Flashback to 1926 Cape Town when Natale Labia, the first Italian ambassador to South Africa, had a yearning to build a house that reminded him of his childhood home, Palazzo Labia on Venice’s Grand Canal.
He commissioned South African architect Frederick McIntosh Glennie, a contemporary of renowned English architect Sir Herbert Baker, to build an ocean-view residence combining Baker arches, gable-shaped doors and fanlights with Italianate arches, pillars and a cherubic ceiling fresco. Pipes laid under the road filled a salt-water swimming pool, and interior items were shipped out from Italy: chandeliers, gold-leaf ceiling panels, mirrors, silk wallpaper.
In the four years that Natale and his wife Ida, daughter of mining magnate Sir JB Robinson, lived in the house with their young sons, it was filled with party guests, celebrities and politicians, including Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba, and local statesmen JBM Hertzog and Jan Smuts, invited by Natale to an intimate dinner to initiate National-United Party dialogue. But after taking a fraught trip to Rome in 1935 in the hope of dissuading the then prime minister Benito Mussolini from invading Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), Natale suffered a fatal heart attack at home. His widow wore black thereafter and left the house in a housekeeper’s care, only returning with the children, Luccio and Joseph, for holidays.
‘My father Luccio, who died last year at the age of 92, remembered his times here as the happiest of his childhood – his father was alive, and later it was where they went for summer holidays,’ says Antonia Labia, who manages Casa Labia. The house was later leased as an embassy, then donated to the state as the Natale Labia Museum. Art classes and events were held here, but funding dwindled and the building was used as a location for film shoots. Since the house was no longer serving the nation as he had envisaged, Luccio, then in his 80s, embarked on a 10-year struggle to reclaim it. Eventually he succeeded, involving his daughter, who had qualified as an interior decorator, to revive the newly named Casa Labia.
‘When I came for our first meeting, it was in complete disrepair,’ Antonia says. ‘Windows were broken, the chandeliers were crooked and art had gone missing.’
The property’s overgrown garden was transformed by landscape architect Hank Lith into a formal Italian seaside garden of waterwise indigenous and Mediterranean plants, including blue felicias, lavender, pride of Madeira, Indian hawthorn clipped into flowering hedges around the lawn, and pincushion proteas merging with the natural vegetation on the mountain slopes.
Although the swimming pool no longer exists, the house still exudes an Italian palazzo air. The interior is a jewel box of colour and detail, from the dining room with its teal wallpaper and antique chairs, their original salmon-pink covers intact, to Natale’s study where his portrait gazes down on his military uniform in a glass case. Parts of the second season of The Crown, the Netflix drama about the Queen that premiered on 8 December 2017 were filmed here.
The restaurant Cucina Labia, run by Andrea and Oscar Foulkes of Dish Food & Social, offers accessible fine dining with a modern Italian twist: think a sticky chicken lollipop with smoked tomato polenta followed by deconstructed tiramisu. Cream teas and panettone buns are served on the covered porch, and a pianist tinkles the grand piano at weekends, with Sunday jazz evenings running from November to March. Casa Labia also makes an elegant setting for weddings. Ceremonies take place on the lawn, and the restaurant can accommodate up to 120 guests. The spacious first floor, where the bedrooms were previously situated, may become a craft retail area.
Some of the family’s art collection is still housed here, such as Italian paintings collected by Natale, Old Masters including two François Bouchers and a Joshua Reynolds from Robinson’s extensive collection, and African art by the likes of Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto and John Muafangejo.
This National Monument is run as a non-profit organisation and its future focus is on outreach, says Antonia. ‘Part of my dad’s vision was to have meaningful workshops, art classes and exhibitions for upcoming disadvantaged artists.’ Salute to that.
Visit Casa Labia at 192 Main Rd, Muizenberg, Cape Town; 021-788-6068. casalabia.co.za