HOUSE TOUR: In a colorful but exquisite Italian house

Alessandra Branca was born to la dolce vita. The interior designer had the consummate Italian childhood, with an artist mother who introduced her to the wonders of Bernini and Michelangelo and a city that afforded endless inspiration and visual delight. “I was obsessed with architecture and art history,” says Branca. “When my friends were hanging out in sidewalk cafés, I’d be wandering into churches and roaming the cobblestone streets, just soaking it all in.”

In the living room, Napoleon III slipper chairs are covered in a vintage wool felt with panels of an embroidered suzani by Robert Kime, the ottoman is slipcovered in a custom-stripe linen by Twill Textiles, and the custom-made sofas are upholstered in a linen by Belgian Huis; the Louis XV fauteuils were purchased at Sotheby’s, convex antiqued mirrors by Alessandra Branca flank a photograph by Kevin Best, and a custom rug tops the original 1930s marble flooring.

She moved to Chicago more than four decades ago. It is where she attended university, met her American husband—businessman Stephen Uihlein—and established her career as a bravura decorator with a penchant for interiors that mix the refined with the relaxed.

Designer Alessandra Branca near her apartment in Rome.

But in all that time, Branca never stopped dreaming of returning to Italy. “I think everybody has that one spot where they truly feel at home,” she says. “For me, that place will always be Rome. I had memories I was trying to recapture.”

A 19th-century Dutch mirror hangs above a velvet-covered daybed in a guest room; the 1940s occasional table is French, and the iron floor lamp and ebonized bookcases are by Ilaria Miani.

Though she visited regularly, Branca began to crave more than just a semiannual Roman holiday—she wanted a fixed address in the Italian capital. This urban getaway pad had to be large enough to accommodate the entire family, including her husband and their three grown children, and low-maintenance enough to be managed from overseas. “And since Rome is so much about living outside,” Branca says, “I also wanted a space with a terrace.”

The terrace, with a view of St. Peter’s Basilica, holds a wicker chaise longue and chair by Manutti, pots of thyme and rosemary, and a pomegranate tree.

After considering—and rejecting—several apartments in historic palazzi that were as leak-prone as they were charming, Branca was thrilled to discover a four-bedroom duplex situated on top of a 16th-century former convent. The apartment had a terra-cotta-tile terrace with views of the Vatican and Gianicolo Hill. Best of all, it was situated in the heart of the action on lively Via Giulia, near nightlife-filled Trastevere and the Campo de’ Fiori, with its picturesque outdoor market. “It’s boisterous and a bit like living on Broadway,” she says. “As my mother, who is very old-school, says, ‘Isn’t it wonderful to be with the people?'”

A painting by Francantonio hangs above a circa-1970 travertine demilune console in the entrance hall.

Before she bought it, the apartment had been freshly renovated with contemporary fixtures, travertine floors, and stark white walls. While the modernized space had a sense of airiness and light, it was lacking in character and comfort.

A vintage Murano glass urn by Venini sits atop an ebonized tray by Ilaria Miani at one end of the dining room, which looks out toward Gianicolo, one of the Seven Hills of Rome.

“There is a psychology to colors, and I don’t think an all-white space feels relaxed,” she says. “It’s too edgy, and Rome for me was about my kids coming here and hanging out together. It needed more forgiving finishes and colors.”

A set of 19th-century French chairs surrounds a dining table topped with a cloth made from vintage Fortuny fabrics; the circa-1840 painted library cabinet is French, and the curtains are of a linen stripe by Kathryn M. Ireland.

The transformation began, as it always does in her projects, with a study of her surroundings. The nearby buildings, many dating from the Renaissance, were in oranges and yellows bleached by the sun. “There is no blue in the reflected light in Rome, and that guided my choice of colors,” she says. She and her mother headed to a local paint store where, rather than selecting shades from a color deck, they purchased bags of powdered pigments. These were mixed by hand on-site by a local painter until the perfect palette was achieved—a rich cream that blended with the stone floors, and warm, earthy shades such as terra-cotta and Naples yellow.

The 1614 Chiesa della Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini is just behind a jasmine-covered trellis on the terrace; the sofas and cushions are by Manutti.

The penthouse’s furnishings serve as a visual biography of its creative and well-traveled owner. Branca filled the rooms with some of the wonderful antiques she has collected over the years, such as a pair of Biedermeier chairs she found in Vienna with Etruscan vase details on their backs. The antique French chairs in the dining room, bought at a London auction, caught her eye for their unusual curved backs, which “look like a wave going around the table,” she says.

In the breakfast room, folding chairs by Ilaria Miani, with cushions in a Boussac stripe, surround a circa-1900 Thonet bentwood table; the still-life frescoes are by Branca’s mother, Anna Chiara Branca.

Branca is equally fond of such quirky ephemera as wax and marble feet, antique intaglios, Roman busts, and architectural fragments, which she assembles into artful arrangements on consoles, walls, and tables. One of her favorite finds is the black candles she obtains from a candle maker in Trastevere. The wax is inscribed with lines that mark time, burning an inch every hour.

A pair of Austrian Biedermeier chairs in the entry hall; the steel armoire and circa-1848 desk in the living room beyond are French.

For Branca, coming full circle was both gratifying and surprising. She realized the extent to which she had changed since leaving Italy for America all those years ago.

Watercolors by Anna Chiara Branca line the wall of a guest room; the bed is dressed with sheets by Schweitzer Linen and a vintage Indian coverlet, and the custom-made headboard is upholstered with an antique textile.

“I like to be precise and to always have a strategic plan,” she says. “But you can have all of the plans you want in Italy and, God bless my homeland, they take pleasure in being against the program. If you say Wednesday, they show up Thursday. If you say do this, they do that.”

Another bedroom features a vintage iron bed, a Louis XVI painted settee, and a pair of circa-1970 Italian lamps; the curtains are of a vintage silk, and the custom carpet is by Alessandra Branca.

If the Italian approach to decorating is more organic than the one she has grown accustomed to, Branca had no choice but to embrace its logic. “Rome made me learn that the beauty of a home is the accumulation of experiences, and not just things,” she says. “You are setting the stage for the life you want to live.” In the end, she understood, that’s what la dolce vita is all about.

Lacquer brackets and a mirror, all by Alessandra Branca Collection, hang above a vintage Chinese chest; the circa-1950 chairs are Italian.

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