Walk past Campo Santo Stefano early in the morning and you’ll feel a rush of energy. Bars are just starting to open and individuals, alone and accompanied by friends and family, sit down to drink a cappuccino, read the paper and chat about life before the day begins. A few shouts here and there signal a boat docking at a canal nearby, and the transportation of food and other goods. An accordion player in the corner starts to play a tune while young children play in the campo (a city square in Venice). A gentle cool breeze descends, and I quickly relish the feeling. It’s the cusp of summer and soon Venice will be ablaze in summer heat – the city’s narrow calle streets providing shade and refuge from the sun and throngs of tourists. Memories such as this whisk me back to my own childhood when my family spent the summer in an apartment next to Campo Santo Stefano. Walking to the Rubelli family home is a trip down memory lane for me – so familiar and so serene.
Sandrina Rubelli on her Puparin. She wears embroidered mules by Alberta Ferretti; Venetian Domino Cape in velvet, satin lining, her own creation; Jewellery, her own: Pomellato, Tiffany by Elsa Peretti and Buccellati; Watch: Hermès
A few streets away from Santo Stefano is the home of Andrea and Sandrina Rubelli. As soon as I open the door onto the piano nobile (first floor), or ‘noble floor’ in English, a warm and energetic voice echoes through the halls and corridors. “Benvenuti! Welcome!” says Sandrina Rubelli. Upon opening the door you’ll find a Puparin, a Venetian sport-like gondola, propped up and ready for use – a boat I would soon discover that Sandrina, her husband, Andrea, and son Leonardo, 8, use regularly for short rides, a picnic on the water or a leisurely trip in the morning or at dusk. Leonardo is already an expert rower. Walk up a few flights of stairs with low ceilings and aligned with framed Rubelli historical fabrics and a few spare hardcover books – a taste of what is to come – and Sandrina warmly opens the door, her larger-than-life presence is immediately welcoming.
Andrea and Sandrina Rubelli. On Sandrina: Dress, Maliparmi; Shoes, Maliparmi; Jewellery, her own
The palazzo is estimated to have been created in the 14th century. It is Gothic in style and has been in the family since Andrea’s great-great-grandfather Lorenzo inherited it from his second wife. There have been many changes over the years. A fire claimed the building’s top floor in the 1950s and since the 1990s, the upper two floors have been transformed into two duplex apartments following a three-year renovation. Andrea, Sandrina and Leonardo live in one, and Andrea’s sister Matilde and her family live in the other. The home’s architectural elements include a façade of beautifully-arched windows through which you can view a mesmerising Venetian landscape of rooftops and steeples, original ceiling beams and stone terrazzo floors. Like the Rubelli brand and Sandrina’s design, the home is a serendipitous mix of heritage and innovation. The inside of Sandrina and Andrea’s home beams with colour and warmth and is filled with books – everywhere.
Rubelli's son Leonardo’s room. Pillows by Rubelli ‘Punteggiato’ ‘soprarizzo’ velvet by Gio Ponti, and Rubelli vintage cotton; Curtains: Marco Polo, silk; Walls: Rubelli ‘Tea Time’, woven cotton
The apartment is elegantly disarrayed. Large, hardcover and glossy tomes on fashion, art and design can be found piled up on the floor, on the table, and overflowing from bookshelves. “To me, being alive means reading books,” says Sandrina. “At all times of day and night these books communicate a certain energy.” The living and dining room, which Sandrina refers to as the “living library,” is aligned with floor-to-ceiling shelves complete with a library ladder that Sandrina conveniently uses to retrieve a book from high on top. A woman with long golden hair and a warm smile, her love of art and design and desire for new knowledge is addictive. “It’s all about energy,” she says. “This palazzo dates back to the 1370s and it has had a history in the way it has been constructed, but it has also built layers and layers of history, so to go back to it and keep it like that was a challenge.” The ground floor where the boat is, for example, has an original floor and has been difficult to maintain. “But at the same time, you need to live with the idea that things are precarious and I love that feeling for the same reason that I love islands such as Nantucket; I love places that are there but you know that in order for them to remain there you need to keep them, which is what I have tried to do in this particular home,” she muses.
Sandrina and Andrea tried to reunite the building as it was during the late medieval period and early Renaissance. “We’ve aimed to keep the original layout. However, the most challenging part was trying to remain faithful to its substance and architecture, and at the same time make it fit for contemporary living,” she adds. “I’ve tried to adapt what I think is my style and what I think is our style in the sense that we wanted it to be a home and not a display or a showroom. We wanted it to be a place which holds and keeps a certain history and tradition and a certain atmosphere and warmth.”
The upholstery throughout the home has been done by Andrea, all in sumptuous Rubelli fabrics, while the design has been completed by Sandrina and evokes her own Tuscan upbringing – she comes from Quercianella, a small seaside town south of Pisa. “The design is what came to me from childhood and through experience; the colours are Tuscan and the feel is Tuscan and the kitchen is also very Tuscan!” A marriage of Tuscan and Venetian atmosphere thus dresses the home in a mix of lavish colours from the Floating City and sensuous warmth that one finds in the Florentine countryside. “They say that Florence was considered to be the school of line, while Venice is the school of colour,” she smiles. Upstairs there is green wallpaper yet as you walk down, the wallpaper becomes red. “It’s the sunset, the Venetian red, the Tuscan hills – the home is all of this together.”
Armchair and Ottoman, Donghia ‘Geneva’; Fabric: Rubelli ‘Belisario’ vintage silk damask; Cello Chair, XVIIth century, from Portugal, upholstered in Rubelli vintage silk damask; Wall covering: Iridescent red and green taffeta on non-woven ground, Rubelli
On the first floor is a cosy sitting area once again aligned with bookshelves, artworks and small sculptural pieces. A very small fumoir area joins the space and has just enough room for a small armchair and a window overlooking a stunning Venetian cityscape view. “This is where people come and have a smoke or a drink during our dinner parties,” says Sandrina. Part of our interview takes place here. It is cosy and calm and strangely meditative. Sandrina agrees. “I feel I can think in peace here.” Upstairs is the master bedroom, a study and a balcony-cum-bridge that leads from the bedroom to the bathroom aligned with large works of contemporary art. Downstairs is Leonardo’s wonderfully-lively room and play area – filled with toys and decorated with rich blue drapery. But it’s the terrace just a few steps from the master bedroom that holds some of the family’s greatest memories. It’s impossible not to see why. Decorated in plants, flowers and a quaint table with chairs, this is where they come for an intimate meal with friends or just to work alone as the sun sets.
A view of the upstairs bathroom in vintage teak flooring and red Marmorino walls. Vintage ‘Flanders Linen’, family heritage embroidered towels decorate the room, while the sleek bathtub is by Mastella Design. On the wall is an advertising campaign for Rubelli at “Il Vittoriale degli Italiani”, home of Italian writer-poet-playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio, one of Sandrina’s favourite authors
Sandrina, herself an interior designer, has an innate way with space, colour and energy. “I was born an attorney on intellectual property law which protects design,” she laughs. “I always wanted to tie my profession to doing what I was protecting because I felt that would have come energetically full circle and that’s why I became a designer.” She was encouraged by Andrea to pursue a career in design after years of working at the Guggenheim as an attorney for the protection of intellectual property law. While working at the museum she began co-curating a number of exhibitions, which exposed her to the use of colour, light and the creation of “a certain atmosphere and feel.” Sandrina knew that she needed to pursue something that was “a lot more creative.” She enrolled in the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID) and soon was mentored by Cuban-American interior designer Vicente Wolf. Her first client was a private one in Tuscany who asked her to design her home.
Sandrina has been working on several projects, one for a private client and collector on an historical 17th-century property on the Grand Canal. “Naturally, I must thank Rubelli because I could always use their fabrics and services which gave a guarantee to the client,” she says. Sandrina emphasises the energy and soul that give life to a project. The homes, residences and other projects that she works on must reveal a soul. She has also been working with the Gallerie dell’Accademia, a museum of pre-19th-century art in Venice. “I need to fall in love with the place I am working on. I think that design comes from within,” says Sandrina. “Surely, you can learn techniques and whatever helps you in expressing your design concept but what you have comes from within. When I see a room and it is empty I know already what I want to put there. I need to understand it – it comes to me as a vision. That particular room already has an energy and a history that will lead me to create it in a certain way. That’s what happened with this home.”
It is mid-morning in Venice and we are seated in the fumoir. I look out onto the view – the buildings, steeples, old columns, and every now and again, trees seem almost like individuals – they contain the energy that Sandrina so thoroughly spoke of. And Venice, la Serenissima, surrounds us with her gentle embrace.