A famous landmark has taken on a new lease on life since being returned to the family whose patriarch built it.
Over the past two years Casa Labia, a national monument, has been revitalised. It has undergone extensive restoration and now houses an Italian restaurant, a cultural centre and an art gallery under the direction of João Ferreira.
It has been a long time since there was such a frenzy of activity at the stately mansion with its low stone wall, red-tile roof and portico entrance that stands on Muizenberg’s Main Road. Passers-by cannot miss it, especially now that its banners are flying.
As a national monument it boasts not only the attraction of its history and sumptuous interior complemented by ongoing exhibitions, but also magnificent views away from itself, looking out, as it does, over False Bay.
The Labia family, originally merchants of Spanish origin, bought their title from the Venetian Republic in 1646. The Palazzo Labia, with a ballroom painted by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, still stands on the Cannaregio Canal in Venice.
Count Natale Labia, father of the current Count Luccio Labia, who lives in Wynberg and oversees the property, was an Italian diplomat who served in Constantinople and the Balkans (he was in Sarajevo when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, sparking World War I) before being posted to South Africa in 1917. He married Ida Robinson, the daughter of “Randlord” Sir JB Robinson, and the couple decided to create a 20-room home that would double as ambassadorial residence and Italian embassy. Designed by architect Fred Glennie, it was completed in time to celebrate the birthday of Italian King Victor Emmanuel III in 1930.
It is an unusual house with elements of the English arts and crafts movement, Rococo and Italianate embellishments such as the fountain, portico and fluted columns. The content and features of the ornate interior — 1920s furniture, coffered ceilings and ceiling panels, Murano glass and crystal chandeliers, splendid carpets, fabric to cover the walls and carved giltwood mirrors — were imported from Venice along with the Venetian interior decorator Angelo Zaniol. The rooms were given magnificent marble fireplaces in different colours, including blood marble.
Labia even imported a Venetian gondola and a gondolier, but on their first launch the Cape southeaster grounded them — the gondola and its gondolier returned to Venice on the same boat on which they arrived.
Under Mussolini, the count went from ambassador to first minister plenipotentiary. Apparently, on a trip to Rome in the early 1930s, the count tried his best to dissuade Il Duce from invading Abysinnia (now Ethiopia). But Mussolini, of course, went on to invade and conquer the country (using poison gas and aircraft to strafe and bomb tribesmen) in defiance of the League of Nations. South Africa threatened sanctions.
It was then the count’s job to defend the invasion. The family maintains that the stress was too much for him and he suffered a fatal heart attack at home in January 1936 and was given a state funeral by the South African government.
King Victor Emmanuel III posthumously conferred on him the hereditary title of prince, which transformed Countess Ida Labia into Princess Labia. The couple’s eldest son, Prince Joseph Labia, now lives on the island of Jersey. A medical doctor who later studied psychiatry, he has relinquished the title and prefers to be called doctor.
The family was not detained by the South African government during World War II and, partly in gratitude, the princess contributed generously to the community, including to the building of the Labia Theatre, Cape Town’s much-loved independent art cinema.
The fortunes of Casa Labia have waxed and waned. It was leased by the family to the Canadian government as an embassy in the early 1960s and then, in 1964, to the Argentinian government. In 1982 it was offered to the state as a satellite museum for the South African National Gallery and was opened by FW de Klerk to the public in 1987 as a museum and cultural centre, with some provisos. Without a budget of its own — it piggybacked off the national gallery — and with the fate of the building in the hands of the department of public works, which sold off part of the land, it was only a matter of time before the state relinquished its rights. In 2008 Luccio Labia once again took control of the property.
He is a retired economist and has two children, Natale and Antonia. Antonia lives in Cape Town and has been responsible for the restoration of Casa Labia as a cultural centre. The centre reopened in May 2010 and has been collaborating on a programme of events with the Lindbergh Arts Foundation that includes art lectures, drawing classes and classical music concerts.
The permanent collection of art includes works by Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto and John Muafangejo, but the gallery programme focuses on highlights from collectors and collections and solo presentations. This year exhibitions have featured works by notable South African artists such as Doreen Southwood, Mark Hipper, Alice Goldin, Gerald Tabata and Peter van Straten.
Now showing is a photographic exhibition by Araminta de Clermont called Transformations. It features three parts: Life After, exploring the tattoos and lives of members of South Africa’s numbers prison gangs after their releas back into society; Before Life, portraits of girls dolled up for their matric dances on the Cape Flats; and A New Life, focusing on recently initiated young Xhosa and Sotho men living in the townships surrounding Cape Town.
Casa Labia, 192 Main Road, Muizenberg, Cape Town. Tel: 021 788 6068. For the cultural events programme and other information, go to casalabia.co.za. The cultural centre and café are open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm. Tel: 021 788 6062