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28 April 2018

Icon at Risk: saving the Villa dei Direttori in Mantua

Renzo Zavanella, ‘Villa dei Directory’ of the sugar factory Schiaffino in Sermide (Mantua, 1931-39), vintage image

SOS for a 1930s villa of a former sugar factory: significant evidence of rationalism

Sermide (Mantua). The ‘Villa dei Direttori’, (directors’ villa) designed by architect Renzo Zavanella in Mantua, is one of the best examples of Italian ‘nautical rationalism’. Designed and built between 1931 and 1939 to house the families of the two directors of the largest sugar refinery in the Genovese Schiaffino, is now in a serious state of neglect that is likely to become irreversible in short time. The building is a clear example (rare if not unique in the province of Mantua) of the architectural language that featured significantly the beginnings of Italian Rationalism (think of Villa AMILA in Tremezzo, designed by Pietro Lingeri).

Renzo Zavanella, ‘Villa dei Directory’ of the sugar factory Schiaffino in Sermide (Mantua, 1931-39), current image

The free organization of the openings and the dynamic composition of the exterior leads on one side to the ‘cubism’ of Robert Mallet-Stevens and the other (the rounded entry), to Giuseppe Terragni’s Novocum apartments building, in addition to the experiments of the Weissenhof district Stuttgart. Villa dei Direttori is mentioned in Casabella (#7, July 1933) as an important evidence of how modern taste was spreading in Italy. The villa is also characterized by some innovative solutions, typological distribution of the interior, such as the open space of the living room-kitchen-entry system, or in the use of built-in cupboards in the walls (even in the bathrooms). In the terrace-pier handrail parapet and fireplaces are designed and engineered with clear reference to naval architecture. The structure of the house is reinforced concrete with infill made of double wall. As a whole, the building looks like a work of an architect already mature though still young (Zavanella was then 31 years); vintage photos reveal the purity of style and elegance of form.

Renzo Zavanella, ‘Villa dei Directory’ of the sugar factory Schiaffino in Sermide (Mantua, 1931-39), vintage image with the wife of one of the directors on the balcony

The location of the villa in a prime example of an abandoned industrial area (the former sugar factory) is therefore subject to long and complex bureaucratic planning, which becomes a further difficulty in terms of management. Thanks to the joint action between the Polytechnic University of Milan, Ministry of Culture of Lombardia and the Superintendence of Mantua, Brescia and Cremona, the building has finally received protection; the first - necessary but not sufficient - step for the conservation of this precious artefact.

Source: Davide Allegri, online edition http://www.ilgiornaledellarchitettura.com, 25 April 2015

Renzo Zavanella, ‘Villa dei Directory’ of the sugar factory Schiaffino in Sermide (Mantua, 1931-39), current image