The Age of Elegance

By staff August 1, 2007

It is only fitting that a house named Villa della Fontana would be Tuscan in design and bedecked with fountains. But when the Oaks Bayside home was custom-built for Sarasota grande dame Virginia Field Newton in 1987, the fountains weren’t there.

In fact, they didn’t arrive until 2004, when New York fine art and antiques dealers Mario Morghesi and Thomas Purbs Jr. bought the 6,500-square-foot manor from Newton’s estate. Designed by the late Tampa architect Harry A. MacEwen, the structure boasts a footprint the retired business partners had been seeking and were hard-put to find in Florida: a single-story home with spacious formal rooms to accommodate their collection of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century art, decorative objects, furniture—and fountains.

Morghesi and Purbs formerly owned the Malmaison Antiques shops in New York City, Goshen and Jeffersonville, N.Y., where their knowledge of fine and decorative arts caught the attention of renowned clients, among them Doris Duke, Mrs. J.W. Kettering, Rosalind Russell, Tallulah Bankhead, Rudolf Nureyev, Oleg Cassini and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Still, the pair always remained low-key. “We respected our clients’ privacy, as most of them chose to remain anonymous,” Purbs explains. They placed more than 2,000 items in auction before moving to Sarasota, reserving their most treasured pieces for their new home here.

The scene is set as you drive up to the home, the front landscape punctuated by a signed J.W. Fiske and Company fountain, circa 1890. This outstanding example of the work of one of New York City’s preeminent makers of ornamental iron during the second half of the 19th century is but a hint of what’s to come. Just above the front doorbell hangs a discreet bronze plaque bearing the home’s name—a second harbinger of the grandeur that waits inside.

Morghesi opens the door. The interior vista is mesmerizing. What would be under most circumstances an extraordinary entry foyer is merely an antechamber to a dazzling, sun-drenched solarium. The room, with a 26-foot-high glass-domed ceiling, has rows of architectural columns around its perimeter, a device MacEwen used to create interior hallways now dotted with antique European paintings, sculptures and settees.

Morghesi perceives my astonishment. “As soon as I ascended the stairs and walked through the front door, I said to our realtor, ‘We want this house,’” he says, explaining that the floor plan recalls his family home in Genoa. There, the interior “sunroom” was an open courtyard instead of a solarium, but the effect is remarkably similar, he says.

The focal point is the central fountain, one of a pair that Morghesi and Purbs found on the grounds of a French chateau. Your eye adjusts to the solarium light, refocusing on the entry foyer’s two spectacular sculptures. On the left is a four-foot-tall, 19th-century exhibition bronze, Gloria Victis, signed by the renowned A. Mercie; on the right stands a bronze entitled Melodie, signed by Carrier-Belleuse, a contemporary of Rodin who was considered his chief rival.

Reminiscent of fine chateaux and villas in France and Italy, the interiors deftly incorporate collections of antique-cut crystal, porcelain and sterling silver from 18th- and 19th-century Europe and America with transitional French furniture, always in Louis XV- or XVI-style. A perfect example is a living room cabinet brimming with treasures: 18th-century ruby Bohemian cut-to-clear engraved vases, Fabergé enamels and rare examples by French Art Nouveau glassmaker Emile Galle. The cabinet is itself a work of art. Embellished with Dore bronze garniture and marquetry, it bears the signature of Francois Linke (1855-1946), considered the leading cabinetmaker of the Belle Époque era—the glittering age of French society.

Linke’s influence on furniture design went far beyond France, however. He supplied more than 1,000 pieces to the king of Egypt during the ‘20s and ‘30s, and his work captured the attention of at least one local collector: John Ringling. “The upstairs bedroom furniture at Cà d’Zan is Linke and French Empire,” Morghesi says. “The Ringling is a wonderful period museum.”

Though its large-scale rooms are repositories of a pedigreed collection, Villa della Fontana is anything but a museum. “We don’t need 100 rooms, but a large living room and formal dining room are essential,” Morghesi explains. “We entertain in the old style, with formal sit-down dinners, and that is not typical in Florida, where the entertaining is centered on the swimming pool, kitchen and great room.”

Morghesi and Purbs insist that antiques are to be lived with. “Our guests can sit on the furniture; everything is used as it was intended. You must enjoy your passion,” Purbs says. Nowhere is that philosophy more evident than in the home’s exquisite formal dining room. They’ll break out antique china, silver and crystal for a dinner party, use a rare Meissen bowl for a floral centerpiece, and cover the Louis XV table with a cutwork cloth made by European nuns in the 18th or 19th centuries.

Trained at the New York School of Interior Design, Purbs uses negative space in oversized rooms to render formal antiques more intimate. Indeed, the profusion of carefully curated art, crystal and porcelain appears uncluttered in the spacious home, where rare treasures are displayed in every vitrine, armoire, nook and cranny. A delightful example: the signed Tiffany lamps that grace nearly every room. Though all are spectacular, perhaps the most prized is a Tiffany Studios peony table lamp with exquisitely bright and vivid blooms.

Morghesi and Purbs possess a European sensibility when it comes to wall treatments. The living and dining room walls, upholstered in Scalamandre fabric, assume an air of Old World luxury. The exquisite tapestry lining the walls of a guest bedroom and bath adds period authenticity. And in the solarium, they specified a combination of canvas and plaster that was finished to reflect the 18th-century character of the room (also enhanced by a pair of 18th-century carved, gold-leafed doors from Venice, Italy).

Puttis (not technically cherubs, but chubby male babies with wings) are a recurring theme throughout the home. They appear on picture frames, clocks, headboards and two of the solarium’s most extraordinary treasures: a pair of early 19th-century Dore bronze palace candelabras, each one depicting a putti playing a musical instrument.

Until now, Purbs and Morghesi have, like so many of their former clients, kept their private collection under wraps. But one day, they hint, that may change. “Because of our fondness for the Ringling, we have often thought of leaving some of our collection to the museum where it would be seen by many people who could enjoy our legacy,” Morghesi says. What a beautiful legacy, indeed.

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