Under the Virginia Sun

At Home in Charlottesville
for the Washington Post's At Home Magazine

When building an Italian villa, there’s a very fine line between splendid and gaudy. “You go into some of these grand villas in Italy and the level of detail and artistry is just staggering,” says Rex Scatena, tossing a lemon from hand to hand at his kitchen table. “We wanted to make sure it was apparent that we didn’t try to duplicate that. We’ve seen when that’s attempted and it always looks like a bad casino in Las Vegas.

“On the other hand,” he adds, “you can take inspiration from the style.”

He should know. Scatena and his wife, Jane, spent three years planning and building Tra Vigne, their 15,000 or 16,000 or 17,000 square foot manor house (“it depends on how they measure it,” he says) on 138 acres near Charlottesville, Virginia.


Equally debatable are the number of rooms. He ticks them off on his fingers, in no particular order: “Uh. Let me go through our minds here. Bedroom, bathroom, dressing room, bathroom, library, living room, kitchen, laundry, upstairs bedroom, bathroom, another bedroom, bathroom, TV room…” he trails off, neglecting to mention the dining room, the billiard room, the wine cellar, and sundry others.

He looks at his wife questioningly, “Twenty?”

What is, after all, a room? Her Honduran mahogany paneled 16 by 20 foot dressing room—about the scale of a hotel’s Chanel boutique—must surely count. But maybe his, about half the size though equally well-fitted, does not.

Enormous, yes. The size of six suburban mini-mansions or a block of city row houses. About 4,000 square feet larger than their neighboring villa, Jefferson’s Monticello. Yet, the home is perfectly scaled to its setting.

Tra Vigne, which means “among vineyards,” is indeed nestled in the midst of 14 acres of grapevines that the Scatenas planted. The varieties grown include merlot, cabernet franc and chardonnay, which are sold to Blenheim Vineyards, the nearby winery owned by musician Dave Matthews.

Lemons are also grown here, though not the lemon at hand. Just off the main house is the lemonia, an Italian version of the French orangerie, where Meyer lemons, a delicious cross between an orange and a lemon, are cultivated in the cold months. In summer, the trees flourish outdoors in terracotta pots.

“In the wintertime it’s beautiful. You go in and it’s full of fragrance from lemon blossoms and lemons,” says Mrs. Scatena, a statuesque blond who is flounced in a chair across from her husband, wearing a gauzy skirt scattered with tiny sequins and a lacy off the shoulder top, “My walking through the vineyard outfit,” she quips.

The villa is classical in style with a double loggia entry, symmetrical wings, and a cluster of out buildings, all embraced by a high-walled courtyard. Except for the salon, closely modeled the one at Villa La Suvera in Chianti, the rooms borrow details from many villas they have visited—on a more modest scale.

The ceilings aren’t 30 or 40 feet high, as they often are in the originals. “You need that wall space because when you called Mike Angelo to come over and paint something on the wall…he needs space,” Mr. Scatena jokes.

Here they’re kept to a more human maximum of 16-feet. “There are Italian villas where they wouldn’t have a ceiling this short in the laundry room,” he says.

This is intended to be a comfortable home for themselves and their children: Amalia, 23, a budding chef (Italian, of course) who is studying in Tuscany this year; and William, 17, their golfer and artist, now entering his senior year in high school.

The rooms reflect this family’s passions.

Food lovers all, the kitchen is filled with such serious conveniences as a pot-filler behind the Viking cook top, a built-in deep fryer, and a Carrara marble pastry slab. The room’s dining area, with its huge fireplace (one of six in the house), is a favorite spot for winter dinners.

An enormous antelope head glares outraged from over the fireplace in the bar and billiards room, “the room we spend, unfortunately, too much time in,” laughs Mr. Scatena. Equally disgruntled appear the cape buffalo, the scimitar horned oryx and a dozen or so more exotic heads and skulls and skins that he and William have captured on safari in Africa.

Mrs. Scatena makes it clear with a roll of the eyes that hunting is not her bag: “It’s typical all guy. The accommodations meet guy expectations.”

Her domain is down a winding staircase in the master bedroom wing. Here is a 32 by 21 foot, mirror-lined dance studio. A professional actor (she’s appeared in numerous plays and musicals in Charlottesville and San Francisco) the room is used for private classes and rehearsals.

Next door is a gym filled with commercial quality equipment, a sauna and a tanning bed. Her husband, she offers, is welcome to share it all, “But he likes to go into town, to work out at a club with people around. I enjoy my privacy.”

The couple began dreaming of Tra Vigne shortly after they moved from San Francisco to Charlottesville in 1997. Mr. Scatena, a lawyer and a founder of Value America, one of the first dot-com retailers, says the area was chosen for its proximity to Washington, sophisticated intellectual scene, and country feel. In short, “a great place to raise kids,” says Mrs. Scatena.

It’s also an ideal spot to recreate the Napa Valley.

It took a year to research, design, and plan the villa along with Bushman Dreyfus Architects in Charlottesville. “Jeff Bushman actually studied in Italy, says Mrs. Scatena. “It was really important to us that he understood.”

“They didn’t want an interpretation of an Italian villa,” says Bushman. “They wanted the real McCoy.” He spent three weeks in Italy with the Scatenas, touring villas and soaking up fine points.

When they returned, the architects finished the plans and began construction while the owners returned time and again to Italy to scout materials, craftspeople, art and furnishings.

The enormous, frighteningly fragile Murano glass chandeliers in the salon and the dining room were custom designed and shipped over (very carefully) with enough spare arms and decorative bits to fashion a third. The bathroom vanities came from Oretzo. A potter in Tuscany made the terracotta urns for the lemon trees.

Sitting at a bar in Positano they heard of a family in Salerno that had been in the tile business for hundred of years. DeMartino and Fili would spend a year creating tiles for Tra Vigne, shipping them over and sending laborers to install them. “If you’re going to use Italian floor tile, our thinking was, you’ve got to have someone who knows how to work with the stuff,” Mr. Scatena explained.

Then masons were located to carve, crate and ship the massive Vincenza stones—the same stones used by Palladio—that form the home’s pillars and cornices and fireplace mantels.

Jane Scatena wooed a craftsman in Venice, famed for his museum-quality plaster, stucco and particularly marmorino, a wall finish that incorporates powdered marble to mesmerizing effect. Yes, Gianni would come to America with his materials and tints and a team of plasterers.

“You should see these guys,” she murmered, stroking a satiny wall, “They’re just so sinewy and muscular from hand-trowling.” Except for the guest wing, there is no paint used in the house. The finishes are infused with various shades of rose, bordeaux, ochre, green, and butter yellow.

For a riotous few months the winding drive was filled with packing crates and the house was overrun with workers, both local and Italian, sometimes fifty of them at once. A surprisingly smooth process—despite the northern Italians who couldn’t understand the southern Italians and the workmen from Charlottesville understanding neither. Bridging the divide were Mr. Scatena with his basic Italian and Gianni with his wobbly English and the occasional intervention of a translator from the university.

But oh! Jane Scatena laughs, “We had great meals!”

Perhaps most extraordinary is that Tra Vigne was built on a budget of 4.5 million dollars.

“The key?” says Bushman, “We built it, believe it or not, using commercial methods, with a commercial manager keeping it on budget. It’s all very standard construction except for the final finishes.”

Those fantastic finishes, and materials and even the imported craftsmen didn’t add substantially to the cost of the project: “We priced the tile every which way and actually the small company we used in Italy…was relatively inexpensive.”

Shipping? “Even that was not a big deal,” he says. “One column broke, the single mishap. I kind of like it…We joked about going around with an iron bar to chip them all up a little bit.”

But the owners’ participation was indispensable. “I don’t think we could have done it without the Scatenas flying over and working those local contacts,” he said, adding, “It was a fabulous job…in a sense we’re in awe of the Scatenas for even taking it on.”

With the house finally completed, their daughter grown and their son nearly so, will they stay on?

“I think after Willie graduates this place will seem pretty big,” Jane Scatena says. “And we’ve been talking about wanting to travel, just at a moments notice. Just take off.”

“Maybe we’ll move back to California,” Rex Scatena suggests. “Or maybe Mexico, maybe Italy, maybe designing a new place together.”

“We work well together,” his wife smiles. “There’s definitely teamwork on this. It’s not just me and not just him…”

“We’ve got to have a good architect though,” he reminds her. And another dream begins.

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