Renovation Lucca Update: Week 7

I have been promising the first renovation update for weeks – seven weeks, to be exact – then, well, things kept getting in the way. You know, “things” like: tearing down walls, gutting ancient bathrooms, pulverizing a horrendous kitchen down to the floor studs, researching, choosing, and sourcing materials – all in a language not our own, I must add. Demolition, followed by reconstruction, with more layers of dirt, confusion, debris, and chaos smushed in between than we could ever have imagined. Wooeee, it’s been a crazy 7 weeks, friends!

This is our second apartment renovation in Lucca, so we knew – more or less (più o meno) what to expect. Still, as prepared as we were, before long, the surprises came. And, believe me when I say, the surprises kept coming and coming and coming. In the form of layer upon layer of eye-poppingly beautiful frescos – hand-painted works of art, hundreds of years old and painted directly into wet plaster, which is the reason they maintain their brilliant colors – in nearly every room of our new apartment (located within a prestigious building that dates to the 1600s). The works have been hidden, perhaps for centuries, beneath layers of paint, wall paper, and the most stupidly-hideous pink and yellow tiles.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?

Team Beautiful Works: This began as a very personal project, but soon became a true team effort with these extraordinary craftspeople, along with many others, by our side.

“What in the world is going on there?” my mom asked upon seeing this photo above. “Oh, Mom. Where to begin!” With tears in my eyes, I told my mother about finding the first frescos in the apartment, and the rapid-fire developments of these last few weeks. I asked her how she thought her father, my Italian nonno (grandfather) and my bisnonni (grandparents) would have thought about my choosing to live in Italy, study the language, purchase a home, and now…restore frescos! We both cried. It’s emotional and a privilege I can’t even begin to describe.

For her, and for sweet friends like you who are joining us on this journey, here’s the backstory:

The plan was perfect, on paper (and in my wee-little mind). Flawless, I’d venture to say. That is, until…life lept from the page into the vortex of “real” time.

It was back in January when we sold the previous apartment, which we fully renovated three years ago. We arranged with the new owners to remain living there until mid-April when they would arrive and take possession of this new home. The closing for our new apartment was set for end of February. This downright-brilliant plan would allow us 6 weeks to wrangle full-scale renovation – without having to live inside the mess.  But, as you know, that’s not how things turned out. Prior to making the offer, we had noticed discoloration on a wall in the kitchen close to the exposed wood beams of the ceiling. Clearly, there was a roof leak, but we were adamant – even stating in writing when we originally made the offer to purchase – that it be repaired prior to the closing. Soon came a multitude of excuses about why the repair couldn’t be made. Granted, the building is covered in scaffolding for the façade renovation process, making access to the roof tricky. The sellers seemed to be shocked when we postponed the closing. Not once, but twice. We reiterated that we would not close until the roof was repaired and the work checked and guaranteed for 10 years. “We’ll go to Trentino for the summer and see you for the closing in September,” was our response. Obviously, the sellers did not want that scenario to play out. “This is Italy, there are a thousand ways to make something happen,” we told them. “Please, for all of our sakes, get creative.”

And, that they did, thanks to a nudge from our superhero real estate agent Lorrain and geometra-extraordinary Matteo. They hired “roof repair acrobats” – seriously, they show up wearing body harnesses, ready to rappel off your building to reach your roof. So very cool, efficient and professional!

You know your renovation project is next level when these roof “acrobats” park outside your door!

Finally, we were able to proceed with the closing during the first week in April, giving us exactly 10 days to begin renovations before moving and living inside the chaos. The Italian word for chaos is the same: caos. But, truly, the better way to describe how these last 7 weeks since the closing is my favorite go-to Italian phrase:



I’ll write more about this time period soon, let’s just say that some days, after working physical labor for 12-14 hours, after all the other workers have left and it’s time to mop floors in the entire apartment, which is the only way we found we could control the dust enough to sleep without coughing and sneezing through the night; well, there have often been tears mixed into that soapy mop water. Even as well as things have gone and as beautiful as the surprises have been with every step along the way – and, really, how fortunate is that? – still, there have been many times of flat-out, zombie-state exhaustion. Every evening, when we collapse into bed, we know at 8 a.m. on the dot, our door buzzer would ring and our merry crew of workers will arrive on our landing. I can’t say enough about the care and kindnesses of friends during this time period. Friends who have invited us over for home-cooked meals during the three weeks we lived without a kitchen! Friends who said, “bring your laundry over!” because they knew our washer wasn’t yet installed and we certainly didn’t have time to go to the laundromat. (A silly aside, the one day I did find time to run out to a laundry drop-off service, it took almost a week for me to find time to return and actually pick up that laundry. So much for clean socks and underwear!)

Seven Weeks Ago and The Pink Tile Surprise

If you know us at all, you know that normally after a significant event – like buying a new home – we’d raise glasses, toast, and celebrate with friends. Well, because of the abbreviated renovation timeline, we skipped the celebration and went straight to work. Our geometra literally cycled from the closing at the notary’s office to the city courthouse to file our permit requests for renovation. Meanwhile, Matt and I – with a bottle of Franciacorta in hand – went straight to the apartment to begin breaking tiles from the bathroom walls. The crew, including the guys who break down and put up walls (known as muratori in Italian), plumbers, and electricians, were set to begin two days later. We didn’t have a minute to waste.

Matt and I changed from business attire to construction clothes, poured bubbly into plastic cups, and cranked up music, as we begin demolition. We were so happy to finally be in our new home and have the stress of that stupid roof-repair-postponement behind us. We were also still giddy from the closing when we had learned that we were also partial owners of the garden courtyard. It had never been mentioned before and came as a complete surprise. “Wow – surprise – we now have a garden!”

Then, as tiles began to smash on the floor, we stepped back to survey the scene. “Where is that color coming from?” I asked, eyes wide open in disbelief. We were quiet and cautious as we continued to remove more tiles to better understand what was happening below the surface. “Are those frescos?” I mumbled. “They’re in the other bathroom, too,” Matt ran through the house yelling as he removed tiles from the adjacent room. Let me openingly admit, I yelled – and continued to yell – a series of expletives you wouldn’t use in polite company. But, hey, this is you; so…holy f-ing shit, man! 🙂 We were stunned, to say the least.

It’s safe to say that was the moment that our life – for the foreseeable future, at least – changed. Somehow, we seem to have stumbled into our life’s work. If that sounds a bit dramatic, keep reading.

The next morning as everyone arrived, we shared the discovery with our geometra and contractor. Our team had already investigated and knew our apartment is not part of the historic registry, which means we didn’t have an obligation to bring in an expert. Still, Matt and I felt strongly that having professional guidance was the right thing to do. Miraculously, our contractor’s companion just happens to be…what? Yep, you guessed it: a fresco restoration expert! How fortunate is that development?

The wonderfully talented Elisa joined us the very next day and inspected the frescos in each bathroom. She estimates they were painted in the early 1600s, which is quite a contrast in style, technique, and mood to the apartment’s one fresco which we knew about before the purchase, a border of the most stunning peacocks which appears to have been painted in the late 1800s.

This fresco featuring peacocks, believed to have been painted in the 1800s, is the one fresco revealed when we chose this apartment. Perhaps we should have guessed there would be more to come!

She led us in a workshop on how to continue revealing the works and removing the debris and said she would return every few days to inspect the work and help us along. She also said she suspected there were likely frescos in other rooms, maybe every room, of the apartment. From that point forward, Matt and I began working long days, doing nothing other than tap, tap, tap, hour after hour…slowing, carefully, attentively, removing layer after layer of paint, from century after century, to reveal precious frescos hiding underneath.

On a daily basis, we began finding traces of frescos in every room, including our bedroom, the kitchen, and the hallway. There was one room in particular, the room that will serve as my writing/art studio as well as our guest room, which when the midday sun came in through the windows, you could almost make out a pattern behind the white ceiling paint. “Could that be a fresco?” we asked Elisa. She felt certain it could be, but what condition it was in or how easy or difficult it might be to reach was anyone’s guess. “I’ll set up scaffolding and take a look, if you like,” she said.

We knew that what she might reveal could change the entire scope of our renovation, but there’s no way we couldn’t know. The next day, we held our collective breath as she began to clear away a section of ceiling paint. Underneath, the most vivid colors began to emerge. As if painted yesterday!

Here’s the room when we made the offer to purchase. If you look closely at the ceiling, you can see faint traces of what could be – just maybe – a fresco!

“It’s like a white tempera paint,” she said. “There must have been much dust there and the ceiling wasn’t cleaned before it was painted, because the white paint isn’t clinging at all. It comes off easily.” We were so surprised and relieved. We asked her to give us an estimate for her to take on the restoration project (to fill and repair cracks in the painting, and restore and hand-paint damaged areas). Unlike the bathroom walls, which we felt we could handle ourselves. This piece needed – and deserved – an expert. Once we agreed on a fee, she immediately set to work. That was less than 2 weeks ago and here’s the result in progress. It is more stunning than we could have imagined.

My brilliant friend Celia, also an art historian, visited during this chaos and her words still ring in my ears. “This apartment chose you as much as you chose it,” she said. I love the sentiment in this notion. Matt and I do see ourselves as caretakers of this extraordinary space and are determined to make decisions that honor its lineage and ensure its future. We set out to find a new home, and it seems what we have found is a life project and a passion project.  And, as much as this began as a very personal journey, over these 7 weeks, it has become a collective, team endeavor – with the most extraordinary professionals and friends. Thanks to award-winning photographer Carl Yarbrough , we were able to capture one of these special moments with his amazing crew.

Meanwhile this team – the muratori Matija, Francesco, Pietro, and Giacomo; electricians Massimo and Aurelio; plumbers Rafaelle and Stefano; painter Claudio; woodworker Francesco; fresco expert Elisa; contractor Andrea; and, our superman geometra Matteo have worked doing their thing, side-by-side and elbow-to-elbow with Matt and me, every single day. They go above and beyond the scope of their work on a daily basis. It’s inspiring to see them work. It’s true that, more often than not, the atmosphere is frenetic, bordering on mayhem, but it’s also always convivial and supportive. We have coffee together, we teach each other words and slang in our native languages, we listen to music, and we laugh…a lot. The sound of Matt’s name or mine rings constantly – I mean, constantly – through the apartment. “Jessi, vieni!” Massimo, the electrician likes to yell, telling me to come take a look at the position for a light switch or electrical outlet. “Matt, vai!” Stefano the plumbers says, instructing Matt to go into the bathroom and inspect the works. It feels as though we make a hundred decisions a minute – everything from how far up to remove a wall to how to deal with a shortage of tiles for the kitchen floor. Ooh, and speaking of the kitchen…

Five days ago, we finished the new kitchen, including flooring and lighting! (Yes, that’s right, people, we now have a sink, stove, and this fancy innovation known as a refrigerator – hallelujah to cold drinks during summer’s first heatwave!) In addition, we have also finished the sala aka the combination living room / dining room. And, when I say ‘finished,” I mean, the walls are painted, lighting is up, and spaces are completely furnished!

The two bathrooms will be finished, including sealing the frescos in a protective layer of transparent resin, next week. And, thus far, they are stunning! So, all major works – with the exception of a gutting and renovating a small bathroom/laundry room, deep cleaning and sealing floors, and painting of windows and doors – should be wrapped within a grand total of 8 weeks. This seems like a miracle! And, somehow, also miraculously, even given the discovery of the frescos, we are in the ballpark of the projected budget…fingers crossed! Naturally, we have cut and/or scaled back many projects along the way in order to devote more budget to the work of the frescos and every one of those decisions feels right and positive. “Just think of all the money we will save in buying artwork!” I jokingly say to Matt, always to eye-rolls.

I’m not sure I will ever be able to express what a privilege it is to lavish this special space in care and attention. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my life to have worked on creative teams producing all nature of art projects and initiatives, but this one hits another level because of the layers of history behind and the bright future ahead for these works. Though we may still be covered in dirt and plaster, we are also awash in gratitude.

The only time the apartment is quiet is late into the night when we sit on our balcony and take in the layers all around.

I’ll share many more pics and reno stories, especially many before and after pics, in the coming weeks.

Thanks for joining us on the crazy, beautiful journey! Now, get out there and paint something, will ya?!

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