What stories do the grand mansions in Muizenberg and St James have to tell of the days when it was only the clatter of horses’ hooves, the occasional hum of a motor car and the chuffing of the steam train on its way to Simon’s Town that broke the eternal sound of the waves breaking on the rocks edging False Bay? I recently learned the story of one: the Casa Labia, once home to Count Natale Labia and his family.
I was invited by Jacky Folley, cultural manager at the Casa Labia in Muizenberg for a lunch and tour of the stately home that now serves as a living museum and cultural centre. Jacky has done much research into the history of the Labia family and it was through her animated conversation over a delicious portion of quiche that I was transported into a different world, and a different era.
Seated in an anteroom, surrounded by decoratively painted rococo style furniture, rich fabric wallcoverings, an ornately carved ceiling with Murano glass chandelier and a beautifully carved fireplace, I was enchanted by the luxuriously peaceful and leisurely atmosphere that prevailed. At the grand piano in the ballroom, Jean-Paul Grimaldi-Lasserre treated guests to light classical music. The 21st century slipped away.
The Casa Labia, originally known as The Fort, was built by Count Labia, heir of an old Venetian family which by the 1800s was one of the wealthiest in Europe. He was born in 1877 and studied law at the University of Rome before distinguishing himself in the Italian Foreign Service in the Balkans and in Turkey. An extract from his obituary in the Cape Times years later, read: Count Labia was a man of remarkable gifts. He was a born diplomat, and for some years, both before and after the Great War, he enjoyed a reputation in Europe as perhaps the foremost authority on the extraordinarily difficult problems of the Balkans.”
By 1916 Count Labia had been posted to South Africa where he became Italian Ambassador and then First Minister Plenipotentiary. He forged trade ties and set up a shipping service between Italy and South Africa. Through his influence many Italian families emigrated here and Italian was introduced as a subject at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town.
His marriage to Ida Louisa Robinson in 1921 led to the rooting of the Labia stock in South Africa. Ida was born in Kimberley in 1879, eight years after the start of the Diamond Rush. Her father, mining magnate Sir J.B. Robinson, made his fortune in Kimberley and on the Witwatersrand goldfields. The young couple stayed with her parents at their family home, Hawthornden in Wynberg where their sons, Joseph Benjamin Robinson Labia and Natale Antonio Diodato Labia, were born.
Count Natale (hereafter referred to as Count Luccio to distinguish him from his father) wrote: “My grandfather, Victorian patriarch that he was, expected both married as well as single children to remain within the fold….For my mother the situation was not difficult to accept – she and her father had always enjoyed a close relationship. …For my father, surrounded by in-laws whose language and way of life were not his own, a great deal of tact and diplomacy must have been required.”
It was only after his father-in-law’s death that the Count and his wife decided to build a home of their own, a home that would also be the official residence of Italy’s diplomatic representative in South Africa.
The Labias commissioned Fred Glennie, a leading Cape Town architect during the 1930’s and 1940’s who had worked in the office of renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker, to design a 20-room mansion reminiscent of the style of the family’s 18th century palazzo in Venice. Building was begun in 1929.
Angelo Zanoil, designer and artist, was brought out from Venice to oversee the decoration of the interior. The rooms downstairs still showcase his work. One of his paintings hangs on the wall in the drawing room.
“Chandeliers, carpets, fabric wall coverings, mirrors, furniture and decorations were shipped from Italy under Zanoil’s direction and installed in the house,” explained Jacky. “The carved ceilings, all precisely measured, were created in Italy for installation here, as was the painting on the ceiling of what is now the Café.”
The family moved in in 1930, naming the house The Fort.
With the exception of the carved wooden fireplace in the anteroom in which we were dining, each room downstairs boasts a unique marble fireplace, complemented by Italian tiles harmonious with the furnishings. Murano glass and gilt tin chandeliers reflect in the polished parquet floors and in the 19th century carved Giltwood mirrors. Paintings from the Robinson/Labia collection adorn the richly covered walls, except in the ante-room which is dedicated to the works of South African painters such as Gerald Seroto and Irma Stern.
A magnificent 18-seater table with matching sideboard and cabinets fills most of the dining room. Many illustrious people once dined here including tenor Beniamino Gigli and aviatrix Amy Johnson. The Fort resonated with the sound of operatic recitals and impromptu concerts, especially when visiting Italian opera companies arrived for tea or drinks.
A large complement of servants ran the household, some of whom were brought out from Italy. The first chef, becoming too enamoured by the local girls and wine, was sent back to Italy. His successor, John Chikanda, a Rhodesian, “became equally adept at producing Italian dishes such as Cannelloni as well as the English nursery food favoured by my mother,” recalls Count Luccio, writing in the 1988 South African museum booklet about the Casa Labia. “Also serving on the staff were two butlers and two chauffeurs… I imagine the reason for having two chauffeurs was that my father’s car was a monster 1928 Isotta Fraschini, the Italian equivalent of a Rolls Royce, a car so demanding to drive that the chauffeurs presumably needed a good deal of time off to recover!”
The bedrooms were upstairs. Renovations over the years have completely changed the space and the ambience of this section of the house, which now operates as a gallery for exhibitions of the work of local artists and sculptors.
Life proceeded happily for the family for the next five years but was turned upside down when in January 1936 Count Labia suffered a fatal heart attack. In 1935 Mussolini had invaded Abyssinia leading to the threat of sanctions against Italy by the League of Nations, of which South Africa was a member. It is believed that the count’s death was induced by the stress he was under. His obituary in the Cape Argus read: “Count Labia’s public spirit and generosity are known to every Italian in the Union and to many who are not Italian. He fathered the community in South Africa and helped their children to go to see Italy. He inspired many a good work which no doubt will be continued even though he himself has gone.”
After his death the Countess did not have the heart to live in The Fort so she and her young sons moved back to Hawthornden. It was only years later that the family returned to the house for weekends and summer holidays.
“It was then that I became aware of the architect’s skill, and of the harmony of the lovely interior. And it was then too that my deep and abiding attachment to the house and its many treasures began,” wrote Count Luccio.
The house again stood forlornly empty after the death of Princess Labia in 1961, its only occupant being a faithful Rhodesian servant named Frank, who kept the house in pristine condition. His occupancy made the headlines of the Sunday Times. “African is sole occupant of 20-roomed mansion,” it read, a headline typifying attitudes of the time.( In 1938 King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy posthumously conferred the hereditary title of ‘Prince’ on Count Labia.)
The Fort was leased to the Canadian Embassy for a year, after which the Argentinian Embassy took occupation. The house once again came alive with parties and dinners continuing until three or four in the morning
The young counts, like their father, followed illustrious career paths. After studying Economics and Law, Joseph studied Medicine, giving up the title of Prince in favour of being called Doctor. He went on to study Psychiatry in London, married twice and fathered eight children. He died in 2011.
Luccio, the current Count, obtained an Arts and Science degree at UCT followed by a degree in Economics at Cambridge. He married Sylvia McIan Henderson in 1980 and they have two children, Antonia Elizabeth McIan and Natale Benjamin McIan. The Count and Countess still live at Hawthornden. Antonia’s married name is Antonia Labia Hardres-Williams. It is Antonia who has brought the Casa Labia back to its former glory.
Cape Town has benefitted greatly from the Labia family’s generosity. Countess Ida donated the Labia Theatre to the city and in 1982 Count Luccio donated The Fort to the South African government to be used as a satellite museum. Certain conditions applied: that the house be preserved in its original style, be used as a centre for cultural events and temporary exhibitions and that it was to remain open to the public. The house was renovated and opened in 1988 as the Casa Labia.
Conditions were not adhered to resulting in Count Luccio successfully suing to have the house returned to the family. In May 2010, after two years of renovations under the supervision of Antonia, an interior decorator and the Count Labia’s granddaughter, the house was re-opened as the Casa Labia Cultural Centre.
Poetry readings, book launches, lectures, workshops, music concerts and art exhibitions are held within its warm and classy confines. Delicious lunches and teas are served under the supervision of Judy Badenhorst, celebrated Cape Town foodie, with fresh vegetables and herbs gathered from the garden.
Before I knew it two hours had passed. I had tantalized my taste buds, feasted my eyes on artwork by the likes of Boucher, Romney, Roworth and Irma Stern, soaked up the ambience and history of one of Cape Town’s most beautiful homes and it was time to step back into the bustle of the modern world.
It took a while to adjust!
© Vivienne von der Heyden
Find the link to monthly events at the Casa Labia on our Events page http://scenicsouth.co.za//events/
A visit to the Casa Labia is a definite must-do when in Cape Town. Casa Labia Café is open to the public from Tuesday – Sunday between 10am and 4pm. Lunch time guests are entertained by Jean-Paul Grimaldi-Lasserre at the piano every Friday. For a programme of the musical and cultural events held at the Casa Labia see www.casalabia.co.za/
The Casa Labia is available as a venue for private functions.
For reservations contact Tania 021 788 6062.
How to get there: Coming from Cape Town follow the M3 to the end of the highway, take the left turn to Main Road. Follow Main Road through Lakeside and Muizenberg on the road to Fish Hoek. Just beyond the Muizenberg station you will find the Casa Labia on the right at 192 Main Road, Muizenberg. Parking on Main Road or in the parking area near the station.
Natale Labia Museum, An account of the history of ‘The Fort’ & its conversion to a museum and cultural centre. Compiled by Lucy Alexander and Patricia Hardy for the South African National Gallery 1988