Sep 3rd 2010, 00:00

The Venetian chandeliers once again are glittering on sparkling occasions at the newly refurbished Casa Labia. The low hum of laughter and the sound of “happy birthday to you” drifting
from the café are music to Antonia Labia Hardres-Williams ears. While undertaking the restoration of the Casa Labia, Antonia’s vision was to create not a dusty Eurocentric museum, but a vibrant cultural centre that would entice people of all ages and backgrounds through its door. Casa Labia is the palatial Venetianstyle home built by her grandfather, Count Natale Labia, in 1930 when he was appointed Italy’s diplomatic representative in South Africa. If its silk-lined wall panels could talk, they would tell a story of adventure on the high seas: the panels were shipped from Venice to Cape Town by interior decorator Angelo Zaniol who had been employed to decorate Casa Labia in the style redolent of their Venetian family home, Palazzo Labia.

But if we were to allow the furnishings to speak, it would be the chandeliers, made from the finest Venetian glass that would contribute most to the conversation. Once they shone in splendour, twinkling down on Cape Town dignitaries at the illustrious parties held in the ballroom. After WWII, with Mussolini set to invade Abyssinia, the Count went to Italy in a desperate attempt to dissuade Mussolini from this potentially disastrous course of action. He failed and Count Labia died of what was diagnosed as a stressinduced heart attack. The chandeliers dimmed. After renting Casa Labia to the Argentinian and Canadian embassies, Count Luccio Labia, the son of Count Natale Labia and Antonia’s father, in an act of goodwill, donated it as a museum and satellite gallery to the National Gallery. But six years ago, underfunded and neglected, it fell into disarray. Distraught, Antonia’s father fought successfully to restore Casa Labia to the family. Fortuitously Antonia had just finished studying interior decorating at Landscape Design College. She had previously worked as PR manager at the Mount Nelson Hotel and her combined experience gave her the aesthetic eye and business acumen needed to revive the Casa Labia.

During the painstaking two-year restoration process Antonia undertook with architect Ivan Flint, she kept one eye on the wall panels and the other on business opportunities. From the outset,
she wanted an energetic atmosphere and decided to turn the venue into a cultural centre rather than a museum as the latter has rather staid connotations. Knowing that a café would attract people and get them to return, she partnered with culinary champion Judy Badenhorst to create a menu described as “Italian simplicity combined with South African spirit”. Its café has proven to be a huge success and Saturdays often are fully booked a week in advance.

Upstairs, the light-flooded art gallery with its panoramic ocean views provides a contemporary counterpoint to the damask and drapes below. Alongside the gallery, African Nova’s Margie Murgatroyd has transformed the former boudoir into an upmarket African arts and crafts store. The final touch, an exciting programme of social and artistic events, blows away any remaining specks of dust, making the Casa Labia a creatively vibrant venue.