The Casa Labia

By Glenn Babb

The residence of the first Italian Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to South Africa stands in what once was South Africa’s leading resort town, Muizenberg, whose role Plettenberg Bay has now taken over.  We all know it as Casa Labia, named after the Envoy himself, Prince Natale Labia.  The title Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, no longer forms part of diplomatic coinage. Because South Africa’s head of state at the time was the king, sending states could not appoint a second ambassador apart from the ambassador to the Court of St James in London.  The title nevertheless spelled out that Prince Labia had full powers to transact business with the Union of South Africa.

Prince Labia had entered the Italian diplomatic service in 1906.  After serving in the Balkans and Constantinople, in 1916 he took the post of Consul in Johannesburg, leaving behind the conflagration of the First World War which had had its very origins in the Balkans. There, at the age of 43 he met and fell in love with Ida Robinson, the third and favourite daughter of Sir “JB” Robinson (Bt), the Rand magnate, and married her in 1921 in London. The couple returned to South Africa where Prince Labia presented his credentials as Envoy Extraordinary.

The couple lived at Hawthornden, the Robinson homestead in Wynberg, until JB Robinson’s death in 1929.  The site Prince Labia thereafter chose for the home he planned, formed part of the battleground site on the battery emplacement for the Battle of Muizenberg (1795).  Prince Labia conceived the house not just as a family home but also the Legation chancery. He planned an Italian style building and Italianate décor.  To achieve this, he appointed the Cape Town architect, Fred Glennie, to design it as a foil for the Palazzo Labia in Venice, the ancestral home of the Labia family.  The mansion, back-referencing to the site it stood on and the battlements it replaced, received the name “The Fort”. Similarities to the Palazzo Labia in Venice can be identified in the symmetry of the façade, the portico supported by fluted columns and the fountain.  Dennie had travelled extensively and had studied Italian architecture. He understood the style which he could adapt to the local conditions.

The interior design followed the Venetian tradition.  A Venetian interior decorator, Angelo Zaniol, oversaw the works and we can see the ceiling macaroons adorning almost the whole ground floor.  The chandeliers, mirrors, furniture and wall fabrics all came from Venice and the glass from Murano in Venice. The ceiling macaroons were made in Italy and installed in the Fort, as was the ceiling painting.  Angelo Zaniol was himself a fine artist and one of his still life works makes up part of the Labia family’s collection. The garden, the outbuildings and the salt swimming pool (now filled in) made up the rest of the project.

The ground floor rooms all have a central feature with the fireplaces as a focal point.  The hearths are constructed in marble with the exception of the ante-room fireplace in exquisitely hand-carved wood.  The floors are parquet, hard-wearing and popular in the 1930’s.  Up the stairs hangs Princess Ida Labia’s full-length portrait by the famed South African artist Edward Roworth.

The family lived in the The Fort until Prince Labia’s death in 1936 when they returned to Hawthornden, only using the house as a holiday residence.  In 1961, the Canadian government hired the house as its High Commission and from 1964, the Argentinian government took over the lease of the house. 

Since the family was now ensconced at Hawthornden, Count Luccio Labia, the second son of Prince Labia, in his inimitably generous way, offered to donate The Fort to the South African state, on condition that the house be maintained in its present style and that the 18th century and other paintings from the Robinson/Labia collection remain so as to guarantee the character of the house.  Count Luccio also made it a proviso of the donation that the house be put to use as a museum for lectures, musical events and temporary exhibitions.  In 1983 the Department of National Education and the National Gallery took over the house, restored it and opened it as a satellite museum in 1988.  However, with the founding of Iziko Museums, the care and concern for this important part of Cape Town’s heritage disastrously diminished and the centre was closed to the public. Part of the property was sold off at a suspiciously low price and the property was used for dubious projects.  One of the nineteenth century English art works has disappeared. The head of Iziko Museums at the time declared that there was minimal interest in anything except indigenous art and culture so little attention would be paid to The Fort.

Twenty years later, after the house had suffered major neglect, Count Luccio claimed successfully that the act of donation had been breached and took back control of the house.  The family now intervened and, under the careful curatorship of Count Luccio’s daughter, Antonia Labia, brought it back to life as a vibrant Cultural Centre, events venue and restaurant.  A vineyard with Mediterranean varietals was planted behind the house as homage to the unsung efforts of Natale Labia to the Cape wine industry.  An olive grove flanks the vineyard.

Now a centre for exhibitions and events, it is fitting that in 2016 the olive industry of Southern Italy used Casa Labia for the promotion of the table olives Bella di Cerignola, the very village in which Prince Natale first saw light of day in 1877.  This followed the gala for the celebration of the international olive competition, Sol d’Oro, attended by Premier Helen Zille. The Italian nature of the residence, now flying also the Italian flag on its flagpole, is a symbol of the multi-layered, multi-cultural nature of the reality that is Muizenberg.

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