The first thing you notice about Mehall Griffey and Jerry Maggi’s apartment in Catania, on the island of Sicily, is the floor. The couple live on the second story of a palazzo in the city’s historic center, and the handcrafted, hand-painted Sicilian tiles were laid when the building went up, between 1860 and 1880.
The next thing you notice is the color of the walls: the Pompeian red and the Mediterranean blue of the bedrooms, the smoky, deep gray of the drawing and dining rooms, and the blood orange of the guest bath, this last specially developed with their painter. For that room, they washed color over the scars and humidity stains on the old, beige walls, producing variegations that nod toward antiquity.
In the dining room, armchairs from a local flea market surround a Saarinen table painted in ’s Down Pipe; the Murano-glass chandelier is antique, the Neapolitan console is circa 1850, and the plates are by .
But many aspects of their apartment gesture in the opposite direction. The Devon & Devon tub in the guest bath is contemporary. So are the jade tiles in the master bath (with some random gold tiles sprinkled in to pick up the gold leaf on the ceiling), and the minimalist fixtures in the shower and above the marble sink, which was made by Sicilian craftsmen.
The beauty of times gone by: absolutely. The discomforts: no way.
The walls and floor of the master bath are covered in tiles, the French mirror is 1950s, and the custom sink was handmade by Sicilian craftsmen; the fittings are by , and the ceiling is covered in gold leaf.
The couple first came to Catania in 1998. They had met in London six years earlier, when Griffey, who grew up in Ireland, was designing costumes for BBC television productions, and Maggi, who grew up in Switzerland, was ensconced in the world of finance. They took a trip to the Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily; rotten weather drove them to Catania, where friends lived.
In the entrance hall, an 18th-century Italian hand-painted chest holds a candelabra by Roberto Renzi and a vintage ceramic sphinx; the 1950s armchair was purchased at a local flea market, and the light fixture is circa 1930.
Catania is Sicily’s second-largest city, after Palermo. It lies on the island’s east coast, in the shadow of Mount Etna, the volcano that attempted to flatten the city in 1669; the dark volcanic stone you see everywhere is a souvenir. What the eruption left standing, the earthquake of 1693 took care of. It’s a city of people who know how to take what comes.
London was intense. Catania was easygoing. The couple’s friends knew about an exceptional apartment for sale, and when Griffey and Maggi saw the splendid tile floors and the magnificent stucco-work high on the walls in the public rooms, they made a decision. They’ve been spending time there ever since.
The drawing room of Mehall Griffey and Jerry Maggi’s home in Catania, Italy; the stucco ceiling and painted concrete-tile flooring are both original to the building. The sofa is by , the antique tabernacle is Austrian, and the 18th-century Flemish painting was found at a Paris flea market. The walls are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Down Pipe.
All they really had to do to the place, Griffey claims, was bring the wiring and heating up to date, modernize the bath fixtures, and paint. But in fact they did something far more significant: They imported a sensibility that honors the city and its past while looking to other places and times.
Reclaimed 19th-century Sicilian wall tiles and a tub and fittings in the guest bath.
Which is another way of saying that they love to shop. Catania, the couple noticed at once, was full of beckoning flea markets and antiques shops. Practically the first things they bought were two 18th-century chandeliers from Venice. The magnificent one in the drawing room, with gold trim and aqua bobeches, came out of a local church.
Contemporary sheet-iron shelving flanks a circa-1600 Sicilian chest in the entrance hall.
They like things from churches, maybe because they live next door to one. (Their terrace looks out over one of the church’s stained-glass windows, which almost serves as a piece of artwork.) In the drawing room, between the leather sofa from Italy and the pony-hair chesterfield, stands a quietly ornate Viennese altarpiece, gold leaf on wood. The tall candlesticks in the master bedroom, the gold candlesticks on the marble shelf of an 1850s console—they all came from churches. The impressive faux-marble tabernacle at the far end of the drawing room, which once provided a home for the Eucharist, now serves as a cocktail bar.
The sofa and table on the terrace are 1950s Italian, and the mirror and mantel are vintage.
Somehow, a 19th-century Tuscan bed with a headboard embroidered by nuns and a cheerfully gaga painted and gilded 18th-century chest of drawers have taken up friendly relations with a Saarinen Tulip table and a double row of Forna-setti plates. On various walls are contemporary paintings (the portrait in the master bedroom is of Griffey, rendered by a Catanian friend, Agatino Raciti), flea-market finds (the gowned lady in the guest bedroom came home with them from Paris), and a multitude of mirrors. The enormous one in the master bedroom is a product of early-20th-century Naples; Griffey likens the obsessive folds of its golden trim to couture.
The circa-1890 bed in the master bedroom was bought in Tuscany, and the portrait of Griffey is by ; the chest of drawers is 19th-century Italian, the sconces are 1950s French, and the chairs are from the ’30s. The walls are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Incarnadine.
“After our hectic life in London,” he says, “Catania seemed quiet and original.” Original is exactly how they must have seemed to the Catanians. One of the things they cherish about their life there, they will tell you, is the way their Sicilian friends cluck, “You can do what you want, and we can’t!” It’s a freedom they never feel in London. “‘Oh, well,’ they’ll say about us—‘They’re strangers!’”
The couple travel a great deal, between working in London—Maggi is still in finance, and Griffey now consults on interior design—and relaxing in Sicily. In Catania they entertain and, in turn, are entertained a lot. Even with a population of nearly 300,000, they explain, it is a city where everybody knows everybody. It’s a safe bet that everybody knows them.
In the drawing room, the chesterfield was purchased in Florence, the cocktail table was fabricated from a Balinese door, the 19th-century Venetian mirror is an auction find, and the chandelier is circa 1700.