Remember, to come up to my house you need to climb 189 stairs. There’s no other way,” Alba Clemente wrote in an email, giving me fair warning about the approach to her home in Amalfi, Italy. The stairway, lit here and there with electric lamps, gets steeper and narrower as you climb. “When I was little, I remember running up very fast through the dark parts,” she says with her roaring laugh. “It was a little scary.” When you reach her front door and your heart is ready to burst, ecco! The door opens to another set of stairs that lead to a courtyard and the actual front door. Once inside, you’ll never look back.
Alba, 67, a mother and grandmother, is a Renaissance woman who has worn many hats. In 1974, when she met her husband, the revered artist Francesco Clemente, in Rome, she was working as an actor with the group Teatro La Maschera, directed by the actor and filmmaker Memè Perlini. More recently, she has worked as a costume and theatrical designer for productions in both New York and Italy, as well as a songwriter for (and occasional performer with) the American group Pink Martini. The house is a testament to the history of Alba’s family, and its interior celebrates the couple’s creative and cosmopolitan lives together in the worlds of art and design.
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Amalfi, one of the centuries-old towns that dot the southwestern coast of Italy, is built on steep terraced land with dramatic views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Alba’s house has been in the family for several generations on her father’s side and sits proudly on a slice of land that has been cultivated over time amid the rocky terrain. Her roots go deep in this small town, where residents and tourists alike must navigate a network of stairways cut into winding passages beneath shops and houses. She lived in the house until she was 18 when she left to study set design and theater in Naples. As a girl, she was educated by nuns in a local Catholic school, and she describes a childhood in vivid color: her harsh punishment by the nuns for things she didn’t do; the time she decided to sneak off to the hair salon when she was 11 to get her braids cut off. “My grandmother almost died when I came back,” Alba says. “She cried for days, nonstop.”
Alba’s determination to get a gamine haircut was more a declaration of independence than an act of rebellion. It was one of many by a young girl who knew her own mind. At the age of 10, Alba secretly smoked cigarettes on the house’s terrace, which overlooked the town’s main square. Today this terrace is where she enjoys cocktails and meals at sunset.
When I ask Alba how she met her husband, she says, “Francesco first heard me laugh in a café, and he had to see whom that laugh belonged to.” Her life was never the same again. “He took me away from everything. I just followed him.” Francesco—whose paintings are known for their mystical, often erotic figurative narratives and lush colors—was born in Naples and studied architecture in Rome. In the 1970s he was part of the Neo-Expressionist movement, which was a reaction against the abstract conceptual art in vogue at the time. He was soon drawn to Eastern cultures and took his first trip to India in 1973, immersing himself in the study of Hindu spiritual texts. He set up a studio in Madras (now Chennai), and India continued to play a major role in his life. In 1981, they moved to New York City with their two daughters. In 1992 they built a house in Carson, New Mexico, designed by their friend Bill Katz, who had a home nearby.
Eventually the beauty of Amalfi, and Alba’s roots led her back to her birthplace. The year she and her husband built the house in the States, Alba’s father decided to give the Amalfi property to his children. Her older siblings declined the offer, so the couple took it and got to work on the interiors. They haven’t altered the house structurally, except for making some additions to the garden terrace and updates to the heating and plumbing systems. The flooring was replaced with terra-cotta and later inlaid with tiles with Francesco’s designs on them.
The biggest change was to the decor. In fact, it’s a remarkable showcase of custom pieces created by the late designer Ettore Sottsass, the Clementes’ great friend, whom they’d met in Milan in the ’70s. Sottsass, who died in 2007, was one of the band of mainly Italian architects and designers who founded the highly influential postmodernist Memphis Group in 1980. The group helped create an aesthetic that obliterated the steel-and-chrome symmetry of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his tribe of austere modernists that was popular at the time. Their works were alive with color and irreverent, wonky shapes that proclaimed that art could be furniture and furniture could be art, even though they looked like cartoon sketches brought to life in three dimensions. Sottsass’s beds, chairs, and tables were a radical departure from the traditional wood furniture that had filled Alba’s family home in the ’50s. Today, Memphis pieces are highly coveted in design circles.
Alba took ownership of the home in the early ’90s, and she confesses that it was Francesco’s idea to enlist Sottsass. “I don’t really have the patience to go around looking for things,” she explains. And the house—nearly empty when the couple took it over—needed a lot of things. Sottsass’s design process started with chats with the couple during his visits to the house. He did drawings for them to review, and pieces were constructed in his studio in Milan and brought to the house “mostly by shoulder,” Alba says.
The master bedroom that Alba knew as a child is still the master bedroom; it is cooled by breezes and overlooks the sea and the town. “My father, even my grandmother, was born in this room!” she says. The guest room—once the bedroom of Alba’s great-aunts, where they did embroidery with friends—had been furnished with traditional brass beds. The twin beds now in the room are decidedly more theatrical.
The kitchen was the only room with a fireplace when Alba was growing up, and as in every family’s home, this was where the action was. “In the early days, they even made wine here,” Alba says. “I remember the smell and how weird it was to see this guy with his pants rolled up in the washing tub. We didn’t buy anything. Everything was from the garden.”
A back door in the kitchen opens to another courtyard, and steps along a rear wall lead to a patio sheltered by a canopy of wisteria. Beyond, the ground beneath a grove of lemon trees is punctuated with fallen fruit the size of dinosaur eggs—the fragrant source of Amalfi’s famed limoncello. As I climb the mountainside, I discover still more land connected to the house, with additional gardens, ancient trees, and a stone bench made by Francesco near the top, where it’s now too overgrown to walk. While it’s easy to romanticize life in Amalfi, building on and cultivating the land there is backbreaking work.
The room that Alba once shared with her sister is now her studio. During my visit, she is working on a series of watercolors that depict stories from childhood. The entrance hall is rich with family history as well: It served as Alba’s theater, where she put on puppet shows when she was seven (her father helped with the sets and costumes). Her audience sat in the front courtyard, and she performed on a makeshift stage defined by the frame of the front door.
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The interior foyer—which opens onto the master bedroom, Alba’s studio, and the bedroom that the couple’s twin sons once lived in, now another guest room—has always been the warmest room in the winter, since it has no windows. One thing that hasn’t changed is the portrait of a cleric who Alba thinks is a relative who lived in the 17th century. “I respect him,” she says. “I know I should be careful with him.”
Today the house is a haven for family and friends in the summer when the lemon trees drop fruit and the sound of church bells fills the air. “I try to stay a few months,” Alba says. “Before, we could say that the children had to learn Italian. But now,” she says without a hint of regret, “there’s no excuse!”