21 June 2008

Count Natale Labia legacy fading without care

Count Natale Labia wants the government to give back the house his father built. The 20-room Italianate mansion overlooks the sea in Muizenberg. Count Natale Labia senior was Italy's consul in South Africa. He built The Fort, as it was named, in the style of 18th century Venice, the city of his ancestors. The furniture and fittings were all Venetian. After his death in 1936, the house was leased first to the Canadians and the Argentinians for use as an embassy. In 1985 Count Natale Labia (Luccio), the son, donated The Fort and all its contents, including many valuable paintings, to the government, on condition it was run as a museum for the benefit of the community. F.W. de Klerk, then Minister of Education, officially opened it. It became a venue for exhibitions, lectures, musical recitals and art classes, and had its own restaurant. In 2005 the Department of Arts and Culture closed it and stopped financial support. Since then the government has hired it out for film and photographic shoots. The Fort is not well-cared for. A caretaker is employed by Count Labia to live on the property he no longer owns, to try and give some kind of protection. The laminated windows have become opaque because of water seepage. Inside walls are peeling and mouldy, vases are cracked, the crystal chandeliers are grime encrusted, hinges are broken, brass fittings are missing, carpets are stained, there are cigarette burns in antique chairs, and a R450 000 painting by James Stark has disappeared. Count Natale Labia believes the government has breached the conditions of the donation and he is trying to recover the house and its contents.