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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rich History, Designs Fill Italian Embassy

This is the fifth in a series on Moscow's embassies and ambassadorial homes.

Beyond the formidable walls of the Italian Embassy -- a hulking, gray neoclassical fortress with the presence of a Florentine palazzo -- stories of intrigue unfold in a sumptuous setting befitting the artistic tradition of the Mediterranean peninsula.

Stepping through the tall iron gates into the foreboding three-story stone mansion just off the Old Arbat on Denezhny Pereulok, an ornate foyer rich with marble and Pompeian murals suggests the building's proprietor. Beyond, the tall central hall in Gothic Revival style successfully completes this initial overwhelming impression of the embassy.

After a year and a half in Moscow, Emanuele and Agnese Scammacca del Murgo look quite at home in the turn-of-the-century mansion built for Sergei Berg, a foundry and mining industrialist.

Upon its completion, the Bergs threw a Christmas ball to inaugurate their new quarters. As the story goes, instead of being awed by Berg's precocious use of electric lights that year, guests departed early because many of the ladies had made up their faces for more forgiving candle light.

While the Bergs were quite wealthy, they also were progressive people. After the Bolshevik Revolution, they offered their home as the neighborhood polling station for the elections for the short-lived Constituent Assembly. Of course, it can be argued that the offer was merely an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the new leadership. Soon after, they left Moscow for Switzerland in the manner typical of those of their bourgeois class.

Every room in the palace is executed in a different style. "It is a very 'eclectic' house," said Agnese Scammacca del Murgo, as we traversed the main dining hall, which seats three dozen diners.

With the walls covered in ornately carved woodwork and inlaid with the house's original still-life murals, few surfaces are left untouched.

Off the dining room, a glassed-in veranda allows the ambassador and his wife to sit among miniature palm trees as they look out at the elements.

Throughout the house, the tall walls are adorned with the ambassador's own artworks, paintings from Italian collections and art that dates from the Bergs' tenure.

When offered his current position, Emanuele Scammacca del Murgo accepted without reservation. He previously served as undersecretary of state, chief of the cabinet and Italy's ambassador to Belgium, a position his father had held before him.

Hailing from a warmer climate, the Scammacca del Murgos came to Moscow eager to learn more about a relatively unknown culture. "Russia would not be Russia without the cold weather," the ambassador said. "Russian history -- and the economy, for that matter -- are shaped by the weather."

Part of the reason the couple enjoys living in Moscow is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a country in transition. "The Russian people have been experiencing sad events for decades, and Italy cannot just pay lip service to Russia's resurrection," said the ambassador, sitting in his study also designed in an elaborate Gothic Revival style with lacy, twisting woodwork.

"We must see how this voskreseniye -- this resurrection -- takes shape," he added as he toyed with his unlit cigarette. "Specifically, Italian industry must invest more in Russian industry, and the embassy can contribute to the strengthening of these relations."

While surely a proud and diligent trustee of the house, the ambassador does not want to know all of the building's secrets. "I don't like to know all the rooms in my house," he said of the mansion, which serves as both embassy and residence. "There are rooms I have never seen -- it is the same in my house in Sicily."

The ambassador may have good reason for this hesitancy. Before the Italian Embassy took up residence in 1924, the house was the site of a crime that would make the bravest diplomat a little wary. After the Bergs' departure, the house became the German Embassy and the site of a murder engineered by the Social Revolutionaries, who were still struggling for power with the Bolsheviks.

It was with the intent of bringing an end to Russian cooperation with Germany, spreading world revolution and refueling hostilities on the Eastern Front in 1918, that two Cheka, or secret police agents, demanded an audience with the ambassador, Count Wilhelm von Mirbach-Harff.

In the main drawing room, under the Rococo putti-covered ceiling, the ambassador caught the fatal bullet. The two assassins were sentenced to prison, but later they were amnestied "in consideration of their heroic revolutionary past."

After a brief stint as the Comintern headquarters, the house was leased in 1924 to the Italian Embassy. The first Italian ambassador, Count Gaetano Manzoni, had much of the furniture, the Richard Ginori porcelain, Murano glassware and a Fiat coupe brought from the former Italian Embassy in St. Petersburg to Moscow.

With the advent of World War II, the diplomats returned to Italy, not to reclaim the embassy until 1949.

Touring a row of curtained-off drawing rooms along the front of the house that were designed to give the residents and guests increasing layers of privacy, Scammacca del Murgo said, "It is important to keep the house as it was when the embassy first occupied it in 1924."

But that's not as easy as one might think. A turn of a knob reveals a changing room where Berg's humiliated female guests might have hurriedly powdered their noses. These days, svelte models make quick changes before entering the embassy's ballroom, which occasionally is turned into a runway for fashion shows.