How the Eritrean government trashed an architectural gem

2022-10-14 20:06:43 Written by  Martin Plaut Published in English Articles Read 227 times

Villa Melotti in Massawa was a magnificent home owned by Italian citizens. The villa was unique in every detail of its architecture.

The Melotti family had made their money from producing beer. The famous Melotti beer is still brewed and enjoyed in Eritrea, but now under the “Asmara beer” label, while using the Melotti logo and caps.

The Melotti villa sheltered many Eritrean fighters during the battle of Massawa in 1991.

The villa was damaged by the air raids and the family wanted to restore it. But they could not obtain the necessary permits to do the work after independence arrived.

Unable to restore the villa the Melotti family agreed to sell it to the Eritrean government.

The government never paid the agreed sum and after years demolished the villa, rendering the area a vacant lot that was automatically owned by the government, in accordance with the 1994 Land Proclamation.

And so its ruins remain – a sad testament to the vandalism by Eritrea’s current rulers.


In 2006 another whim of the dictator who commands Eritrea with an iron fist. Another slap in the face of Italy. The bulldozers of the army razed one of the most beautiful residences in Africa to the ground, Villa Melotti, also known as the Cyprea, built by the architect Luigi Vietti in the 1960s. A splendid example of Mediterranean architecture nestled on the Red Sea coast, in front of one of the most evocative views of the black continent, in Massawa, the Eritrean port city declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In its place, tourist villas will be built and an Italian operator, Renato Cialona, ​​has already visited the promontory, now an orphan of its most beautiful jewel.

Villa Melotti was wanted by Mrs. Emma, ​​a charming and energetic woman who arrived in Eritrea in 1940 to marry her boyfriend, Luigi Melotti, founder of the Melotti Brewery. In 1946 Melotti died and shortly afterwards his brother was also killed in an ambush by the shifta, armed gangs paid by the British to hit the Italians. The Melotti family, like the others from our country, was committed to defending the positions of those who wanted an independent Eritrea, perhaps after a few years of Italian protectorate. London and Washington, on the other hand, were pushing for an organic connection with Ethiopia, despite knowing that the enormous differences between the two countries – the first the most industrialized in all of Africa (after South Africa),

MASSAUA 20When her husband dies, Mrs. Emma does not yield to the advice of those who invite her to leave and abandon everything.

She remained in Eritrea and took over the family business, the liquor factory, the glass factory and the brewery that made her famous throughout East Africa. Melotti Beer is sold not only in Eritrea, but also in the nearby British colonies. The lady accumulates a great fortune but she has a dream: to leave to the country of her adoption (Eritrea which she feels is her new homeland) something important that can somehow enrich it and can be preserved over time. In short, a monumental work. And so he calls on the shores of the Red Sea the most famous and appreciated architect of the moment, the one who “invented” the Costa Smeralda, with the fairytale villa of Agà Khan, which embellished Cortina d’Ampezzo, building the houses of holiday of the Barilla, the Borletti, the Tronchetti Provera, the Marzotto families.

The Italian upper class in the 1960s passed entirely through Vietti’s studio. Mrs. Emma convinces the architect to come to Massawa and he falls in love with the place. He draws one of his splendid constructions of him: the Cyprea. The works began in 1964 and lasted almost two years. The materials are all brought from Italy. The tiles for the floors and bathrooms from Sardinia, the windows and furniture, designed by the same architect, from Brianza. To embrace the view of the sea Vietti creates three immense windows, 15 meters, inserted in round arches. Specialized workers also come from Italy to assemble the crystals. The swimming pool enters the huge hall, as if it were an extension of the sea. From the garden of the villa you can dive directly into the crystalline and coral water of the Red Sea, inhabited by colorful tropical fish.MASSAUA 21

In those years illustrious guests pass by: Giulio Andreotti, Giancarlo Pajetta and Oriana Fallaci, who then, on other political shores, had criticized in an article the splendor and luxury of that residence (fantasizing, among other things, that the guests did the swimming in the pool filled with champagne). Then comes the civil war and in 1990 Massawa is conquered by the independence guerrillas. Mrs. Emma opens the doors of her Cyprea to refugees fleeing the bombing. A thousand people camp out in the garden and the cellars become formidable shelters where women, children and wounded militiamen find welcome. The hall becomes the guerrilla headquarters. It is the rebels who bring the lady to safety in Sudan, with a daring journey on the back of a camel.

Text taken from an article by Massimo A. Alberizzi (Corriere della Sera)

PHOTOGRAPHER PAOLO GRAPPOLINI
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Last modified on Friday, 14 October 2022 22:10