You walk down a short calle, one of those narrow streets, hardly wider than a hallway, with which Venice is riddled. It leads to an anonymous iron gate, with neither logo nor name to encourage the hesitant visitor. You press a video doorbell, and a man in earth-toned livery arrives to guide you along a gravel path to the entrance of Palazzo Coccina Tiepolo Papadopoli, now the Aman Canal Grande Venice hotel. If Falstaff is right in saying that discretion is the better part of valour, this is indeed a valiant place.
For more than a century the palazzo has been owned by the family of Count Giberto Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga. I had been told to ask for his wife, who has an even grander name, Bianca di Savoia Aosta. Six feet tall, model-slender, glowing with warmth and twinkling with intelligence, she is a natural choice to represent Christie’s in Venice. Improbably, she is the mother of five children, aged 13 to 23: four girls and one boy, the youngest. She guides me into a lift, and we then climb a grand stairway to what is now the family home. They call it an attic, but it is really a duplex penthouse.
The drawing room is playfully chic and — considering that it is half the size of a football pitch — remarkably cosy. The eye skips from one heirloom to the next. Count Giberto enters and settles into an armchair, his back to windows that overlook the canal. A photograph of his father is at his side, and all around him are the beautiful handblown glasses, frames and sculptures that he produces with craftsmen in Murano.
The library at the Aman Canal Grande Venice hotel
Palazzo Papadopoli was designed for the Coccina family in the mid-16th century by the Bergamo architect Gian Giacomo de Grigi. The family sealed its position among the Venetian nobility by commissioning Veronese to paint the Adoration of the Virgin by the Coccina Family. In 1718, after the death of Francesco Coccina, the last descendant, the palazzo was sold to the Tiepolo family. The Tiepolos built an impressive library and commissioned Giambattista Tiepolo (no relation) to decorate rooms with frescoes that are still in place.
In the early 19th century, two counts, Nicolò and Angelo Papadopoli, bought the palazzo. Bianca picks up the story: ‘Their family came from Greece at the end of the 18th century. They were extremely rich.’
Giberto: ‘They were bankers, from Corfu back when Venice owned Corfu. It was said they were so rich, they had their own wave on the sea.’
The piano nobile dining room at the Aman Canal Grande Venice hotel
Bianca: ‘The first thing the Papadopolis did was to buy the two adjoining palazzos and knock them down to give themselves some outdoor space. And it was Nicolò’s wife, Maddalena Aldobrandini, who hired the master of rococo, Michelangelo Guggenheim, to redesign the piano nobile. It’s crazy: there’s a very dark room with boiserie panelling, and then there’s the ballroom, which is all gilt, over-the-top, neo-rococo putti and chandeliers.’
The last of the Papadopoli family were twins, Vera and Madda; Vera was Giberto’s grandmother. But by the First World War there were 86 people living in the palazzo. ‘Eight of them were family members, and the rest were staff and craftsmen,’ says Giberto. ‘That was another age, another Venice.’
At 18, Giberto persuaded a bank to give him a huge mortgage in order to repair the palazzo’s leaking roof, which in turn gave him leverage to renegotiate the tenants’ rents: the family were no longer living there, so the palazzo had been divided into apartments and offices. By that time most of the furniture and paintings had been sold.
The piano nobile lounge
When they moved into the ‘attic’ in 1989, Bianca was just 23, Giberto 28. Over time, many tenants left, among them the Institute of Marine Sciences, which had occupied an entire floor. Suddenly they had empty spaces, which the children used for roller-skating and playing football. Letting the palazzo was a struggle; for a while they rented it out for parties.
‘Finally, finally, we made a deal with Aman,’ says Giberto. ‘It was a huge relief. They put the palazzo back in perfect condition, and now it is fine for another 500 years. It’s amazing; they paid for everything.’
Negotiations were conducted with Adrian Zecha, the former chairman of Amanresorts. ‘I love him, he’s a very special man,’ says Giberto. ‘I said that I didn’t want to run a hotel, I had other projects. And I didn’t want to sell: I live at the top of the house with my five children. He was very nice, and said: “My guests will be delighted to meet you. That moment we made a deal, and the palazzo was handed over to Aman on a long lease.’ After seven years, work was complete, leaving more time for Giberto to concentrate on glassware.
One morning, I accompanied the couple on a visit to the craftsmen in Murano. I waited at the Aman’s main, canalside entrance with Giberto, who was not his usual sunny self; he was fussing about a wedding, and Tuscany. Then Bianca arrived, bounced into their little boat, fired up the outboard motor, and we were off through the water traffic.
Our first stop was the workshop of a lost-wax casting expert, where we picked up a bust of Caesar Augustus, a bronze replica by the 19th-century French metalworker Ferdinand Barbedienne that had been used in a casting. Then, at the next stop, we collected some handblown glasses that were due to be shipped to London.
The couple’s latest glass project — a reproduction of Canova’s famous nude of Napoleon’s sister, Paolina Borghese — also involves lost wax. The glass version will measure one metre in height, and weigh in at 130kg. Their partner in the venture is Adam Lowe, the British founder of Factum Arte, a Madrid-based company that specialises in the digital replication of works of art.
Bianca: ‘We don’t have an investor or sponsor yet.’
Giberto: ‘It’s tricky…’
Bianca: ‘…but fun. It’s fun to do things you believe in.’
And the wedding? It was none other than that of George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin, who married at the Aman and spent their wedding night there. Bianca and Giberto were in Tuscany at the time, with their five children and the dog.
Highlights from Christie’s forthcoming summer auction season will be on view at the Aman Canal Grande during the Biennale vernissage, 6–8 May. Giberto Arrivabene’s glassware is available at www.giberto.it
Main image at top: Giberto and Bianca Arrivabene © AWAITING COPYRIGHT
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