THE ARTISTS’ HOTEL IN ROME. I meet with Caterina Valente at the Hotel Locarno, a five-star hotel in the historic centre of Rome. She is the owner and the soul of this hotel, which has a very strong bond with the world of art and culture; over the years it has offered shelter for artists, film-makers, writers, musicians and travellers.
Why is it called Hotel Locarno?
Because the first owners in 1925 were Swiss, from Locarno. They decided to build an international five-star hotel where we are now.
What is the Hotel Locarno today?
It is the creature of my mother Maria Teresa Celli, who bought it in the 60s. She was an interior decorator, refurbishing and reselling run down apartments in the old city centre of Rome to French and English people. At the time it was quite unusual to live in the city centre, but she was modern and extraordinary. A real estate agent gave her an appointment to visit a flat opposite the hotel and when the agent was ten minutes late my mother entered the Hotel Locarno and asked the porter if they were selling something in that building. He told her that the family that owned the hotel was selling half of the second floor.
She bought that half of the second floor. My grandmother said: “Are you crazy? You have two small children and are buying a piece of a huge building.” My mother then bought the second half of the second floor and she started to buy the rest, piece by piece, and then she bought the whole building. She started to run the hotel in 1969. Because she was an interior decorator with sophisticated taste she rebuilt the hotel as it was in its first years of splendour in the 20s. The hotel had become run down and in the Second World War became a Nazi base, and all the people living around had to move away because it was a target for Allied bombing. After the war it was occupied by the Americans, and it became completely run down.
Was it already a legendary hotel for artists?
Yes, in the 50s it was for many reasons the Rome hotel of the artists. It was near Via Margutta, and Federico Fellini and his entourage were staying and working here. Many artists and painters came to work at Litografia Bulla, the world’s oldest lithography studio, which is near us. Today the studio is run by Romolo and Rosalba Bulla, and still does a lot of work for many contemporary artists.
“From 1925 on directors, screenplay writers and movie stars are our guests.”
A bedroom in the Hotel Locarno.
What kind of artists stayed here?
Michelangelo Pistoletto, Sandro Chia, Mimmo Paladino, Enzo Cucchi, Jannis Kounellis…. all the international artistic crowd.
Also the cinema people?
Only last month they made a documentary on Marlene Dietrich here. Charlie Chaplin came here and Anselmo Ballester the illustrator for the most important silent movies made the poster for the Hotel Locarno in 1925. From 1925 on directors, screenplay writers and movie stars are our guests. We had one of the most famous directors come here from Los Angeles to write his movie and he simply closed himself up in the room. The poet Joseph Brodsky, other Nobel prize winners…, we knew Jack Kerouac. The documentary on Fellini by Gérald Morin, his assistant for many years, was made here because Fellini loved this place.
Umberto Eco, Ottiero Ottieri, Jorge Luis Borges was here… we cannot tell the name of a writer that has not been here when in Rome.
Did your mother appreciate it being a bohemian hotel?
It was economically difficult for her but she loved the mixtures of artists. My mother was trying to look after them when there was this world of sex and drugs. My mother was a myth, because the guests were misbehaving but she loved them and was trying to calm them down. But sometimes she had to send them away. Once she had to take off a door because the artist did not want to leave his room.
You were raised here?
Yes. I started working here even before I was a teenager, making cappucino at the bar, things like that.
Has the hotel changed?
It has not changed, but we have changed everything behind the walls, the plumbing, bathrooms, air conditioning, WiFi. Our goal when we refurbish is to “Change everything without changing anything” to paraphrase The Leopard in the book by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. When a guest enters the hotel after a refurbishment our goal is that he does not notice it. Even if we rebuilt everything in the last three years, no one has to see it.
Is the hotel bigger now?
The hotel has less and bigger rooms now, 44 rooms. It is 5,000 square metres, two buildings, two roof terraces and one garden.
“I love my guests. They are the most interesting people in the world.”
What is your job?
I run the place but my main job is to be part of the team of the staff, to train and recruit, to make them passionate about serving the guests. I work on recruitment and always ask if they are passionate about the arts and history and literature. Our guests are still of the world of art, and so the staff must be a bit sophisticated and aesthetically conscious.
How many staff work here?
50 people, 3 cooks. I look for people who are happy and love this job. The working conditions are the best because the staff is really a team. I am the boss, but I listen in humility to any person who comes here and wants to work.
What about the guests?
I love my guests. I stay talking with them and listening to them for hours. It is nice to talk and listen to the people at the bar. They are the most interesting people in the world. I also like to introduce them to each other and I put people in touch with one another. I love it. I am curious, I like to talk, and they tell me what they are doing in their writing or film making.
Do some clients stay here for long periods?
A Russian screenplay writer stayed here for a month and a half, and now she comes here every afternoon to finish her screenplay. As does a Roman writer.
It is a writer’s hotel?
Do you keep copies of all the books they write?
We keep all the books. They wrote three books about us, and they made a film and a theatre show called Hotel Locarno.
Is it really a business for you?
It’s really a passion. I don’t think of numbers. I love to maintain the vibe that you feel when you come to the Locarno. I love that we don’t lose the vibe. People come here and have inspiration. The walls here inspire people. The bar is famous, both in Rome and with the international crowd. It is considered the best bar in town, one of the best bars in Italy, as the many awards we have won say.
What are your specialities?
Our Martini is great, and we invented a famous signature cocktail which is called the Roma Bracciano. It is a revisitation of a famous cocktail called Milano Torino which was invented by a barman in the 20s while he was working in Turin and living in Milan. He invented it on the train between Milan and Turin, so called it Milano Torino. Our barman lives in Bracciano, so he called his Roma Bracciano. It is made with red vermouth, rabarbaro, bitters; shake it and add orange. Marvellous! Now people also come for the new restaurant and to sit on the terrace in the garden and next to the fireplace which is always lit in the winter. Our cuisine is a real culinary journey, a winning synthesis between history and innovation. In an environment worthy of a Viennese Literary Cafe of the 1920s, the Chef Domenico Smargiassi offers a cuisine with a strong character, but always respecting tradition and using high quality ingredients. We serve also typical historical hotel cuisine: club sandwich, hamburger…. and for both we search out and find all the best local producers. It’s a good restaurant, open 7 days from 11am in the morning to 11pm. You can come any time of day and we do room service for hotel guests.
The Hotel Locarno opened in 1925
The roof terrace is an ideal party venue
The bar has won countless awards
A sumptuous breakfast awaits at the Hotel Locarno
The garden at the Hotel Locarno
A living room at the Hotel Locarno.
“Our main rule is to be discrete. We never bother famous persons, and we protect them.”
No. We also try to have an offer that works for the Roman public. We want there to be a good mixture where people can meet people. Roman people and people from other cities and foreign people are coming here.
How much do you work yourself?
Quite a lot. Now it is a bit calmer, I only work 10 hours a day! Sometimes I work Saturdays, but I take Sunday off.
Is Hotel Locarno a boutique hotel?
We were a boutique hotel in the Sixties. Now it is a hackneyed term… we are something extraordinary. It is an artist’s hotel but also many businessmen, politicians, and journalists come here to be inspired in their work. We have a very high occupancy both in the restaurant, at the bar and in the rooms.
Are you continually renovating?
Yes, but we finished an important refurbishment six months ago and now we are trying to keep calm for a couple of years. We are working for the future with a new gym and a spa.
Is there an atmosphere something like the one in the Paolo Sorrentino movie The Great Beauty?
Yes. There are two buildings. One is completely Venetian and was owned by a noble Venetian family, the other building is typically Roman.
Is summer the best season?
Summer, spring and autumn, but also winter. February for instance is marvellous and it’s a bit less crowded so more relaxed. Christmas time is great. A lot of people come and there is a special feeling because of the Pope, even if you are not religious.
Is it difficult to have a room at the Hotel Locarno?
It is not difficult, but we are an iconic hotel, very much appreciated and required, so better to book in advance. Our main rule is to be discrete. We never bother famous persons, and we protect them.
What is your mother’s heritage?
That nobody is necessary. The Locarno will continue, long after us, even without us. But we do not intend to leave it!
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An Interview with Alain Elkann at The Hotel Locarno