LIVING THE VENETIAN DREAM. Count Giberto Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga is one of the last aristocrats in Venice who is still living in his city, still keeping his palazzo, still working in the area. His company produces beautiful glass objects in Murano, and best of all he is still completely in love with Venice, his city where he was born and spent his childhood, and then came back to with his beautiful wife Bianca di Savoia Aosta. They have four amazing girls and one boy, one dog and a few little boats, because in Venice either you take the Vaporetto or you must have your own little boat to go from one place to the other and enjoy Venetian life.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Giberto Arrivabene, for 200 years your family has owned the 16th Century Palazzo Papadopoli which is easy to recognize with its two big obelisks on top, facing the Grand Canal. You did something very special to keep this palazzo alive, successfully finding a fantastic solution that is both good for you and good for all the people who love Venice. What is the story?
I was very lucky, I have to tell you. This palazzo is one of the eight monumental palazzos in Venezia. It’s a big problem to maintain a house as big as this, and it has been a problem all my life. My father died when I was 9 years old, I was the only boy of the family, and I had to deal with the financial situation of the family, which wasn’t good. My mother started selling all the furniture, and then the palazzo was empty. It was very difficult to rent it. It was very difficult to do anything with it. Fortunately, we had a long term contract with the Italian National Centre for Research of the Lagoon, and they used to pay wonderful rent, but at a certain point when they left the house we had to find solutions. The palazzo is more than 7000 square metres and it could only be rented to somebody who wanted to rent all of it, not just a part of it, because the laws in Italy are very complicated. If you rent one floor, let’s say, then you are stuck for 10 years, and obviously you can’t rent it all with that floor already rented. So we had to keep it empty, and that was a big problem and we had lots of debts. My two sisters owned the Palazzo with me and wanted to sell up, because that was the easy way, but I didn’t want to. I felt a responsibility not to sell the place, it was a point of honour to me, because in our family everybody has been selling things for the last two generations, but finding a solution was very complicated.
The Palazzo Papadopoli is very famous, not only for its facade but also because you have Tiepolo frescoes. Is it a national monument?
It is, as are all the palazzi on the Grand Canal. We have Tiepolo, we have Guarana, and we are the only one with two big gardens. That helped enormously, and my wife and I started renting a part of the house out for parties and weddings, but that didn’t keep the whole house up. Then Mr. Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman Resorts and the most charming man on earth, phoned a friend of mine, saying he wanted to talk to me. I didn’t want to do a hotel because I had a project to do some apartments, but to make a long story short we became friends. He sat in my studio, where I’m sitting now, and said to me: “Gibi, I want to take this place. I’ve been looking in Venice for fifteen years for an Aman Resort. This is the only palazzo with two gardens, with Tiepolo, and I want to have this house.” I said, “Listen, I’m afraid we are not selling it,” because I didn’t want to sell it obviously, and I said, “We can rent it, but we can’t make more than 40 rooms or apartments, because if it doesn’t work I will have to sell the apartments otherwise I will be bankrupt. And, most of all, I live here with my wife and my five children and therefore I really don’t want to leave.” He made an oriental smile, full of charm, and said, “Gibi, we will rent. Forty is more than enough for Aman, and my guests would be delighted to meet you.” That was it.
Now you live in the two top floors of the Palazzo Papadopoli, with an amazing view, and it’s as if the guests of the Aman are your guests. You go through the hotel and they see you. Are you an asset for the hotel?
For me it’s fundamental that they always see me as an asset, so they won’t kick me out one of these days. When you arrive at the Aman, in your room you can watch a wonderful 20 minute movie about the restoration of the palazzo and the story of the Palazzo and the family. So the guests have to meet me and see me. They ask me how it is, living on the top of an Aman, and I must say, it’s a real dream. I’m really very, very lucky.
“They ask me how it is, living on the top of an Aman, and I must say, it’s a real dream. I’m really very, very lucky.“
Giberto Arrivabene, you are not just in Venice sometimes, you really live there, and your beautiful GIBERTO glassware is your hobby, your passion and your work. You do something which is unique in that you made glass copies of ancient Roman busts. Are you proud of this achievement?
The big achievement was to do Canova’s ‘Paolina Borghese’ in 77 kilos of glass, which is even more difficult. We went to the Galleria Borghese where we scanned the Paolina, and then followed a long procedure of making plaster, then wax and then glass. We did the Paolina with my friend Adam Lowe, an English gentleman who owns Factum Arte, globally one of the most important companies who make and copy art. Our Paolina was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum, she’s there in London on permanent show, and that I’m very proud of. But the Murano part is the most fun, and the thing I like to do. Murano is a wonderful place to be.
Is your life in Venice that you go to Murano in the morning with your boat?
First of all, I am very lazy. I have a lawyer, a fantastic man who always says to me: “You want the truth or the real truth?” (The truth is what you want to hear and the real truth is what it is.) What it is, is that I’m very lazy. I am 59. I am a consultant for AON, the biggest insurance broker in the world, and I work with my glass. In the morning, it’s very easy because you go to have coffee with your friends. Then I go to Murano, but not every day, maybe twice a week and we are talking before Covid, because after Covid everything has changed. One day a week I used to go to Milano to AON to work in the insurance. I would sleep in Milano, and then the weekend is on. During the weekend, normally you have guests. Lots of people pass through Venice, so you don’t need to go away all the time. It’s beautiful to stay here.
Venice is beautiful in the winter and in the summer. In the summer do you go to the Lido?
Yes, I love it, and you go there by boat as well as to good restaurants in the islands and the food is excellent. You are surrounded by beauty all the time, which makes a difference.
Which is your favourite restaurant near the palazzo?
Antiche Carampane is my favourite for food, and Harry’s Bar my favourite for drinks.
What would you drink at Harry’s Bar and what would you eat at Carampane?
The martini of Harry’s Bar is famous, and at Carampane I would eat the spaghetti del Doge, with crab.
Don’t they also have a dish called Moeche?
Yes. When the crab changes his shell, which is twice a year, the shell of the crab becomes very soft. It’s terrible how they do it. They throw the crab alive into beaten egg, and then they fry it. It’s one of the most amazing things you can eat in Venice: Moeche.
Sadly the city is empty now and the restaurants and bars all closed. Even though you lived in Venice since childhood you have probably never seen Venice like this. Is it truly extraordinary?
It is. Venice is very different from the other cities. When you walk around Venice and you meet people you can’t avoid them, you just bump into them, so you have to say hello and be friends with everybody, it’s the nature of the city. The funniest thing is that you know the faces of people all your life, and you link the faces with the places where they work. If you see a Harry’s Bar waiter who is not dressed as a waiter because he’s not in Harry’s Bar, for the first second you don’t know who he is because you’re not used to seeing him like this because the city is full of tourists, so they get mixed in and you don’t recognize them. But now it’s funny, because you walk around the city and hear everybody saying “Ciao!” one to the other, “Ciao! How are you? How is your father? What’s going on?” And it’s only Venetians. The city is extremely beautiful, but obviously we can’t survive like that. We need to do something very, very quickly.
Do you think the Aman Hotel will be full again this summer or as soon as people are vaccinated?
I’m sure we are going to have a tourist boom in Venice as soon as we can. The problem for Aman is that Aman has a lot of foreign guests. 98 percent are foreigners, and 54 percent are Americans. As soon as they let Americans fly to Italy, we will be OK.
“We are very proud of our city…. Come with the love of your life!”
Giberto Arrivabene, in Venice there are so many people coming from abroad and several different kinds of tourist: people who have houses, people who just come for one day, people who come to holiday. You have the Biennale, lots of artists, and restored palazzi where galleries and foundations do art shows. Is Venice becoming the Italian capital of the arts?
It has been the capital of arts for a long time. Who else should be the capital of arts? Florence has very little, and Venice has the huge Biennale of Arts. The Biennale of Architecture is starting now. Venice is a museum, but it has to be lived in. We are a little international village, and there are a lot of communities: English, French, Americans. They come here, they stay here, take a house. Maybe they stay a year, or six months, write a book or study at the Cini Foundation. It depends.
Are you on the board of the Cini Foundation?
That’s why it came to my mind.
Why do Venetian people have such empathy with foreigners, who adore being in Venice?
First of all, the Venetians are used to it, and second the Venetians are merchants. When people arrive with money and take houses and pay, they are welcome.
Your wife Bianca is a Princess of the Savoia family and also the granddaughter of the Count of Paris who is a claimant to the French throne. For thirty five years she’s been in Venice with you and she not only works for Christie’s very successfully but you are both ambassadors of the City of Venice. Do you love to help foreigners enjoy your city?
Absolutely. We are very proud of our city. And Bianca does more than me, because as I told you, I’m very lazy. I’m not very social and I like to be home, read my books and design my glass and go to Murano. The most difficult thing is to do something new in glass, as we’ve been doing glasses for three or four thousand years and you saw glasses all your life. To do a glass which you never saw before, or at least which gives you an emotion that you never had before, is the most complicated thing.
Your glasses are very special and you even reproduce palazzos on them. Isn’t there a debate between your wife and yourself about another, one of you saying that it’s like a tear and the other that it is like a drop?
I say it’s a tear, she says it’s a drop – because I’m the romantic of the two! Every time I say it she laughs and says, “No, it’s a drop.” But actually it’s a tear, and I love them. They are very difficult to do because the tear has to be done at the very last moment with an exact amount of glass. To do one successfully normally you throw away one or two.
If you had a friend who never came to Venice before, what would you suggest to do for a little vacation?
It depends on the time of year. I wouldn’t say come in August, because August is boiling. Come in June, which is beautiful, or now. There’s so much to see in Venice. There are two hundred and seventy churches, some nicer than others. Take a good guide to tell you the story of Venice and bring you to the most important places, because in two or three days you can’t see everything. You should stay for a year. When I walk around, all the time I see something I never saw before: a door, a church, a painting in a church, a marble sculpture atop a window. Obviously, you have to see the Basilica di San Marco, for me one of the most beautiful churches on earth, and you should go to the islands, to Murano, or Torcello where the church is almost 2000 years old. The marbles of the floor are something you will never forget, and the tiny Locanda Cipriani in Torcello is an amazing restaurant.
Would you say there is no one special time to come to Venice?
First, it depends on your mood. Second, come with the love of your life, which is very important. These two things.
Aman Venice, Italy – Palazzo Papadopoli and the Grand Canal
An interior of the Palazzo Papadopoli before its restoration.
Aman Venice, Italy – Suite, Alcova Tiepolo
Aman Venice, Italy – Dining – Yellow Room
The Palazzo are antique crystal glasses with the Venetian Palazzos’ façades engraved on the surface.
Aman Venice, Italy – Grand Staircase
“We were no longer rich, so to keep the palazzo without money was very complicated.“
Giberto Arrivabene, what about when there is acqua alta, flooding?
It was a problem. We all had boots outside the door for the children, but you got used to it. Now, finally, we have the flood barrier working, so we don’t have acqua alta any more. The last one was a disaster and did a lot of damage to the city.
Was it easy and joyful to raise five children in Venice?
Yes, fantastic. You have no risks. First of all, Venetians never fall in the water because we are used to living on the water. Only tourists fall in the water. The children won’t drown in the Grand Canal – even if they’re drunk – and they don’t have cars, they go out with little boats. If sometimes terrible things happen it’s very rare compared to a normal city with motorbikes and cars. All my girls are grown up and live around the world, but they come home often and love to be in Venice.
Even if you’re still rather young, do you feel like a sort of patriarch because you kept the Palazzo Papadopoli?
I am very proud.
Are there many other families who kept their palazzo?
No, and the ones who did were very rich. That makes a difference. We were no longer rich, so to keep the palazzo without money was very complicated.
You became friends with Adrian Zecha and now the Palazzo Papadopoli is safe and in good hands?
Zecha is no longer the president. Now, it is Vadislav Doronin, who is charming and we have a very nice relationship. Aman Resorts became 32 around the world, and they are opening in New York. It’s getting better and better.
Do your daughters love having room service?
They are not allowed room service. As far as I know, they never have. Sometimes they ask me if they can go down and have lunch with their friends in the garden, and obviously you have to say yes, but we have a very good deal on prices.
Living in a building that has a hotel, did you meet some special people and make new friendships?
We became friends with the people of Aman, doing a project with these guys, and I met the most incredible persons here. Sometimes they call me and say: “Can you come down, there is someone who wants to meet you?” I met the niece of Matisse once, who was charming. The funniest was when they phoned me saying, “Will you please come down? There is a gentleman who wants to meet you.” I said, “Who is he?” and they said, “No, we will tell you when you come down.” I went down, and there was this old gentleman, maybe 80 or 85, very elegant, with a lady next to him. “Hi, how are you?” Big smiles. He shakes my hands and says: “Albert Speer.” I was a bit confused. I said, “What do you mean, Albert Speer? He died.” And his wife said, “He’s the son of Albert Speer, and, by the way, he is an architect too.” It was a shock.
Giberto Arrivabene, what are you doing while waiting patiently for Venice to reopen?
With Bianca we are working a lot on the glass business. It’s crazy, but in this year with Covid the glass business had very good results.
Good luck and thank you very much for having been with us today.
Portrait of Giberto Arrivabene by Massimo Sestini
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