Tim Jepson, The Daily Telegraph, March 07, 2013
At 9.52, on the morning of July 14, 1902, the Campanile, or bell-tower, in St Mark’s Square, collapsed in a mountain of wood, brick, and marble. It had stood, on the flimsiest of foundations, for almost 1,000 years, buffeted by wind and rain, corroded by salt water and – thanks to its inviting bronze tip – struck repeatedly by lightning. It was a miracle it hadn’t fallen sooner.
That same evening, a meeting of Venice’s city council was convened and, despite protests about cost, and claims by some that the square was improved without the tower, it was decided, in a phrase that has entered Venetian folklore, to rebuild the Campanile dov’era e com’era – “where it was and how it was”. What you see today is the new tower, inaugurated in 1912, 600 tons lighter and with an additional 1,000 wooden piles reinforcing its foundations, but otherwise identical to its predecessor.
This is what Venetians do. When the issue of renewal arises, they tend to ask why – and more to the point, how – would you go about improving the world’s most beautiful city? On the whole they adhere to the principle of 1902, restoring rather than altering to leave things much as they were before – dov’era e com’era.
This is precisely what has happened in the restoration of The Gritti Palace, Venice’s most celebrated hotel, which reopened last month after a renovation that took 15 months and cost £36.5 million. It was beautiful before, it is beautiful again, and at first glance it’s as if nothing has changed.
In the greater scheme of things, of course, the fate of a single hotel is of little import. But the Gritti is not just any hotel: it is one of the world’s finest hotels; one of the most historic, ravishing, beautifully located, and sumptuously appointed places to stay not just in Venice but in any city you care to mention.
The history first. The Gritti’s palazzo was begun for the aristocratic Pisani family in 1475. It was then acquired and extended by Andrea Gritti, doge of Venice between 1523 and 1538. For around 350 years thereafter it remained a private residence, becoming a hotel in its present guise in 1948. Ernest Hemingway was one of the first guests.
Then the location. No other hotel can hold a candle to the Gritti’s setting on the Grand Canal – not even the Danieli or Cipriani, its main Venetian rivals. And not just any setting on the Grand Canal, but a position close to St Mark’s and opposite the Salute, one of Venice’s greatest churches.
Guests over the years have included just about every famous visitor who ever came to Venice, from old-school dignitaries – Churchill, De Gaulle, Bacall, Bogart, Chaplin, Garbo, Stravinsky, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Taylor, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Orson Welles, Frank Lloyd Wright – to those of more recent celebrity stamp such as Springsteen, Dylan, Pacino, Pavarotti, De Niro, Jagger, Winslet, Cruise, Kidman, Woody Allen and more.
Eight years ago I also stayed in the Gritti. Last week I stayed again, but as I walked around the restored hotel with the general manager, Paolo Lorenzoni, who moved here from another great hotel, The Excelsior in Rome, it was hard to see what had changed. It seemed, as before, a beautiful 15th-century palazzo filled with beautiful things. Where had all that money gone?
But as we wandered from one breath-taking suite to another, Signor Lorenzoni explained that one of the first tasks of the restoration was to make an inventory of the palace’s many hundreds of paintings, mirrors, chandeliers and other countless antiques, objets d’art and priceless pieces of furniture.
The next job was to have them all restored by Venetian artisans, many of whom are the last exponents of all but vanished skills. The chandeliers were broken down into their thousands of constituent pieces and sent to the specialists Galliano Ferro on the island of Murano; the etched glass and handcrafted giandole and other mirrors were dispatched to Barbini, founded in 1658. Tables, lamps, chairs, bedheads and boiserie were scattered among workshops across the city.
Lorenzo Rubelli, whose roots go back to 1835, dealt with the silks, velvets and damasks, providing fabrics to patterns from its archives for new upholstery, curtains and, above all, the incredibly sumptuous silk wall coverings that line virtually every completely refurbished room (there’s rarely anything as humble as mere paint in the Gritti, and where there is, it’s usually in the form of fresco and trompe l’oeil).
Once the hotel had been stripped bare, the invisible work began. Italy’s strict laws (it does have some) on what can be done to historic buildings meant that none of the palace’s original superstructure could be altered. Nonetheless, doors were moved, partitions demolished and rooms reconfigured. As a result, the Gritti now has just 82 rooms, including 21 suites, down from 91 (the Danieli, by contrast, has 221), and one of the hotel’s charms – its intimacy – has been enhanced.
Those same laws mean that few of the rooms or suites are large by the standards of many modern luxury hotels (by most other standards they are huge). Bathrooms in particular, while finely done and swathed from floor to ceiling in Italian marble, are small.
But what is size when your rooms and public spaces are as beautiful as the Gritti’s? The rooms, with their returned treasures and seamlessly blended replacements, are all different and all (bar two suites with a more Art Deco twist) retain the sumptuous period style you would expect of a 15th-century Venetian palazzo. Technology is state of the art but, with the exception of televisions and those wretched digital radio-alarms, artfully concealed.
As for the public spaces, Signor Lorenzoni and I concluded our tour in the hotel’s bar and Club Del Doge restaurant. Even if you don’t stay in the Gritti, do eat in Club del Doge, whose dining room is surely the most beautiful in Italy, or have a drink, either in the bar itself or on its incomparable terrace on the Grand Canal.
The Hemingway Suite. Image: Gritti Palace
The bar is a particular delight – not least for the balsamic Martinis and Dama Bianca coffee (with added cream and absinthe) of head barman Cristiano Luciani. It is also typical of the public spaces, which are intimate, filled with fresh flowers and decorated with the same period finesse as the rooms. And with the same sorts of treasures: as you sip your drink in the bar you can admire three paintings by the 18th-century Venetian master Pietro Longhi. In January a Longhi sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $1.3 million (£865,000). At the Gritti, they’re just part of the furniture.
Signor Lorenzoni is too discreet to talk about anything as vulgar as money, just as he is too discreet to confirm or deny that the Gritti is where Her Majesty the Queen stays when she visits Venice, but it is clear that much of the cost of the restoration must – literally – have been sunk into the bar and the rest of the palace’s ground floor.
Ground-floor properties are the cheapest in Venice and with good reason – they’re the most prone to Venice’s infamous floods. During dinner in the Club del Doge, the maître d’ told me that before the restoration the dining room could be affected by flooding up to 50 days a year, sometimes, if the wind was in the wrong direction, for 10 days in a row; and not just a few easily mopped puddles, either, but up to five feet of water.
Because of the way Venetian palaces are constructed (on wooden piles, basically), water also comes up through the floor, not just through the doors. The solution in Venice is to build a vasca, or tank, a watertight membrane that not only provides a barrier against water from outside (the Gritti’s high-water threshold is now 5ft 11in), but extends under the entire building. All of the Gritti’s 21,500 sq ft ground floor had to be dug out to a depth of over six feet and lined with a foot-thick shield of steel, resin and concrete. That kind of hole doesn’t come cheap.
But now you’d never know. The Longhis are back on the walls, the chandeliers sparkle, the marbles shine, the silks and velvets dazzle. Everything, as elsewhere in the Gritti, is apparently just as it was: perfect, historic and timeless. Com’era, dov’era.