Francesca Bortolotto Possati is as iconic a figure of timeless Italian style as the inimitable city upon the water in which she lives. A third-generation Venetian, she heads the family-owned Bauer hotel chain, hailed by connoisseurs of luxury boutique hotels as the most distinctive jewels in the crown of Venice’s homes-away-from-home. When almost all of Venice’s landmark hotels have been appropriated by multinational corporations, Ms Bortolotto Possati is fiercely proud that the Bauer mystique remains in local hands. She is just as adamant that her family’s legacy will never cave in to the generic style of so many international hotels. Bortolotto Possati is proud of her Venetian roots; she revels in the grace, colour and design that the unique and ancient Venetian culture has fostered. She may adapt it and modify it to suit her creative eye, but her aim is always to let the fortunate guest know that he or she is nowhere else but in Venice. That organic sense of place is the very thing that anchors a Bauer hotel sensibility, a conscious engagement with one’s sorroundings that somehow also seems effortless. Perhaps it is best described as a love of home, and Bortolotto Possati’s heart beats to a Venetian rhythm.
Whether it’s the sharp, art deco lines of the Bauer hotel, the classical Il Palazzo, the newly renovated private residence for rent, Villa F, or the Bauer Palladio Hotel and Spa, all bear the distinctive mark of Venetian tradition in their atmosphere, be it modern or an enduring homage to the Renaissance. Having spent eleven years living and working in the United States as a famed interior designer, Bortolotto Possati returned to her native city when she inherited the Bauer Hotel from her shipbuilder grandfather. She loves America but Venice courses through her veins. In a city steeped in history, she considers herself a guardian of that history and is actively involved in preservation efforts as member of the board of directors for “Save Venice”.
“I inherited this hotel from my grandfather who had bought it from Mr. Bauer. In those days, it was a sanctuary where serious affairs could take place. Mr. Bauer entertained heads of state; it was a meeting place for political discussion. My grandfather was a shipbuilder, so this place was like an extension of the house they lived in. It was like an embassy and this was the idea that I had when I came back from the States. I wanted this place to return to this concept, to the old concept of the true Venetian-style hospitality.”
And when – as with Rome or Paris or Florence – an understanding of the real Venice can be easily overcome by cliché, what does that mean exactly?
“The average image somebody has of Venice is kind of stuck with the idea that it is only the gondola and it looks like a postcard. Don’t get me wrong. I regularly take the gondola. I am also an honorary gondolier member, as my grandfather was, because I think it is a wonderful way to look at parts of Venice that are not accessible from the streets above. But Venice is such a unique city that it deserves far more respect, in every sense – from both the people that visit it and those who live in it. It is not a theme park and not an open air museum. Neither is it only a city of love. This notion that Venice is only for romance or for couples is a total misconception. Venice is perfect also for the solitary traveller, who can come to get lost in the intriguing history of this place. You need to breathe the history of the city to appreciate it fully. Getting lost is the best way to discover the thousands of hidden gems in this magical place. And that can’t be done in just a few hours.”
I could not agree more. Despite romantic notions of the city that have been promoted by the movies, there is another reality to Venice which I find less stereotypical and certainly more intriguing. I remember once seeing the late French President François Mitterand wandering alone in the streets; on more than one occasion he told people close to him that he was himself when he came to Venice for a weekend to relax in this beautiful city. The city treated him like a normal visitor – entering a local gallery or visiting a church – as he came on quite a regular basis It gave him a sense of peace and tranquillity away from the buzz and noise of the French capital.
The garden complex at the Bauer Palladio on the island of Giudecca, and Villa F, her latest acquisition, both lovingly restored under her personal guidance, are two such marvellous locales where one can become happily lost and transported deeply into a more spiritual Venetian reality. The Palladio’s gardens are now among Venice’s most splendid gardens, embellished by gazebos, covered with climbing roses, surrounded by hundreds of hydrangeas, and furnished with tasteful, retro chaise longues for the ease and comfort of guests.
The Bauer Palladio Hotel and Spa building was a 16th century Zitelle convent designed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The exquisitely restored former home for nuns and other unmarried women on La Giudecca island is a haven of tranquillity to soothe the most harried soul. Next to the Zitelle complex is the latest addition to the Bauer collection of sublime sanctuaries and the one that Bortolotto Possati is the most proud of. The exclusive Villa F was also built in the 16th century and offers eleven self-contained, luxurious, villa-like residences in a setting that was once the seat of a noble Venetian family. With three acres of lush gardens and impeccable Renaissance architecture on which to feast the eye, the peace and beauty of the setting makes it easy to grasp why it was once also a haven for artists and writers. But for all of her devotion to and pride in Venice, Ms Bortolotto Possati insists ‘we need to reboot Venice’. Another one of the hats she wears is that of vice president of the Altagamma Foundation with a mandate to boost tourism and culture. Since 1992, Altagamma has gathered together highend Italian companies to better promote Italian excellence and globally renowned, home-grown brands. The diverse sectors represented by the Altagamma Foundation all boast highly regarded, landmark brands whether in the fields of design, fashion, food, jewellery, speed or hospitality. Altagamma has a project to relaunch Italy, but where do we start when Italy has seen negative growth for the past seven years? The shortsightedness and parochial ways of some Italian enterpreneurs vexes Francesca Bortolotto Possati when she sees the business sector as the driving engine of a revitalised Italy.
“At present we are constantly bought out by foreigners and I am not sure this is right. Once the know-how is taken, no matter how creative Italians are, the concept of made in Italy becomes washed away. Look at how the French market their uniqueness so effectively, how they preserve their identity and promote France. We could learn from the French model but we are a bit lost at sea at the moment.”
Altagamma is an institution devoted to preserving and promoting Italy’s image in the world, to uplift Italy at home and abroad. It could not have a more capable emissary for culture and tourism than Bortolotto Possati. It is true that she inherited her mantle, but to her credit she did not rest on her grandfather’s laurels. She earned them all over again, expanding her family’s holdings and fortunes through a potent combination of creativity, labour and innovation, bringing yet more fame to Venice’s reputation as one of the most splendid cities on earth. As glamorous and refined as any of her magnificent hotels, she is a woman who exudes success with an unmistakable Italian flair. And just like the Bauer Hotel, which is not merely a Venetian treasure, but a world-class venue by any standard, Bortolotto Possati transcends her sorroundings in reminding us what true elegance and style should mean. It shouldn’t be remote and untouchable, but inviting,accessible and warm – as she is. If you want to discover the real Venice, you will be sure to feel at home in any of the havens Francesca Bortolotto Possati has prepared for you. And of course you cannot claim to have truly lived unless you allow yourself to get lost in Venice.