Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Florence. It’s the best

Lunch reception fifteen minutes outside Florence at Villa Collazzi, the spectacular home of Marchese and the Marchesa Frescobaldi.
by Darren Henault

I was in Florence doing my duty as a judge and member of the international committee of the Biennale Internazionale Dell'Antiquariato Di Firenze. The fair was putting me up at the Westin Excelsior, so I was a little bit dreading not staying at my favorite, JK Place on Piazza Santa Maria Novella. The Westin turned out to be terrific. They've just done a major overhaul and it's in a fantastic and enormous building right on the Arno.
Look at this fantastic stone floor in the lobby. My room is enormous, the bed I could have slept in for a week, and I've got a lovely little balcony with a side view of the river.
Of course the Italians have fantastic stone floors everywhere. In addition the halls are lined with the most amazing furniture. Look at this 18th Century ebony and ivory cabinet.
And the best part is it's reasonable. Anyone who makes an excuse that it's too difficult to travel or too expensive is a dolt. However the best décor of the room were the two watercolors that my twins Bunny and Lulu made for me and snuck into my suitcase.
I immediately ran to meet Douha Ahdab who works for Antico Setificio Fiorentino. This is one of the oldest textile companies in Florence, in fact, in all of Italy. Tucked away on an ordinary little street in a completely unassuming little building is one of the world’s gems. I got a wonderful history lesson on the textile industry.

It seems that all of the old nobles actually had their own looms and weavers who made the cloth for their own clothes and homes. At one point in the 1600s, nine of the noble families decided to combine their “talents” and opened Antico Setificio so it would weave exclusively for them.
Douha Ahdab at Antico Setificio Fiorentino.
Obviously, soon it become a commercial venture and famous the world over. Everything is custom, EVERYTHING. They dye each skein of silk, create new patterns, etc., etc., etc. Historically, at the birth of a noble they would create a new pattern and weave fabric for the child’s bedding. This pattern then becomes theirs for life and is not woven for anyone else (only the Italians!). Subsequently there are tags all over the shop with the most illustrious names in Italy.

Having grown up in the textile industry, this was particularly fascinating to me. The looms are the same (and I don't mean the same type, I mean the same!) they've been using for hundreds of years. Douha was lovely. She had such pride in the company that she works for. Later I had a conversation with a waiter in a restaurant who took the same pride in his job that Douha had in hers. Europeans may not make their lives all about their work the way Americans do, but they certainly do enjoy their work.
After this little tour I walked back across the river to meet Contessa Simonetta Brandolini d'Adda. I was very pleased that she was sitting with Paula Corsini. Paula is from one of the original nine noble families who started Antico Setificio. Small world indeed. Simonetta is the President of Friends of Florence. She founded it a few years back to restore the history of Florence mainly through its physical structures and cultural institutions. All of the money is privately raised.

She told me something very interesting: a few years back the mayor of Florence closed traffic in the city of Florence to all traffic, get this, unless you lived in Florence. Obviously, for a few hours each day commercial vehicles are allowed in. This would explain why Florence is such a dream. It's so wonderful to walk around and see the city without constantly being attacked by cars. She recommended that I see both the Stibbert and the Bandini collections while I'm here. We had a quick cup of tea then she was off to arrange things for the Biennale and I was off to put my head on a pillow.

Thursday morning I woke up after a very, very, very, long sleep; who knew I could sleep that long, and lolled around the hotel room stuffing my fat little face and drinking pots of tea. The tea was to brace myself for the rest of the day as I was meeting my friend Caroline de Cabarrus (nee Percy). Caroline flew in from London and in fact it was she who recommended me to be on the International Committee in the first place. Caroline had promised to introduce me to some vendors in Florence. Knowing that she has exquisite taste and that she had lived in Italy for a period, I knew I I would not be disappointed. And I wasn't. However keeping up with her was another matter.
Pellicceria Cioni, next to the Duomo.
OK, true confession. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a certain affection for outrageous fur hats. I was told by a lady in-the-know that the best furrier in town was a place called Pellicceria Cioni right next to the Duomo. I raced off first thing in the morning.

Their studio is filled with the most amazing garments fresh off of the runways of Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Tom Ford and on and on. Two gorgeous sisters run the place that their grandmother founded.
Ilaria and Patrizia Cioni, whom I met with their parents Giancarlo and Grazia Cioni.
It took a total of 5 minutes for them to talk me into not only a hat but a full length coat to match. We used the coat that the eldest son wears in Narnia as a guide.

I went back on Saturday for a fitting in muslin and look forward to the coat arriving in a couple of weeks. As the Italians would say “bella pozza” (beautiful crazy)!

So Caroline and I started out at Castorina. They will reproduce ANYTHING and I mean anything. They’ve got wall after wall after glorious wall covered in hand carved wood mouldings of every conceivable shape, type, period, the can be stained, ebonized, tortoise, gilt, whatever you can think up they can do it.
Oddly, I’d been looking for enormous lion’s paw feet to reproduce a table I saw at auction at Sotheby’s. I hadn’t been able to find the feet anywhere and sitting there on a table right when I walked in were the most enormous and gorgeous feet!!

I immediately ordered four in gilt bronze!
The lion’s paw at Castorina.
They've also got an enormous selection of pierced metal that one typically uses as galleries for tables. However, Caroline gave me the best idea of using them to frame wall upholstery in a grand room. I will be presenting that to someone soon I'm sure.

Next we strolled (she strolled, I was so excited that I skated) a few blocks to visit Raffaello Romanelli. This is an amazing space filled with stone work of every shape and scale you can think of. Need a monumental Fascist statue, a copy of a 7th Century Roman bust in three different stones, the bust of a woman in the 1920's style, a tub carved from a single block of stone, or maybe even the Pieta?
Check, Got it, Yep, Here it is, and look no further. It isn't interesting for what they had, it was a thrill for what they could do!

All of this took place in the Santo Spirito neighborhood just across the river. Conveniently we were near a restaurant called Cammillo. 

Caroline insisted it was the best place to order veal and I ceded control of the meal.
We were served the most gorgeous plate of paper thin, sliced veal covered, and I mean COVERED, in shaved white truffle. The two of us just had to sit and look at it and smell it for a moment before we started eating. Taking a pause to inhale the scent of one’s meal seems normal in Florence! After lunch Caroline kindly deposited me back at my hotel in a carnivorous haze to nap.

An hour later I received a text from my good friend Fernanda Gilligan whom you all know from New York. If you don’t, make sure you introduce yourself the next time you’re in the same room (no stalkers please). I quote: “I’m a girl who doesn’t have an off button.” And she isn’t kidding. Fernanda has been living in London for a few years going to school and now working as a Fine Art consultant. She agreed to meet me in Florence and frankly I was shocked and thrilled when she actually did.

I ran to meet Natasha Garland, Director of the Global Family Business Summit. However in her last life she worked with Antje d’Almeida Santos at the Palazzo Tornabuoni. The Palazzo is an old family home on the corner of the Tornabuoni and the Strozzi. A few years ago an American businessman bought the building and spent a king’s ransom fixing it up and turning it into, hold your hats, a time share. But not the awful, suburban, oh my god I’ve died and gone to hell in Florida time share. No no no no. 
The Palazzo Tornabuoni has the most exquisite one and two bedroom apartments I’ve frankly ever seen (really). 
The common spaces are amazing.
The rooftop is to die and best of all it’s run by the Four Seasons Hotel.
On the rooftop with Natasha Garland and Fernanda Gilligan.
Almeida told us that the Italian government was so confused by the concept of a timeshare that they actually closed the project down for a period. 

Now if this sounds like enough for a three day trip ... the scheduled events of the Florence International Antiques Fair hadn't even started!

The international committee met dressed for dinner at the Uffizi to tour the Collection Contini Bonaccorsi. This is a fantastic collection of 16th Century paintings and actually a few pieces of furniture.

Notice the feet on this cassone (an Italian wedding chest).
The best part was that they took us to the basement to the portrait gallery. It seems that throughout the ages the Museum has been collecting portraits. Artists are contacted and asked to submit/donate a portrait of themselves, which is an incredible honor.

They're hung willy nilly in the Renaissance style, with no sense of order. It's a gorgeous and random collection.
Darren, among the artist's portraits.
They then took us up several flights of stairs and through a little door ...
And we were on a massive terrace overlooking the Campanille where a bar was set up for drinks.
Finally we met Marchesa Bona Frescobaldi, the undisputed queen of Florence. Impeccably dressed, she was gracious in her efforts to meet every person and to be certain all were well taken care of. This little wisp of a woman had the clout to not only organize all of this but even more. We then went for a private tour of the Uffizi, cocktails in hand. The entire Museum was closed just for us. We strolled through the Halls at our leisure taking as much time and space as we needed to really view the art on exhibit and the phenomenal architecture.

After yet another round of cocktails in the main courtyard with all the dinner guests (easily five hundred people) we were led upstairs into the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. I can honestly say I've never eaten a meal in a grander room.
Dinner in the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. 
The most clever part was covering the tables with round plates of mirror so that we could see the spectacular ceiling without craning our necks. Why decorate a table when you've got a ceiling that looks like this?
I was incredibly lucky with my placement. Count Niccolo Pandolfini was one of the kindest and charming men I think I’ve ever met. Lord only knows if he’s ever had any hardship in his life. If he has, it hasn’t left a single mark on him physically or spiritually. Doctor Cristina Paoluzzi is the Director of the Dorotheum, one of the oldest auction houses in the world located in Vienna. She’s lucky enough to be living in Rome and able to commute. In addition to being beautiful and brilliant, she was also warm.

Listening to the famous art dealer Marco Grassi speak with Fernanda was like a history lesson with a professor you always found fascinating. One of my favorite conversations of the night was with his very stylish and elegant wife Cristina. She was enjoying a game of “let’s give the American a hard time,” before her natural grace showed me that she was just playing. I love a feisty dinner partner. 

Fernanda and I walked back towards her hotel and stopped at the Savoy where we drank an entire bottle of champagne sitting on the Piazza. I had to call it quits at 2 am. I’m not so pretty the next day if I don’t sleep, but she really does not have an off button. I got the feeling she could have stayed up discussing the problems of the world until the sun came up. She’s a clever girl, she probably could solve the world’s problems.

Palazzo Gondi
The next day we all met at the Gondi Palace on the Piazza san Firenze. This amazing Palazzo has just been completely restored by the current owner (Gondi but I didn’t catch his name, he’s either a prince or a count or a something or other.) The home is spectacular. We had an amusing conversation about the fact that he always keeps a suitcase of clothes in his car trunk as he has another palazzo up in the hills above Florence and a further country house an hour’s drive from there. I think he was teasing. His self-deprecating manner was winsome.

At the top of the building rather than having a room with a few windows leading out to a terrace, he's done something very modern: installing full height, steel framed windows creating an immense feeling of space with a spectacular view.
Corsini Garden
After lunch a handful of us were whisked away by Principessa Georgiana Corsini to her family’s home a five minute drive away. I fell in love with this woman immediately. She has the most beautiful blue eyes I think I’ve ever seen on a person and they don’t just twinkle, they beam. She was immensely proud of the home and garden but especially her family’s heritage. It was their lives that interested her more than their things. However, their “things” do require their own workshop and a full time staff of handymen to keep the place looking ship shape. In the handymen's absence, however, I don’t doubt for a second that she would lift a hammer to get something done her self.
Finally we attended the opening of the antiques fair in a massive building in the center of Florence that serves as the town hall and was originally the Palazzo of the Corsini family. The entire interior of the building was beautifully built out to accommodate dozens of vendors from all over the world with a very strong showing of the Italians. 

As it was the preview party, there was certainly a level of shall we say “festivity” in the manner of dress. Like all openings around the world you get the feeling that some people don’t get out much, but that’s what makes going out fun isn’t it? A gorgeous couple from India were on the International Committee with me, Jai Shroff and his divine wife Poonam. Both Fernanda and I begged for an invitation to their home after hearing all about her contemporary art collection, most of which has been commissioned specifically for the site. 
Fernanda with Jai Shroff and his wife Poonam.
In addition to the people there were many beautiful things on view for sale.
I wish I could list them all but that would take months and frankly be a bore so I'll limit it to this set of four gilt girandole with the most interesting double bases (above, right). They were a steal so I snatched them up to use as toilet paper holders in my powder room (OK I'm kidding, they were a bloody fortune and too rich for me).

A little random fun was bumping into Wendy Moonan who is a writer that works for the brilliant founder of 1stdibs, Michael Bruno. We all know that Michael is a hard worker and employs the best but to find one of his staff in Florence covering this event was an eye opener. He really does have his finger on the pulse of the industry.

Il Collazzi
Finally the next day we all took a fifteen minute drive outside of Florence at the invitation of the Marchese and the Marchesa Frescobaldi to their spectacular home Villa Collazzi. It was like walking into a Fellini movie complete with guests arriving by helicopter.
Villa Collazzi.
The crowd was glamour ... and I'm happy to say I was in the company of some very grand tastemakers, John Stefanidis, Juan Pablo Molyneux. I was lucky too. Some of the best people that I met were a couple called James Talbot and his wife Lavinia Percy, cousin of Caroline (I'm not sure if they're married or if they're living in sin – they were racey).

They have a private search company in England that helps designers and collectors find art and furnishings without all of the publicity of auction houses. I'm hoping to have lots of dealings with them in the future.  Another interesting couple was Alec and Isabella Cobbe, also from England. Alex is a dealer in the decorative arts as well but has the most unusual distinction of having the world's largest collection of pianos from famous people; ie Handel etc, etc.
Lunch was served by uniformed staff on a gorgeous terrace outside the main hall which dates back to the 15th Century.
John Stefanidis with a friend. I was happy to be in his company.
After four days I'm wiped out, over-stimulated and sufficiently cultured for a year. Thank you Florence. It's lovely to travel abroad and be with Europeans. They live so beautifully and really enjoy their lives in a very peaceful way ... but nothing beats the energy of our lives in New York.
Photographs by Darren Henault.