La Belle Époque: Splendor in the Past

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The five-story Grand Hotel des Bains was once a Gilded Age icon, built in c. 1900 on Venice's Lido with more than 230 guest rooms. No longer a part of the Grand Tour, the hotel has been shuttered for almost a decade. It was the setting for Luchino Visconti's film Death in Venice based on Thomas Mann's novella. If and when GH des Bains reopens in c. 2024, reportedly it will be run by the same company that has made an offer to buy 160 Royal Palm Way on Palm Beach.

Whether 1900 or 2000 every generation has its Belle Époque as past centuries end and new ones begin. For author Thomas Mann’s character Gustav Aschenbach in Death in Venice, an obsession with Beauty leads him to the luxuriousness of the Grand Hotel des Bain on Venice’s Lido. Closed for many years, last year COIMA, a Milan Porta Nuova developer who also owns the nearby Hotel Excelsior, announced the GH des Bains would reopen with London+Regional Properties operating the GH, the company that also runs the Excelsior.

Last week at Palm Beach, L&R Properties, whose development in Panama was co-financed by the Al-Thanis, the Qatar royal family, was announced as the potential buyer for 160 Royal Palm Way, a failed hotel-condo scheme closed for years and mangled by the misfortunes of former Connecticut impresario Robert Matthews who with his wife-actress Mia Matthews, and their lawyer Les Evans, are facing multiple federal charges. The once bespoke GH des Bains is heavily walled, gated and manned by security guards as the building crumbles after too many years of abject grandiosity perhaps, as Mann might think.

Unable to convince the guard to allow me permission to enter, an arriving group of COIMA staff also would not allow me to accompany them. They did mention Manfredi Catallo, COIMA CEO, projects to reopen the GH des Bains in 2024, maybe. Because of the hotel’s notoriety as a film setting, Catallo did open the hotel’s public rooms for a reception and exhibit during last year’s Venice Film Festival, known as the world’s first film festival. You may remember the GH des Bains’ previous developer reportedly spent $50 million before claiming bankruptcy, and then, proceeded to auction off online the hotel’s original interior furnishings and accessories.

“Che niente,” said one of the COIMA staff, saying every original detail in the hotel is gone. Yes, all roads cross Palm Beach.

GH des Bains & seaside cabanas, view from the Adriatic shoreline.

Last month’s passing of Marella Agnelli in Turin, described as the “ultimo cigno” (the last swan) by the Italian press, marks the end of another Belle Époque, as Italy’s Repubblica reported she was “the protagonist of an era that no longer exists.”

As the wife of FIAT’s Giovanni Agnelli, she was a visible presence among the international Jet Set and regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful women. Her public farewell was at Villa Perosa near the Agnelli villa outside of Turin where the paparazzi said their arrivederci to the “la ultima style icon.” Turin’s Pinocateca Giovanni & Marella Agnelli is one of the family’s architectural and artistic legacies, designed by Renzo Piano as a part of the architect’s renovation and restoration of the former FIAT factory in Lingotto. Although the gallery only contains 25 works from the Agnelli’s collection, each is extraordinary.

Pinacotaca Giovanni & Marella Agnelli, fifth-floor gallery entrance.

Here are a few glimpses of what remains of the Grand Hotel des Bains, the extraordinary Agnelli Pinacoteca, as well as the rebirth of the Art Deco Liberty-styled Grande Albergo Ausonia & Hungaria Hotel on the Lido, and the Lido Cinema, home to the world’s first film festival.

Grand Hotel des Bains
Lungomare Marconi, 17 – Venezia-Lido

Grand Hotel des Bains, 2019. As close as I could get without being arrested.
Grand Hotel des Bains, 2019.
Grand Hotel des Bains, 2019. The hotel is hedge, fenced and walled.
Grand Hotel des Bains, 2019. A balcony and shutters have gone missing.
Grand Hotel des Bains, 2019.
Grand Hotel des Bains, as it might have appeared in 1919.
Grand Hotel des Bains, 2019. The clock appears to have stopped at 10:38, perhaps ten years ago.
Grand Hotel des Bains, 2019.
On the Lungomare a short drive the GH des Bains, the Excelsior Hotel is operated by London + Regional Properties, headquartered in London. L&R are reported to have acquired the 160 Royal Palm Way construction site on Palm Beach.

Grande Albergo Ausonia e Hungaria
Granviale San Elisabetta, 28 – Venezia Lido

Opened in 1907, A&H’s multi-colored mosaic facade reliefs were added in 1913 by Bassanese sculptor Luigi Fabris . The hotel has retained the original furnishings designed by Eugenio Quarti.

I arrived 55 days too early as work proceeds restoring one of the world’s great Art Deco-Liberty style facades.
The first guests will reportedly arrive the end of April.
Until the late April open, the hotel remains a work in progress.
Work on the hotel’s facade continues.
This far east wing appears to be nearing completion.
Facade, detail.

Palazzo del Cinema
Lungomare Marconi, Venezia-Lido

Palazzo del Cinema, north and east view, Lungomare Marconi. View of the original 1937 building designed by Enrico Valeriani and the front facade added during the 1950s.
Palazzo del Cinema, 1950s facade facing the sea.
Palazzo del Cinema. The Venice Film Festival was the world’s first film festival, begun as a part of the Venice Biennale with films shown at the Excelsior.
Grand Canal, Venezia. “Salviati.” La Belle Epoque.

Casa Feniglio-Lafleur, 1902. Principi d’Acaja, 11. Turin.

Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli
Lingotto, Via Nizza – Turin

FIAT factory, Lingotto. Renzo Piano’s gallery addition to the existing factory and rooftop racetrack adds a 21st-century silhouette to the Turin skyline.
FIAT factory, Lingotto. The Pinacotaca Gallery in relation to the racetrack embankment.
Italian futurist Giacomo Balla’s Velocita Astratta, 1913, is in the center gallery.
FIAT factory, Lingotto. The Agnelli Foundation is housed on the first three floors. On track level, is the entrance to the gallery housed on the upper floor designed by Renzo Piano.
FIAT factory, Lingotto. During the 1980s Renzo Piano converted the old factory building into a multi-dimensional entertainment, shopping and cultural complex.
Agnelli Pinacoteca at FIAT factory, Lingotto. Each gallery wall allows visitors to appreciate the incomparable qualities of the Agnelli collection.
FIAT factory, Lingotto. One of the two racetrack embankments.
FIAT factory, Lingotto. From the racetrack railing, Renzo Piano’s Pinacoteca in relation to the existing 1920s factory.
FIAT factory, Lingotto. Racetrack 360-degree observation tower.
FIAT factory, Lingotto. Official racetrack observation monitoring station.
The arched walkway connecting the FIAT factory with the Olympic Village, 2006.
From afar, Renzo Piano’s Intesa San Paolo grattocielo (skyscraper) in Torino Centrale.
Intesa San Paola. Renzo Piano, architect. Disappointed as the penthouse restaurant closed in December 2018.
Voyages Extraordinaires, 1863-1905. Jules Verne. “La Belle Epoque.” Galleria Gilibert, Galleria Subalpina Turin.

Photography by Augustus Mayhew.

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur

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