Living La Dolce Vita

Michael James O'Brien

Le Sirenuse on the Amalfi Coast is the epitome of Italian chic, thanks to the family Sersale. So, too, their palazzo in Rome. How, asks Lee Marshall, do they do it?

Antonio and Carla Sersale’s house party to celebrate their new apartment in Rome, two blocks from the Piazza Navona, was the event of autumn 2005. But it almost didn’t happen. The fête was planned for the first of October. The builders who were renovating the 18th-century suite of rooms that the Sersales had bought two years previously had assured the couple that the work would be finished at the latest by the beginning of September.

With only a month to go, the apartment wasn’t anywhere close to being ready. And to be honest, says Carla, "We’d gotten a bit carried away with the invitations," which showed Antonio and Carla as Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain scene from La Dolce Vita. As for the guests: A hundred people would’ve been a squeeze; they’d invited 300—mostly friends from Rome, Milan, and Positano, where the Sersale family owns and runs Le Sirenuse, one of the world’s most elegant and stylish hotels. Then there was the international set, most of whom had already booked their tickets from London, Paris, New York, and D.C.

What’s a fashionable couple to do? Others may have been tempted to scale things down. Or change the venue. Or panic. But not our Sersales. Actually, Carla says, "We did panic. Briefly. Then we asked the other residents of the palazzo if we might use the courtyard. To our surprise they said yes. But only as long as they were invited as well." The Sersales promptly engaged the services of Dorino Clarizia, a veteran set designer from Rome’s legendary Cinecittà film studios, who transformed the communal space with extravagant lighting, elaborate gilt candelabra, Moroccan furniture, and antique wall hangings.

"We danced until three in the morning," Carla recalls, "when the neighbors called in the carabinieri." Which sounds alarming until you realize that being shut down by the police is a mark of the very best Roman parties.

The Sersales epitomize La Dolce Vita 2007, embodying that stylish spontaneity at the heart of the good life. It was the setback, the rethink, the last-minute inspiration that made the fête such magic. That and the fact that Carla and Antonio will always be the last ones dancing, whether the party is at their own home or elsewhere. Who could resist?

Take their apartment in Rome, which sprawls across the second floor of an 18th-century building. It’s a total surprise in this part of central Rome, hardly known for spacious accommodations. Worn stone steps lead to an ancient wooden door with a grille for identifying friend or foe. Inside, a narrow corridor seems to herald the sort of cramped internal divisions that most centro storico residents put up with in exchange for the privilege of living in a slice of history.

But the end of the corridor holds the trump card—an enormous living room with a wood-beamed ceiling and four windows with spectacular views over red-tiled rooftops, secret terraces, and the glorious Baroque domes of Catholic Rome. The frieze that runs just underneath the ceiling looks as old as the oak beams. Inspired by a 15th-century original, it was in fact painted recently by two talented fresco artists and decorators, Barbara Guglienetti and Benedetta Proto. Somehow the historic imprint of beams, frieze, and faded terracotta floor tiles chimes perfectly with the mix of European antique furniture and ethnic textiles that dress the room: the Suzani wall hangings, the English Regency tallboy, the twin 19th-century gouaches of Vesuvius erupting (one by day, the other by night).

The same eclecticism permeates Le Sirenuse, the Sersales’ resplendent hotel in Positano. Sure, the place is extravagantly turned out with fine antique furniture and Murano candelabra; even the carpet in the elevator is changed daily to tell you the day of the week. There’s a complete lack of stuff-iness here, a feeling that we have stepped into the house of some very posh, very tasteful bachelor uncle who knows how to have a good time.

And literally, we have. The Sersales—a noble Neapolitan family of ancient origins—have always lived The Life. The house that later became Le Sirenuse originally belonged to Great-Uncle Antonino, the black sheep of the family. "He was considered a bit of a libertine," Antonio explains, "which is probably why he lived in Positano, away from the others." This didn’t stop Antonio’s grandfather from moving the whole family in with Uncle Antonino when Naples was bombed during World War II.

The house became Le Sirenuse in 1951. For nearly 40 years the next generation of Sersales—Paolo, Aldo, and Anna—ran the hotel, while another sibling, Antonio’s father, Franco, pursued his career as a chemical engineer. Franco’s work took him for extensive stays in London (where Antonio was born in 1961), Milan, and Iran. This international upbringing gave Antonio an excellent grasp of English, a taste for the luxury-nomad lifestyle, a love for beautiful things, and an easy adaptability to different customs and outlooks, which would serve him well when he took over the reins of Le Sirenuse in 1990.

Antonio and Carla met when they were at school in Milan, never dreaming they would end up married to each other. As for their flair for stylish living, they freely credit the Sersale patriarch, Franco, as a major influence. It was he, after all, who brought home the sumptuously embroidered Suzani wall hangings from Central Asia that he had discovered during his years in Tehran, Iran. "He has great taste and," Carla adds, "he’s always right." An untiringly curious traveler at the age of 79, Franco had departed for Mongolia just a few days earlier. "Why Mongolia?" I had to ask. "Because," replies Carla, with the slightest shrug, "he’s never been."

Antonio and Carla spend most of their summers at Le Sirenuse. Though they have their own spacious house nearby, the couple tend to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the hotel. They entertain friends, meet for drinks in the bar, and take to the rocky coast for a quick spin in the hotel’s seventies Riva Aquarama speedboat.

In love with life almost as much as they seem to be with each other, the two epitomize the original dolce vita—as depicted by Fellini—which was as much about surface as substance. The nonchalant cool of Mastroianni was an act of defiance against the rigors of life in postwar Rome, proof that Italians, too, could fare l’americano, in the words of a popular song. But the blasé façade masked an insecurity still lurking in the Italian mind-set. It’s not just aspiring provincials who suffer nagging doubts that they are not contenders; dyed-in-the-wool marchesi and conti can display the same symptoms as well.

Maybe it was Antonio’s mother—he describes her as a very beautiful hippie—who helped him fare l’americano without a need to resort to method acting. When his parents got divorced in 1965, she took Antonio to live with her in Mexico. Back with his father in Milan at the age of nine, Antonio could hardly read or write. Something of the free-and-easy spirit of those years has stayed with him. It’s in the sleeveless Nehru jackets, the velvet furlane slippers (as worn by Venetian gondoliers), the simple white monogrammed shirts made up by a Roman tailor from coarse cotton sheeting that Antonio picked up in India for next to nothing.

Carla grew up in Milan, a city that is often seen as a cosmopolitan style and fashion capital but can be a pretty airless place for those trapped behind the gray façade of its bourgeois houses. "I’m one of four sisters," she says. "All the others were married by the time they were twenty. I couldn’t stand the pressure. So at twenty-five I moved to New York and discovered that the world is a much bigger place." Carla had ambitions to become a criminal lawyer, never thinking she would end up running a hotel. But this is quite possibly why she’s so good at it. She refuses to work the numbers, preferring to treat the experience as a huge summerlong house party.

For me, however, it is an unusual sofa at the Sersales’ apartment in Rome that perfectly reflects the singular beauty of their knack for combining international style and Italian resourcefulness. The couple saw a similar one at a friend’s house. "We loved the concept of a very deep three-seater sofa," Carla says. "You could really stretch out on it and relax." So the Sersales took a photograph of the piece to a leading London furnituremaker, who drew up the design. Then they showed the drawing to one Paolo Balestrucci, whom Carla describes as "the best upholsterer in Rome; he’s been working for Le Sirenuse for years." Finally, with the grand sofa positioned just so in the living room, "We threw on top six cushions made with some beautiful Chinese embroidered panels bought in a Shanghai market," Carla says.

It’s not just the dynamic design process that’s so very Antonio and Carla. It is also the fact that hard as you try, you simply cannot sit on the thing in a proper, upright Anglo-Saxon way. Very Sersale, I think to myself. Very.

Lee Marshall wrote about Tod’s in the March/April 2006 issue and Cresta Run in the September 2006 issue.

Shopping the Sweet Life

For the Sersales, there is nothing like enjoying the small pleasures of life-and sharing them. Emporio Le Sirenuse (39-089/ 875-066; emporiosirenuse.com) carries a panoply of indulgences, ranging from fragrances to wrought-iron candelabra.

Most products are made exclusively for or by the hotel, including a line of beauty products (below) inspired by familiar scents of the Amalfi Coast. In fact, when Carla told Venetian glass artist Carlo Moretti that she wanted to put his colorful one-off Bora tumblers in the bar and sell them, too, he thought she was joking. But customers loved them and 400 sold the first year the boutique was open.

Similarly, the funky sarongs by Italian textile designer Lisa Corti, whose works marry Mediterranean color and Oriental motifs, quickly became best sellers in the store. And Luisa Cevese’s artistic handbags, another Emporio Le Sirenuse favorite, are both desirably kooky and ecologically sound: Cevese crafts them by immersing fabric scraps in recycled plastic.

The best place in Venice for a pair of authentic furlane—rubber-soled velvet gondoliers’ shoes, as worn by Antonio—is Risuola Tutto di Gianni Dittura (943 San Marco; 39-041/522-3502). And as for a vintage Riva speedboat, the Sierra Boat Company (sierraboat.com) near California’s Lake Tahoe is one of the leading U.S. dealers. It currently has a 1978 Aquarama Special—similar to the one owned by the Sersales—which is for sale at $350,000.