At one time you needed the social connections of Lord Byron to rent a private Venetian palace. Even then you had to battle with a less-than- brilliant house staff with few English-language skills. All that has changed. In the last five years alone the city's savvier heirs have made much-needed investments in their palatial inheritances.
"It had to happen," says Filippo Gaggia, the chic, energetic young owner of Canal Grande Palazzo, which recently underwent an ambitious four-year restoration and is now available for rent. "Details such as old bathrooms make people nervous. Now it's essential to offer air-conditioning, a modern kitchen, and a great Venetian chef—the kind of luxury extras people seek from a five-star hotel."
Gaggia's palace is beautiful, a 15th-century property on the Grand Canal directly oppo- site François Pinault's contemporary art collection at Palazzo Grassi. Gaggia's family still owns the grounds, which has a large garden at the back, and he rents out the three top stories. These include the piano nobile, featuring three double en suite bedrooms, along with two doubles and two singles (recommended for children and staff) up a private stairway. There's also a striking drawing room, a dining room, a central ballroom-lobby, and an open terrace that looks out onto the canal. The top floor, which sleeps six, can be rented separately. This makes the place unusually expandable: Take the piano nobile as a couple and you wouldn't feel lost; alternatively, you could commandeer the entire space for a group of up to 16.
Despite its grandeur on paper, this is a comfortable, cozy address. In the historically rich piano nobile, sofas are upholstered in warm Fortuny reds, the furniture is largely antique, and the pretty-rather-than-priceless vases stuffed with pearl-white lilies are out of their display cases. This is no museum (though that's often the case with Venetian palazzi). There's a Bang & Olufsen sound system, air-conditioning, and spacious en suite bathrooms. The chef who usually works here has also worked for one of Italy's leading fashion families; by our experience, his command of seafood proved as good as you will find at that mother of all Venetian fish restaurants, Alle Testiere.
Children, though, are probably best kept away from another new rental, the Mural House, also on the Grand Canal. While the wooden roof terrace commanding 360-degree views is ideal for cocktails, it's lethal for toddlers. But then the whole place has a kids-free vibe. The three-bedroom penthouse inside the 17th-century palazzo is as cool as Zanzibar, with sophisticated green-onyx bathrooms, mercury-stained mirrors inset into the wall plaster, and painted-mural floors in the attic sitting room with Moroccan-style floor cushions.
Our favorite is Red House, completed this summer. We'd rate it among the best private rentals in all of Italy. It's near Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca Island, with Canalettolike views over St. Mark's Basin. Behind closed doors you will find a secret garden with lemon and plum trees, a grape-laden terrace, a 65-foot indoor pool flanked by a formidable contemporary art collection, a three-bedroom main house, two further guest suites, and a small drawing room with walls covered in 18th-century Córdoba leather. There's velvet, brocade, a marble staircase, WiFi, and air-conditioning. The square footage isn't vast and the ceilings are low. What you're paying for is impeccable, blue-blooded taste, an interior designer's finish, priceless antiques, and a unique sense of privacy—and, of course, the magic that's often killed by the city's crowds, which surge through even the grandest of her hotels.
Canal Grande Palazzo ($28,200 a week for ten) is available exclusively through Unique Properties & Events (44-207/788-7815; cedricreversade.com) and Lanza & Baucina (44-207/738-2222; lanzabaucina.com). The Red House is available through Unique ($4,700 a night for eight). The Mural House can be rented through Views on Venice ($2,700 a night for six; 39-41/241-1149; viewsonvenice.com).