Should you have any doubts that Francesca Bortolotto Possati is the queen of Venice, just ask Brangelina. Headed to Venice earlier this year to film The Tourist, Jolie’s forthcoming thriller with Johnny Depp, Brad and Angie and their brood of six were desperate to find accommodations large enough for them. Up and down the length of the Grand Canal emissaries were dispatched, hotel after hotel was visited, examined, vetted. But in the end the world’s chicest family could find nothing that fully met their needs (space, security) and that also wouldn’t inconvenience the hotel (hello, paparazzi). Things were starting to look dire.
That’s when they were introduced to Bortolotto Possati, who, as head of the Bauers Hotel Group—arguably the most luxurious collection of properties in the city—not only knows a thing or two about hospitality but also has a reputation as the person in Venice who can solve just about any problem. Things happen when she lifts her hand.
“They had heard about my family home and asked if they could stay there,” says Bortolotto Possati. “They had all those lovely children, how could I say no? It made me happy to have a family using it, living in it.”
She tells me this story during a small dinner party in her current home—another palazzo, next to her family’s on the Grand Canal. This is the kind of evening one can expect with Bortolotto Possati: You bump into her crisscrossing the island, and next thing you know she’s taken you by the hand and invited you home, and you’re sitting in a soaring, art-crammed drawing room that would make Marie Antoinette weep. Soon a man in a coat and tie appears from the kitchen bearing the simplest and yet most delicious dinner of pasta, fish and meat. Wine flows. Crystal clinks. The guests are people I’ve met only an hour ago (including Bortolotto Possati’s lovely son and daughter, Alessandro and Olimpia), yet already I feel at home. It’s not a surprise. Bortolotto Possati is like that. You can’t help but feel that when you are with her, everything is going to be more than wonderful.
No doubt that’s what Brad and Angelina felt, too.
On our way to her home, we had stopped in the courtyard of her family’s landmark palazzo, the one she rented to Brad and Angelina. It was quiet and serene behind the tall iron gates, and I could hear the water lapping at the canal wall, just through the entryway. The magnolia trees were blooming, and as we passed below them Bortolotto Possati paused, then said, “I always remember running to my grandfather in this courtyard as he came home from the hotel.”
That hotel, the Bauer, is one of the gems of the city, a stone’s throw from San Marco. Bortolotto Possati’s grandfather, Arnaldo Bennati, bought it in 1930 and ran it until he died. He had made his fortune building tanker ships, and he cut an Onassis-like figure in Italy.
“I wanted to be a shipbuilder like my grandfather, but women could not do that back in that day,” Bortolotto Possati says. “So I came to the hotel.”
One might say it is a good thing she did. The hotel she took over in 1997 is, in fact, two adjacent hotels, each with its own distinctive character. The Bauer Il Palazzo is a full-on Venetian fantasy—drippy mirrors, lush tapestries, fabulous marble floors, Gothic windows onto the Grand Canal—while the Bauer Hotel offers more contemporary, Art Deco–style luxury. Both were in need of updating, so Bortolotto Possati undertook a meticulous two-year restoration of the spaces, including replacing most of the wooden pilings beneath them (how all Venetian buildings are supported). She also introduced modern yet discreet amenities such as Il Palazzo’s rooftop garden and patio, the highest in the city, with spectacular views of San Marco’s basin and the wedding cake–white dome of Santa Maria della Salute. It’s the perfect place for breakfast on a summer morning.
Then in 2005 Bortolotto Possati acquired Casa Nova, a 16th-century home just a few yards away, on Campo San Moise, which she converted to a private residence for rent, offering all the luxuries of the Bauer. And a year later she opened the Palladio, a small hotel and spa on Giudecca that was once a convent for the adjoining church. Only five minutes from the Bauer by boat, the Palladio is a world away from the crush of Venice in high season, with its tranquil, exquisitely planted gardens.
The day before our dinner, Bortolotto Possati had taken me to see the Palladio on a personal tour of Venice in her heartbreakingly beautiful little boat, The Phoenix, a fifties Riva. (You know the kind: leather club chairs, walnut sideboards, brass trim.) She is third-generation Venetian and knows the city, its history and its moods intimately. Her wisdom and insight are part of what make her so captivating. “Women have an important role in Venice,” Bortolotto Possati told me. “They always have. Especially in art and business. Perhaps that is the legacy of the courtesan—remember, the courtesan had the power. She chose who she would be with. That is the power. And this, I think, is the DNA of Venice: strong women.”
She laughed when she said this, throwing a soft wink, too. When you are with Bortolotto Possati, you’re always being charmed.
“If you stay in Venice for any length of time,” she continued, “you end up giving to the city, not just taking from it. I like to help people find out how to take from Venice but also to give. This is a city like New York: It was built by people coming here.”
Later that evening, after the dinner plates have been taken away, we all go over to the windows and enjoy the breeze coming off the Grand Canal. From somewhere in the distance the sound of bells can be heard. It’s the tolling of midnight—marangona, the Venetians call it. Maybe it’s the bells, maybe it’s the wine, but a wistful Bortolotto Possati talks about all she has seen in her time in Venice and how much the city has changed since the seventies. “It’s hard to believe there was a time when people didn’t really want to come here, when it was very small,” she says. “I still remember the night Baryshnikov danced on a boat as it drifted down the canal here. It was a small event. Can you imagine that now?”
Someone—I think it was a man who told me he was an art restorer—replies, “The only way it could happen now is if you made it happen, Francesca.”
Everyone laughs and raises a glass to our hostess. The bells keep ringing.
Rooms start around $400 at the Bauer Hotel and $530 at Il Palazzo. To play doge for a day, book one of Il Palazzo’s Royal Suites (206 and 209). For details on all the Bauer properties or to book, visit bauervenezia.com.
In Fashion: Couture Culture
Alessandro Possati has a small atelier in the Bauer Hotel for his line of men’s and women’s clothing, Sete-Cento, which combines classic Italian tailoring with the lush fabrics specific to Venice. By appointment only; 39-041/240-6908; sete-cento.com.