Back to the Old Country: Francis Ford Coppola's Palazzo Margherita
With his latest resort, the filmmaker returns to his southern Italian roots.
Francis Ford Coppola lifts a dirt-encrusted root from the plate in front of him. It’s reddish brown, bulb shaped, unassuming, a little smaller than a shallot. It’s also one of the reasons he’s sitting here, in the ground-floor bar of Palazzo Margherita, the boutique hotel he opened in 2012 in the small southern Italian town of Bernalda. Three hours by car from Naples and 20 minutes from the Ionian Sea, in the shank of Italy’s boot, Bernalda sits on a hill in the rugged region of Basilicata, which neighbors Puglia. “These are lampascioni,” says the Oscar-winning filmmaker. “People think it’s an onion, but it’s not. If you plant it, you get a hyacinth.”
Coppola’s grandfather Agostino was born in Bernalda and spent his early years in the town before joining the great wave of Italian emigration to America in the early 20th century. Like all immigrants, Agostino and his compatriots carried with them to their new home the stories, traditions, and food they grew up with. As Italy modernized, the rituals of the Old Country were preserved in the New World. Among the foods that trickled down to Coppola’s generation were lampascioni, served boiled or fried, on their own or mixed with other vegetables. “Italy moved on,” Coppola says. “The young people [in Bernalda] were making spaghetti alla vodka or whatever. But we were still eating the food of the 19th century.”
Agostino died when Coppola was five. The director remembers him as “a character,” short, always cracking wise-guy jokes, a cigar in his hand or his mouth. Stories of his childhood and the town he grew up in ricocheted through the generations, swelling and shape-shifting through the years. “For us, his grandchildren, Bernalda became a sort of mythical place,” Coppola recalls. “I almost didn’t believe it existed.”
The bar in which he sits is modeled on Cinecittà, the Italian film studio. Black-and-white head shots from the golden age of Italian cinema line the walls. A jukebox with real records plays jazz. Coppola is 77 years old. His beard has gone white. He walks with difficulty, avoiding stairs and relying on a cane. But his voice is deep and melodic, and when he settles into a story, the words flow uninterrupted.
Coppola was the first of Agostino’s descendants to return to Bernalda. It was 1962, and he had been working in Dubrovnik, Croatia, tasked by the B-movie director Roger Corman with supervising the English-language scenes of a Yugoslav crime thriller. When the job was done, he crossed the Adriatic and drove through wheat-covered hills and valleys until he got to the town his grandfather had left some six decades earlier.
He knew just a few words of Italian, enough to describe his parentage but not much more. “Basically, all I could say was ‘lampascioni,’” he says. Once the people of Bernalda figured out who he was and how he was connected to them, he was warmly welcomed and introduced to a wide variety of cousins.
Bernalda’s origins are probably medieval, but the land around the town is steeped in ancient history. Pythagoras is said to have starved himself to death at Metapontum, once a Greek colony on the coast not far from Bernalda. The armies of King Pyrrhus passed by on their way to his disastrous “victory” against the Romans. Spartacus spent his last year in the region, raiding the richer towns with his slave army before finally being defeated. The surrounding region of Basilicata has always been a sort of frontier land, far from the centers of classical civilization, and one of the poorest, most forgotten areas of modern Italy. Its landscapes are austere: wheat fields like ocean swells, olive trees shimmering in the summer heat, steep-walled canyons where one could easily imagine St. Francis receiving the stigmata. Matera, the region’s best-known city, is famous for churches and dwellings dug into the rock face.
Coppola did not stay long on his first visit; he headed quickly up to Naples, where his mother’s family was from, and then back home to California. But he began to establish a connection to the town, which grew in strength after The Godfather (1972) made him a famous man and the town’s mayor anointed him as an honorary citizen.
It was during a later visit that Coppola first saw Palazzo Margherita. He had arranged to come during the annual festival for the town’s saint, St. Bernardino, hoping that the event would include vendors cooking up some of the traditional foods—like lampascioni—he remembered from his childhood. (He was disappointed.) For a better view of the festivities, he was taken to the second floor of a palazzo across the street. Built in 1892, the building was decrepit but obviously once opulent. It had a courtyard flanked with internal balconies and, in the back, a large private garden. Two sisters, descendants of the original owners, occupied a small section of the building.
By then Coppola owned four luxury lodges, and in the subsequent months and years several of his Bernaldan cousins urged him to acquire Palazzo Margherita to convert into a fifth. “Everybody wanted me to buy the place,” he says. “I kept on saying, ‘I don’t want to.’”
Coppola’s venture in the hotel business began when he was shooting Apocalypse Now (1979) in the Philippines. During a break in filming, he visited a tropical island and had to be talked out of buying it by his wife, who convinced him that if he wanted a piece of jungle, he should find one closer to their home in California, where he had just bought a winery.
And so, when in 1981 British Honduras became the independent country of Belize, Coppola flew down for a visit and ended up buying a small inland property, Blancaneaux Lodge. At first he would bring the family and write. But when he realized he couldn’t leave it unattended in his absence, he turned it into a hotel. He later opened a beachside resort, Turtle Inn, on the Belizean coast. (As of last summer, it’s possible to rent his private, two-acre islet eight miles offshore, Coral Caye.) Coppola also owns a resort in Guatemala, La Lancha, and one in Argentina, Jardin Escondido.
For Coppola, the revenues from his hotels and wineries are the key to something he has always desired: independence from the Hollywood studio system. “In the past, artists were sponsored by patrons,” he says. “Wagner had Ludwig II. I didn’t have anybody. So I figured maybe I could be Ludwig II also, make the money and sponsor myself.”
What finally convinced him to buy Palazzo Margherita, in 2004, was the chance to take advantage of an Italian government incentive to create employment in the south of the country. Coppola said he should have saved some $1.5 million, but, Italy being Italy, the money never arrived. By the time he realized the check wasn’t coming, he had employed dozens of people and hired the French interior designer Jacques Grange to redesign the entire building.
For Coppola, running a hotel is similar to making a movie. “A movie director deals with a hundred details a day,” he says. “Decisions. Yes, no, yes, yes, no. And when you don’t know the answer, you ask yourself, Well, what’s the theme of my movie? And then you get the answer to the specific question.
“It’s the same way with a hotel or with a wine,” he says. “These are all storytelling forms.”
Grange restored the original marble-tiled floors and delicately painted walls and fresco ceilings and built two bars—the Cinecittà-inspired one facing the street and a private one upstairs—and a dining area. In the molding of the upstairs salon he concealed a movie screen, which can be lowered to turn the room into an impromptu cinema. In a lot behind the property, he also added a small pool.
For the two rooms facing the garden and a third opening onto the courtyard, Grange chose a rustic style, exposed brick and stone. He preserved a 19th-century Italian elegance for the suites upstairs. One, named for Coppola and dedicated to his Tunisian-born grandmother, incorporates elements of North African design, including a striking blue-and-white-tiled floor. Another, which Grange designed with Coppola’s daughter, Sofia Coppola, is more delicate and feminine.
Outside, a stone archway opens from the courtyard onto what Francis considers to be one of the hotel’s finest features: its interior garden. “My theory is that the garden is so powerful that it wants to take over,” he says. “I want the garden to push more into the courtyard. As though, if we turn our back for a minute, suddenly there’ll be garden in here.”
Coppola orders a plate of lampascioni, which are soft and pulpy, reminiscent of fried artichoke hearts. A few minutes later Sofia arrives with her ten-year-old daughter, Romy Mars. “I was just saying that when you were a little kid, I always liked to take you with me to different locations,” Coppola tells Sofia. “But of course now if you take children out of school, they’ll kick them out.”
This being late May, Coppola and his family had come to Bernalda to relax and to celebrate Sofia’s success in her debut as an opera director: a production of La Traviata in Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera, with costume design by Valentino.
“It was great because she made the decision not to jazz it up with wild ideas, to focus on the story rather than set it in Brooklyn in a meatpacking nightclub or something,” Coppola says.
“That was such a beautiful theater,” says Sofia.
“I was so proud of her,” Coppola says.
Thank you,” she says. And then, softly, she adds, “I’m so glad you were there.”
“All I could think of was, What would my father have thought?” he says. “What would my grandfather have thought? To see you in Rome, with all the Roman society there. They would have been so impressed.”
Carmine Coppola, Francis’s father, was an accomplished musician who won an Oscar for scoring The Godfather: Part II (1974). Agostino’s direct descendants share eight Academy Awards between them—five for Francis and one each for Carmine, Sofia, and Coppola’s nephew Nicolas Cage. But Agostino could boast of no such distinctions in his lifetime. The original owners of Palazzo Margherita were part of Bernalda’s landowning class. When Italy was ruled by Benito Mussolini, its members had been prominent Fascists. “I asked Signorina Margherita if she thought my grandfather had ever seen the garden,” Coppola says. “She told me that if he had ever passed in front of the door, he would have had to take off his hat and bow his head.”
The Margherita family may not have permitted Agostino to pass through their door, but there’s reason to believe he was familiar with the building. Coppola’s grandfather was renowned as a ladies’ man, and one of his conquests had been a maid named Palmetta, who, according to Coppola family lore, lived in a big palazzo in a room that could be accessed covertly.
Palazzo Margherita has just such a room. And so, after Coppola had refurbished the building, he recovered his grandfather’s iron bed from the one-room house in the old town center where he had once lived. Then he placed it, along with a black-and-white picture of young Agostino, in the room at the top of the stairs.
Rooms from $350; Corso Umberto I 64, 75012 Bernalda; 39-835/549-060; more information on all Coppola properties at coppolaresorts.com.