A rriving at the Palazzo Volpi defines an enchanting experience. The double-faced palace stands on Venice’s Grand Canal and dates from the Renaissance. As can be imagined, the 16th Century exterior is both exquisite and intriguing. Owned by the Count and Countess Volpi di Misurata, the palazzo is rare in remaining private and intact.
"It is a tremendous honour for Sotheby's to be entrusted with the magnificent contents of this grand and legendary Venetian palazzo," says Mario Tavella. "Palazzo Volpi's sumptuous décor reminds me of Luchino Visconti's cinematic masterpieces. Furthering its mythic status, this Venetian gem remains private, true to its original scale and remains undivided unlike many other palazzos."
“Those balls at Palazzo Volpi were unbelievably beautiful. Everyone wanted to be invited.”
Meanwhile, from the 1950s onwards, Palazzo Volpi became fabled for its illustrious balls, parties and luncheons. Indeed, it was the place where famous actors, writers and artists of every milieu rubbed shoulders with renowned socialites that is less easy than it sounds.
The Collection of Count and Countess Volpi di Misurata | Great Collectors
“Those balls at Palazzo Volpi were unbelievably beautiful,” enthuses Countess Cristiana Brandolini d’Adda, the Venetian social doyenne. “Everyone wanted to be invited.”
"All the guests were amazed by the opulent interiors of the Palazzo, where the most sumptuous balls of the era were given. I remember the effervescence of the 1991 ball, gathering the Hollywood elite and high society, in the magnificent and always welcoming décor of the Palazzo.”
And each decade, everyone of relevance attended. From the 1950s, guests included Maria Callas, Winston Churchill, Chips Channon, Jean Cocteau, Misia Sert, Barbara Hutton with Joseph Cotten, Arthur Rubinstein, Charles de Beistegui, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Joan Fontaine and Deborah Kerr; from the 1960s there were Edmonde Charles-Roux, H.G. Clouzot, Grace Dudley, Cecil Beaton, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and Jacqueline de Ribes; from the 1970s, Andy Warhol, Maurice Druon, Marisa Berenson, Michael York and so it has continued with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Diane von Furstenberg as well as members of family clans like the Agnellis, the Brandolinis, the Rothschilds and the Thyssens.
Even when the Palazzo Volpi is empty, walking up the stairs into the piano nobile and entering the ballroom, it becomes one of those extraordinary moments. The magnificent room feels steeped in memories and glamour.
The ambience as determined by the vast ecclesiastical portraits, the pair of prominent glass chandeliers, the polished minutely mosaic-ed floor and the set of fourteen Venetian 18th century giltwood red velvet armchairs defines otherworldly.
In spite of the dappled daylight flooding in, it is hard not to imagine international beauties sitting at the feet of Winston Churchill or laughing with Jack Nicholson on the Wagner sofa in the ball room’s side room. There was also the unforgettable entrance of Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza – clad in Gianni Versace couture - who appeared on the shoulders of another guest.
Nevertheless, when Jacques Grange describes the interior as managing to be “’quite magic as well as very personal in style,” his words make sense. No doubt, because the entire interior throughout the palazzo – that measures 3845m2 - was envisioned by Nathalie, Lily, Volpi (1899 - 1989), the mother of Count Volpi. “In 1948, my mother overhauled the palace completely,” he says. In the piano nobile, her idea was to create radically different styles in each room, leading off from the ballroom. “Besides being beautiful, Lily was very astute,” recalls Cristiana Brandolini. “For decoration, she found the best for everything because she did her research and listened.” Lily Volpi bought all of Stéphane Boudin’s production of limited, elaborate metal furniture at the Paris-based Maison Jansen – “Cora Gaetani who ran Jansen was a friend,” notes Giovanni Volpi. Otherwise, it was Lily’s own particular taste throughout. Intensely involved, she would sit down for hours while the furniture was being placed. “Take that couch, move it here, move it to the right,” recalls her son. Once the puzzle fitted, she did not move anything.
“My mother-in-law was probably the greatest decorator of our time”
“My mother-in-law was probably the greatest decorator of our time,” offers Dominique, Countess Volpi whose first husband was Willy Rizzo, the internationally acclaimed photographer. “Lily Volpi was very curious about the next, younger generation and was unusual for being modern in thought,” recalls Diane von Furstenberg. Nathalie, ‘Lily’, blazed with confidence. She was the widow of Giuseppe Volpi, Count of Misurata (1877–1947) the industrialist who had negotiated and signed the peace between Italy and Turkey at Ouchy (1912) and modernized La Serenissima from 1905; he bought the palazzo in 1917 and also founded the Venice Film Festival, the first in the world, in 1932. (Hence there being Volpi Cups awarded each year.) Soon after her husband died prematurely, Lily Volpi turned, for his memory, into a social legend.
“She always had interesting guests, delicious food and beautiful flowers,” says Cristiana Brandolini. The Countess Volpi was such a recognized perfectionist that Donna Marella Agnelli was packed off to her for lessons in entertaining and her general attitude. Lily Volpi’s worldly motto being, “to catch a man all one needs is a bed, but it takes a well-run home to keep him.” She also possessed a sense of whimsy, and besides humming Wagner flawlessly there was also humour. In 1973, at her granddaughter’s eighteenth birthday ball, she was encouraged to wear Hubert de Givenchy couture over her usual favourite, Yves Saint Laurent. “Look at this yellow dress,” she complained to Jacques Grange. “I resemble an omelette. And I’ve been unfaithful to my Yves.”
But most importantly Lily Volpi was hardened to society’s fickle ways. Initially, her annual September balls dating from 1951 until 1963 meant inviting 600 members of Italian society and then she stopped. “My mother felt taken for granted,” says Giovanni Volpi. By the time that Jacques Grange met her in the early 1970s, the Countess had another method. “It was well done,” the interior designer says. “Being the widow of the modern-day Doge, Lily would telephone all the top hotels like the Gritti and the Cipriani, ask for their guest lists and then invite all the exciting and beautiful people. That’s how I met Michael York.”
Even though Lily Volpi could not speak English, she fascinated the likes of Andy Warhol. “Neither could speak the other’s language but would spend hours together,” states her son Giovanni Volpi. However, when it came to throwing the 18th ball for Lily’s granddaughter and his niece - Olimpia Aldobrandini (now Baronne David de Rothschild) – the Count hosted. A star of automobile endurance racing, friendly with le tout Paris, as well speaking excellent English, his ball was hailed as mythic.
“The arrival by gondola was grandiose but so was the palazzo that was lit up outside and within,” recalls the socialite Florence Grinda. “It was when women dressed up and weren’t scared of wearing important jewellery.”
The legend was made. To such a point that when Giovanni Volpi gave a ball in September 1991 for Elizabeth de Balkany, daughter of Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, the photographer Richard Avedon invited himself, with the aim of taking portraits. He even set up a photographic studio on the premises. Tatiana von Furstenberg became one of his subjects. “My daughter’s portrait and the preparation for the ball is all I can remember,” offers Diane von Furstenberg. While others like his wife Dominique Volpi recalls “the buffet spilling over with lobster” and “the especially constructed ivy-covered staircase.” Since there were 1200 guests, there was a crush. “The older generation usually left early but did not,” reasons Giovanni Volpi. Like the rest of the world, they wanted to watch. And the final Volpi Ball became termed as society’s final hurrah for the 21st Century.