The Queen of Venice by Steffi Kammerer | 7th June, 2019 | Personalities
As enigmatic as her city: Entrepreneur Francesca Bortolotto Possati, who grew up in a palazzo on the Grand Canal, owns the city’s most eminent private hotel. Surrounded by history and plenty of old masonry, she nevertheless has her sights set firmly on the future. A visit in Venice.
Venice, the opening days of the Art Biennale: One of the most sought-after spots is the roof terrace of the Bauer Hotel, the luxury lunchroom of the art world with a stunning view of the Grand Canal. After the dinners and receptions, guests move downstairs to the crowded B-Bar to mix with top collectors, curators, auction house and museum directors, artists and journalists until far into the night. The person who makes all of this possible is hotel owner and powerbroker Francesca Bortolotto Possati, a woman with a pilot’s license and a bright laugh, someone both feminine and tough – and as irresistible as the city of Venice itself.
She begins the conversation, surprisingly, by telling me that she is not a hotelier. This, despite the fact that she owns three further exquisite properties in Venice. But evidently, although she turns over more than $30 million a year, she prefers not to be considered just a businesswoman. “I’m not someone who sells bedrooms and bathrooms,” she explains. “Sure, that’s how we earn our money, but there’s much more to it than that.” To her, the Bauer is not just a hotel. “It’s a confluence of all the aspects of art, music and culture that have been around since day one, and which I have been developing further.”
Francesca Bortolotto Possati is regarded as an excellent networker with the best connections of anyone in Venice. “It’s true,” she says brightly, with no lack of confidence, explaining that all her connections were formed and expanded naturally, without the aid of a personal website or much Instagram hype. “I don’t need things like that. People find me. They also know what to find me for.” Bortolotto Possati supports countless cultural organizations and aid groups such as Save Venice, the American-Italian Cancer Foundation, the Ca’ Foscari foundation and the Teatro La Fenice along with many others. After spending just a short time in her company, you quickly realize how multifaceted she is, how equally dedicated to tradition and change. She cannot remain anywhere longer than three days, she says, otherwise she becomes restless. And although she is one of the biggest names in Venice when it comes to entertaining, she never hosts people at her own home, saying “private is private.”
Instead, she loves holding regular dinner parties at her hotels, opulent affairs attended by writers, actors and film directors as well as young talents in need of mentoring, something she is very happy to provide. She doesn’t usually use a seating chart because she likes to decide on the spur of the moment who might find it interesting to talk to whom. When the conversation lags, she elegantly revives it, usually by bringing up a controversial topic. Once or twice a year, she holds a ball for several hundred people.
But back to the Bauer Hotel, so ideally located near St. Mark’s Square and bearing such an un-Italian-sounding name that you cannot help but remember it. The hotel’s history began in the 19th century as the Bauer-Grünwald, owned by an Austrian. Bortolotto’s grandfather, a shipbuilder, bought the hotel in 1930 as a young man. He restored it using the finest materials and turned it into one of the city’s most modern hotels. When he died, non-family members managed the hotel for 20 years. Bortolotto’s mother wasn’t interested in taking over and neither was she, for that matter. She moved to the U.S. in the early ’80s, living first in Detroit and then in New York. The Bauer Hotel was very much there during her childhood but she never felt the urge to get involved with running it, choosing instead to study languages and literature.
When her marriage ended, she returned to Venice with her two children, and after her mother’s death, took over the hotel. “It became clear to me how important the Bauer was for contemporary Venice.” She set to work in 2000, investing $80 million in renovations. She had little to no experience in the real estate and hotel business but was confident that her lifestyle and interior design abilities would suffice. And she was well traveled. “I thought I had a good idea of what people were looking for,” she says. She hired staff to take care of everything else. “And so my saga began.” Silk wallpaper, marble floors, antiques – she designed each room herself. Even the Royal Suite, the most magnificent room of all, with a Murano glass chandelier and a price tag of more than $15,0000 a night.
Then Bortolotto expanded. She purchased a 16th century monastery complete with gardens on Giudecca island, just across the lagoon. Today, the former monastery is home to two five-star hotels, Il Palladio and Villa F, which share the romantic garden between them – an urban oasis the size of a soccer field. “You know, I’m a garden designer,” she says, “it’s my passion, more than everything else.” She has learned a lot from nature, she says. That there is a time for everything, for instance, and that one shouldn’t hesitate to cut off dead branches. Even if it’s hard. “We sometimes carry backpacks full of dead leaves and stones and memories.” She gestures as if trying to shake something off. “I’m not very much of a person of the past.” A regular shuttle takes guests back and forth between the hotels. She herself likes to get around the lagoon in a small motorboat that she operates herself.
“Women have always wielded influence in Venice.”
Francesca Bortolotto Possati
Powerful women are not unusual in Venice, she says, adding that women have always wielded influence here, in various different areas, ever since the days of the courtesans. Going everywhere on foot and being surrounded by water creates intellectual independence, she adds. Even when you look at paintings, you see Venetian women in the foreground. Groups of men are rarely depicted by themselves. Bortolotto has occasionally been approached about running for mayor but she only laughs this off. It’s not an option for her. “I don’t like politics, people talk too much. I like to get things done and I like facts.” But she is concerned about the problem of day visitors in Venice: 20 million invade every year and they don’t pay any taxes. Today, the city has only about 50,000 permanent residents. When she was growing up, she says, the figure was 150,000. “Nobody thought ahead, nobody planned for this.” Two years ago, she wrote a book dedicated to Venice that she called Venetian Chic. The foreword was written by Jeremy Irons, a long-time friend. The large-format book is a hymn to the history and culture of Venice and features the extraordinary lifestyles of people who live in this ancient yet contemporary city.
Bortolotto and her adult children – her son, Alessandro, is 35, her daughter, Olimpia, 28 – live together in the Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova, a venerable, several-hundred-year-old palace on the Grand Canal. It’s a three-story building in which each family member has their own floor and comfortable 400-500 meters of space. Looking across at the illuminated windows from the other side of the canal, you get a good idea of just how high the ceilings must be. Around ten years ago, when they were still the world’s most famous couple, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stayed at the palazzo with their family for four months while Jolie was in Venice shooting the movie The Tourist. At first, they been unable to find accommodation for themselves and their six children, but then they got lucky. As it turned out, the director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, was the friend of a friend of Bortolotto’s.
Francesca Bortolotto Possati is one of few women worldwide to own several five-star establishments. The Bauer is unrivaled in Italy, she explains. “There’s no property of this size or standard that has been in private ownership for as long.” This will presumably change, since neither of her children is interested in taking over, but the fact doesn’t faze Bortollotto. “They should do what makes them happy,” she says, adding that the hotel’s legacy will continue one way or another and no one is required to follow in anybody’s footsteps. In fact, she´s thinking of handing the Bauer over to an international management company, perhaps she will sell her majority shares and just keep a minority. „When do I think that´s going to happen? Rather sooner than later.“
In June 2019 Elliott Advisors (UK) Limited, affiliate of Elliott Management Corporation, and Blue Sky Investment Group completed the acquisition of 100% of the capital of Bauer SpA. In order to lead the transition, Bauer hired Vincenzo Finizzola, one of Italy´s pre-eminent hoteliers, who will serve as Bauer´s new General Manager and as a member of the Board of Directors. (Editor’s note)
Possati´s daughter will take over the family vineyard and five years ago, her son started a nonprofit, Zuecca Projects, to support art during the Venice Biennale. This year he’s arranging something with the fashion photographer Juergen Teller and in 2013 he pulled off a coup with an installation in a church by Ai Weiwei on the period the superstar artists spent in prison. Bortolotto Possati is also considering setting up an art foundation with her son. They have already launched an artists’ program at the Bauer. An author came to finish his book, a composer stayed there while working on an opera.
But she hasn’t exactly figured out where she wants to go from here. “I don’t know yet, I like to improvise,” she says. For starters, she wants to spend the winter in New Zealand. She travels for about half the year, but never stays anywhere for more than seven days. Why not? She ponders for a moment before saying something incorrigibly Bortolotto: “If I stayed any longer, I might never come back.”