March 8, 2013 7:30 pm

A 500-year-old palace gets a fresh look

An impressive and painstaking restoration of one of Venice’s landmark hotels, the Gritti Palace
The Explorer’s Library at the restored Gritti Palace

The Explorer’s Library at the restored Gritti Palace

For a few key weeks each year, during the film festival and the alternating biennales of art and architecture, Venice is inundated with the great and the good (as well as the merely deep-pocketed) from the creative industries. This results in a pronounced upmarket shift in its visitors’ demographic profile – no small matter in a city that sometimes struggles not to be undone by mass tourism.

The luxury hospitality industry seems suddenly to be responding en masse: local groups, overseas boutique hoteliers and multinationals have all been staking new claims or consolidating established presences. The Danieli, for example, last year undertook an ambitious renovation of its suites (the clear implication being that signature suites – not middling double rooms – are required for Venice’s new seasonal habitués). Under the aegis of Pierre-Yves Rochon, they have been given subtle makeovers, maintaining the feel of private residences (the 100-year-old parquetry still squeaks reassuringly) but updated with opulent upholstery.

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Across the canal is Villa F, a new addition to the portfolio of Francesca Bortolotto Possati, owner of the Bauer Hotel. Opened late in 2011, its 11 extremely private apartments are spread across a 16th-century palazzo on the Giudecca, where Possati herself oversaw restoration of the hand-painted ceiling beams, frescoes and terrazzo floors, as well as the three acres of gardens.

This year’s big news is the reopening of the Gritti Palace, after a 15-month renovation. It’s an undertaking that impresses as much for the sheer breadth of resources enlisted as for the splendid final result. One of the most important heritage palazzi in the city, it was built in 1475 and served as the residence of Andrea Gritti, the Doge of Venice from 1523 to 1538.

The palace has a very high-grade listing from the Soprintendenza ai Beni Architettonici, the Italian authority that oversees architectural heritage, so its renovation was unusually involved. It entailed collaboration between designer Chuck Chewning, creative director of Donghia (a design house that is US-based, but owned by the 160-year-old Venetian textiles company Rubelli), officials from the Soprintendenza, who dispatched teams of endorsed artisans, restorers and painters, and the Luxury Collection, a sub-brand of Starwood Hotels, whose flag the Gritti flies. The Gritti project, estimated to have cost about €35m, is one of several ambitious renovations across Luxury Collection’s portfolio of European heritage properties, which include Seville’s Alfonso XIII, the Prince de Galles in Paris and the Danieli.

Rubelli has played a pivotal role here: its brocades and silks are definitively Venetian, and Chewning spent weeks reviewing its archives, which comprise more than 6,000 textiles, among which he found designs commissioned for the Gritti itself in the 19th century. Several were creatively reinterpreted (or replicated); in total, more than 200 were used throughout the hotel. The brocade lining the walls of the Club del Doge restaurant, for example, is a reproduction of an 18th-century doge’s cape in the Rubelli vaults. Covering the walls of the Explorer’s Library, is a brocade interpretation of a design Chewning found drawn on a 17th-century document.

The room also showcases a portrait of Andrea Gritti from the school of Titian – one of dozens of important paintings and more than 280 antiques for which new homes have been found throughout the property.

Here, too, the trend for bigger, grander, rooms prevails. The hotel originally had 91 rooms, but now has just 82, of which 21 are suites. Several are themed after famous Gritti denizens: the Peggy Guggenheim suite features a library stocked with rare monographs; the Somerset Maugham royal suite has the author’s original letters; the Hemingway presidential suite is home to the chair in which he composed sections of Across the River and Into the Trees.

Any hint of gimmickry is superseded by the quality of craftsmanship, from the immaculately-restored rococo ceiling cornices and Murano chandeliers to the fantastically hued and perfectly book-matched marbles – mint-green, taffy-pink, slate-grey – in which all the bathrooms are clad.

For the moment, the Gritti is basking in the Venetian spotlight, but more competition is on the horizon. The renowned hotelier Gordon Campbell-Gray is rumoured to be investing in a property in the city, and June brings the opening of the Aman Grand Canal at Palazzo Papadopoli.

Restored by local company Dottor, the Palazzo Papadopoli, owned by the counts Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga – who will retain a residence on its top floor – also boasts its fair share of stucchi, terrazzo floors and frescoes by Tiepolo. Its architect (and old Aman hand) Jean-Michel Gathy tends to have a far more austere way with the colour and texture than is the Venetian norm – but opulence, in this city, is hard to resist: the Gritti’s version of it might yet make apostates of a few card-carrying Aman junkies.

Double rooms from €485; www.thegrittipalace.com

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