Sheer Poetry

  • Laurie Kahle

Gabriele d’Annunzio, the early-20th-century Italian poet, playwright, war hero, and Fascist theoretician, spent his twilight days on the shores of northern Italy’s breathtaking Lake Garda in a fantastical villa complex dubbed Il Vittoriale. Known for his brutal revolutionary politics and martial fervor, D’Annunzio was a man who also embodied the Decadent literary movement, which scandalized Europe at the turn of the 20th century. He viewed his lavish, almost theatrical lifestyle as an art form, indulging every extravagant whim in his writing, his home, and his notorious sexual exploits. Vittoriale—with its dark, cluttered rooms, Greek theater, self-glorifying military museum, and even the prow of a naval ship (a gift from the Italian government) built into the neighboring hillside—stands as a testament to D’Annunzio’s long and storied life.

At the Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli in Gargnano, a short drive down the scenic coastal road from Il Vittoriale, I open the double doors of Il Poeta, our suite named for D’Annunzio. The spacious room—with whimsical star-shaped windows overlooking the lake—is comfortable and inviting, like a guest suite in a friend’s vacation home.

We had come to Villa Feltrinelli to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, and we could not have found a more romantic setting to mark the milestone and renew the bond. After the hectic trek from Milan, where we battled searing heat and clamoring mobs of fashionistas, Il Poeta was a soothing tonic that we wanted to drink in. Our only dilemma was whether to lock the doors and cocoon or explore the villa’s eight manicured acres and the neighboring village of Gargnano, which D.H. Lawrence once described as "one of the most beautiful places on earth."

Like D’Annunzio’s Vittoriale, Villa Feltrinelli also represents the culmination of an illustrious career, that of Robert Burns. As founder of Regent International Hotels, Burns transformed the luxury hospitality industry by offering unparalleled personalized service and lavish amenities such as gigantic marble bathrooms, a Burns signature. In 1992, Burns sold Regent International to Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and agreed to take a four-year hiatus from the hotel business. After building his career by developing prime, large-scale hotels and resorts—he opened 36 properties over his 25 years at Regent—Burns, now 73, relishes the intimacy of Villa Feltrinelli and its 21 suites, each with its own name and distinctive character.

"You can be so detached when you are running a 600-room hotel," explains the amiable silver-haired hotelier over cappuccinos on the villa’s terrace overlooking the lake. "This is a real departure. Personally, for me, it’s a house. The idea was to bring modern conveniences to a beautiful old house." And San Francisco interior designer Pamela Babey, though often stymied by the rules of the Italian Historic Preservation authorities, exceeded all expectations.

Babey oversaw the meticulous restoration of the original structure’s 17 intricately painted ceilings and its priceless frescoes, which were restored over two years by eight Italian women artists. Italian law requires that original furnishings remain within an historic home when it is sold (or otherwise be donated to a museum). To abide by the law, some 70 pieces of original furnishings were retained and painstakingly restored, including the piano in the parlor, which now serves as a memento from the period (1943 through 1945) when Mussolini was held under house arrest at the villa. Today, it is difficult to fathom that such a sentence could ever have been considered a form of punishment.

The villa was built in 1892 as a summer villa for the Feltrinelli lumber (and later publishing) dynasty, but it had been left virtually uninhabited since the late 1970s. The villa was sold out of the family around 1980 to the owner of a construction company in nearby Brescia. Burns purchased the dilapidated property in 1997 for a sum of $3.5 million. "It was like fool’s gold," he says. "The thing was a mess, but the wood was good, and it was laid out beautifully." By the time the restoration was complete, Burns had spent $31 million, which included about $1,000 per square foot for the main building. "There was no way to do it for less," he says.

The amazing five-year transformation of the property, perhaps the ultimate This Old House project, is chronicled in albums that guests can view in one of the intimate common rooms. Unlike Como’s famed Villa d’Este with its gilded palatial halls, Feltrinelli’s style is more nuanced, comfortable, personal—you want to live there. In fact, Burns keeps a residence in the renovated boathouse on the property, and his young son greeted me at the tranquil swimming pool—reminding me of my own toddler at home with his grandparents.

Babey has reinforced Feltrinelli’s residential ambience with an array of personalized accents, such as the framed black-and-white portraits reminiscent of old family photos that are sprinkled throughout Il Poeta. Books on local subjects are stacked casually on the ottoman and end tables, and artworks ranging from colorful oil paintings to nude charcoal drawings to botanical prints accent the walls. Laundry, dry cleaning, and even the minibar are complimentary, adding to the homelike character of the place.

Though sublime, the architecture and interior design of Villa Feltrinelli come second to the mesmerizing mood of the property itself. After the electronic gate swings open and you descend the driveway, the villa’s serenity and splendor encompass you. Towering 150-year-old magnolias display dinner plate–size blossoms that perfume the air, and swallows perform their thrilling aerial ballet over Garda’s crystalline water.

We lose track of time sitting on a dock under the sweeping fronds of a weepy cedar tree, absorbing the surroundings with almost meditative calm. Our breathing becomes slower and deeper. We don’t speak, only listen. A lake has its own rhythm—a constant gentle lapping at the shore in contrast to the crescendos of an ocean’s surf. The lull causes me to close my eyes, the tannic lake smell triggers deep memories, and I am transported to childhood summer days spent on a northern Michigan lake chasing frogs, collecting rocks, and stargazing on the dock with my family.

Later, during dessert under the softly lit, tented terrace, as if on cue, a golden moon dramatically peers over the mountains across the lake. Before retreating to Il Poeta, we sip a nightcap by the moonlit water, reminiscing about the first 10 years of our marriage and contemplating the untold years to come. While D’Annunzio’s Il Vittoriale stood as a "castle of dreams" paying homage to his revolutionary and amorous endeavors, Villa Feltrinelli evokes your own romantic ideals—past, present, and future.

"This place was designed for romance," concludes Burns. His guests could not agree more, we learn, as we share our experience with others who have also fallen in love in Gargnano. Meanwhile, outside, a noisy trio of Italian and German sports cars pulls into the gravel drive, and we greet the arrivals with a mix of enthusiasm and envy. The new guests are the extended family of a European couple who have reserved the entire property for their weekend wedding. We have no choice but to leave, reluctantly, for Venice, a romantic mecca in its own right. Chatting with the other guests before taking one final stroll along the lake, we delay our departure for as long as possible. Parting is, indeed, such sweet sorrow.

Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, +39.0365.79.8000, www.villafeltrinelli.com

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