Reggie Nadelson discovers a ravishing boutique hotel

Seated in a white leather armchair in her boat, the Phoenix, Francesca Bortolotto Possati looks out at the canal as the wind whips around her. A long-limbed blonde wrapped in a camelhair coat, she has an utterly Venetian face; her large blue eyes look a little dreamy, a little languid, as her driver pulls away from the dock. Behind those eyes, though, is a businesswoman who, like many others in this town past and present, thrives on a mixture of commerce and history, family and art. She used to drive herself, but she’s too busy now. As proprietor of the Bauer Hotel and its offspring, Il Palazzo, she has to move fast. And parking in Venice, as she points out, is always tough.

A ravishing boutique hotel of 75 rooms and 40 suites, Il Palazzo opened in June 2000. Five minutes’ walk from St. Mark’s, it sits at the edge of the water, with views of the Lagoon and the Salute; a seventh-floor breakfast room called Settimo Cielo (or Seventh Heaven, which it is); and rooms that make you feel you’re sleeping in a Fabergé egg. Some have ceilings painted green and red and gold; others have hand-carved woodwork. There are suites in cocoa silk and pink brocade, lighted by old glass chandeliers. Bathrooms come in white or red marble. Rooms with numbers ending in 06 and 09 have miraculous views of the water or the rooftops. The whoosh of gondolas puts you to sleep; church bells wake you. This is Venetian opulence at its most gorgeous. Plus there’s a restaurant with Venetian and Mediterranean food and a terrace for alfresco dinners; a health club with an outdoor Jacuzzi and a panoramic view of the skyline; and friendly, helpful concierges (not always a given in Venice).

Il Palazzo is different from the grand old Venetian hotels, if only because so many of them now belong to chains. Il Palazzo is nothing at all like a chain hotel; it is unique. And it is Possati’s baby. She put millions of dollars and her whole heart into it. “People said I was crazy,” she says. Crazy because Il Palazzo was an ancient building attached to the 19th-century Bauer. Both needed complete renovation when, in 1997, she inherited the hotel her grandfather, a Ligurian shipbuilder with a shipyard at Venice’s Porto Marghera, had bought in the 1930s. And when you renovate in Venice, you have to deal with water everywhere. You have to bring in all the materials by water. You have to worry about the canals alongside your building. There are flood levels to consider. But, she says, “I couldn’t let it go, because I had grown up with it. It meant too much.” With a team of architects and designers, Possati (who worked in interior design in the States years ago) undertook the Bauer’s makeover and dreamed up Il Palazzo as a hotel within a hotel. Though physically joined, the two have separate entrances, separate docks, separate restaurants. (The Bauer is a luxury hotel but less intimate, less perfect; it also takes tour groups, which Il Palazzo does not.)

As we cross the Lagoon, Possati tells me of the old convent she owns on the island of Giudecca, which she’ll open next spring as a 50-room hotel and spa. Then we’re off to the Rialto and the marketplace where she buys white truffles, pasta, and bread. Eventually we pull up at Possati’s family house. Most of the Palazzo Moncenigo is closed now, but she walks briskly across the courtyards, planning a big party she is throwing here in four weeks. “There’s no point in doing things too far ahead in Venice,” she says, “or things get damp and you have to start over.”

Later, over lunch in her vast apartment, full of paintings, books, and old furniture, Possati speaks of her passion for Venice, its artisans and markets, of how to keep it as it is without letting it die. The population is aging and shrinking; outsiders, she thinks, are the answer. More and more Italians are buying second homes here. Foreigners too. And for those without a place of their own in Venice, for people like Tom Ford and Catherine Deneuve and Danny Glover, there’s Il Palazzo. “The world has always ended at the Piazzale Roma [the train station],” she says. “Venice has always been a refuge.” Rooms, $625-$3,660. At 1459 San Marco, Venice; 39-041-5207022; fax 39-041-5207557;

WHERE TO FIND IT: SUNGLASSES TO SILK The minute your boat from the airport turns into the Grand Canal and then the Lagoon, you feel it: that visceral moment of arrival in Venice. No other place except Manhattan gives you that buzz when you suddenly come upon it. And as with New York, there’s nothing natural about Venice, everything’s made by man, and so the pleasures are manufactured pleasures: the voluptuous fabrics, the truffle-rich pastas, the colorful glass from Murano.

Venice is not for minimalists. Everywhere you look are damasks, velvets, and taffetas, silks and brocades, in lush, overripe colors. On its hand-operated looms, FABRICA MARIO BEVILACQUA makes fabrics used for home furnishings as well as for fashions by companies like Dolce & Gabbana. Or sew your own. According to Bevilacqua, the queen of Sweden had a gown made up out of its gold-and-silver brocade. At 2520 Santa Maria del Giglio; 39-041-241-0662.

VENETIA STUDIUM makes the original Fortuny lamps, exotic silk lanterns that instantly conjure up Venice. There are also purses, pillows, even dresses made of damask and velvet and pleated silk in the Fortuny style. Pleated-silk scarves, hundreds of them, are stacked on the shelves by color, from vanilla and cream, palest pink and sapphire, to gunmetal and glistening, glamorous black. At 2403-2404 Calle Largo XXII Marzo; 39-041-522-9281.

OTTICA CARRARO has a dozen original eyeglass designs in fabulous colors like bright aquamarine, neon lilac, pale emerald green. Sunglasses, reading glasses, glasses you push up on your head to keep your hair out of your face—the staff will make them up for you on the spot. $ Frames from $70; with lenses, from $120. Calle della Mandola; 39-041-520-4258.

The glass creations of Carlo Morettiat L’ISOLA are brilliant and Venetian but also of the 21st century. You wouldn’t want a matched set of water tumblers or Champagne flutes; you’d want them in a dozen colors. At 1468 Campo San Moisé; 39-041-523-1973.

The old saw that you don’t go to Venice to eat is no longer true. AL GRASPO DE UA is one of the city’s best fish restaurants, with the cleanest, lightest grilled sole and an otherworldly white risotto made with seabass. Not to mention the lemon mousse. The main dining room is stripped down and elegant; the Sacristy is newly done up with the cartoons of Hugo Pratt. At 5094A Calle Bombaseri; 39-041-520-0150; fax 39-041-520-9389.

At HOSTARIA DA FRANZ, Papa cooks. But Papa is Gianfranco Gasparini, a veteran of Europe’s grand-hotel kitchens. His son, Maurizio, recites the specials in the five languages he’s fluent in, enticing customers to try the swordfish carpaccio, the eel grilled with a rock pressed on top, the lightest fritto misto ever produced by human hands. In summer you can sit outside on Da Franz’s canalside dock. At 754 Fondamenta San Giuseppe; 39-041-522-0861; fax 39-041-241-9278.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.

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