Looking up the shiny surface of One Canada Square I was thrown back to my memories from 25 years ago. There and then my young ambition was to reach the top floor, in more than one sense. Now disillusion hit me, the country that I chose as home for my family had turned its back on my dreams, and the already airy borders of my financial profession became even more cloudy and unstable.
I’d been living in London for half of my life, raising my large happy family with the same tolerance and liberal mantles that my mother chose to dress me in as a young boy. The few short moments back in my native city had soon become extremely precious to me, however, and I didn’t quite foresee how one particular event would change my life and my perspective.
My mother told me that our friends were about to sell their Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel and it would be turned into luxury flats. My infamous temperamental personality revealed itself through terrible anger before merging into a sense of despair and profound frustration towards what had become the disease of a once glorious city. Residents were giving up, selling out and leaving Venice to its destiny.
A short while after the conversation with my mother, I was playing with my daughter on the lawn of my friend Luca’s estate in Norfolk when, as an afterthought, I mentioned that the magnificent XV century Gothic Palazzo was suddenly to become no different than One Hyde Park, or any other luxurious playground for the rich. Before I could finish my sentence, Luca said: “Let’s buy Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel and preserve it as it is”. My daughter was jumping and laughing hysterically, and I couldn’t contain a burst of laughter myself. Luca gestured for me to sit next to him on the lawn and I quietly explained the financial sense of such an investment. I knew very well how to pitch an investment opportunity to a client and how to focus my arguments on the long-term benefits, balancing short-term risks.
Could a Venetian Palace be rescued through such arguments?
Then it was a warm day in May; the early evening light sparkled across the flat lagoon water, the only noise being the short waves slapping the hull of my Venetian boat like a playful kid jumping in a puddle. We were drifting smoothly across it and my father said, “I like to fly low, with my bum close to the water.” He meant that any journey in Venice, whether walking or sailing, had to resonate to the slow and steady rhythm of the city and its lagoon. Venice had the unique power of choosing its own direction, as if it had an hologram of its own distant future. I couldn’t understand the meaning of my journey back then, but I came to have faith in a vision that had only started to take shape in my mind. I called Luca and said, “We should buy Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel and preserve it as it is”, adding that “but we should also open its doors to artists, musicians, designers, tech geniuses, entertainers and all those individuals for whom the mission in life is to be creative”. Being asked for a commitment to giving new life to the Palazzo, Luca said “Absolutely” and added “…and their sponsors”.I ended the call with a smile.
My father had a remarkable knowledge and an insatiable curiosity. A member of one of the most ancient Venetian aristocratic families, he was respected and sometimes feared for his sharp, cynical comments. He always spoke with great passion of what made Venice such a unique treasure, each stone hiding century-old secrets. After a lifetime of fighting what he saw as the degradation of his city — the modern fast food, fast travel, fast culture — my father, and many of his Venetian friends, surrendered and chose to lock themselves in their dusty and dark salotto, peaking at the siege through half closed shutters, an unbearable defeat for those once fierce combatants. The Grand Canal and the fish-like island, seen from the skys, may look like any small river slicing through a charming village; but the time-honoured values of the city and the survival instincts of the first residents, seeking refuge from barbarian invasions, still live on.
“Why on earth did you leave this paradise?” My international friends often asked me when they visited Venice, joining the multitudinous events that attracted art or cinema lovers and partygoers. “I’d love to live the life of a Venetian aristocrat in a Palazzo” they said. “You have no idea”, I replied.
As my vision is gradually taking shape, I have gone on to salvage a second and a third Palazzo, and the support and enthusiasm shown by the Palazzo owners, prospect guests and investors have been overwhelming. What I see is not only the city’s survival and preservation, but also its redemption and renaissance through the ancient power of creativity and of trade.
Determined to act like a Venetian ambassador, I am intensely knitting a web of international connections, creating opportunities for my city, risking my human capital and the sponsors’ investment for a never-ending rescue mission. I sincerely hope you will join us on this unique journey.