The year 2013 marked the “Anno della Cultura Italiana,” a massive celebration of Italian culture throughout the United States. While hundreds of events were held in more than a dozen American cities to fête the occasion, my family and I believed there was no better way to honor the U.S.-Italian friendship than to travel to Italy. We wanted to experience the country’s essence, learn about its history, absorb its cultural heritage, and feel its soul.
And we wanted to go beyond the average tourist experience, just as “2013: The Year of Italian Culture in the United States” sought to present a deeper understanding of the country. That’s why the nationwide showcase focused not only on the obvious — Italy’s storied cultural achievements — but also on its legacy of innovation, discovery and research, including the leading scientists, engineers and economists who are poised to leave their mark on 21st-century civilization. Likewise, we set out to explore the country’s present-day dynamism and how historic Italy is connected to modern Italy.
Giorgio Caire di Lauzet, president of Dream&Charme, and his team made it all possible. Our trip began with a flight to Milan, where we stayed at Hotel Principe di Savoia and were treated to fabulous service and a prime national pastime: people-watching.
But we wouldn’t be leisurely bystanders for long. The next day, we drove straight into the action with the “Ferrari Challenge Experience” — laps at Modena racetrack in Maranello with a bona fide Ferrari Formula One driver.
The price was steep, but for a performance car lover, nothing can beat this adrenaline-fueled rush. All drivers are briefed by an instructor, and there’s an F1 simulator beside the track for practice. Then each person got four laps in a Ferrari F430 Challenge production-based racecar.
“Given that the cars are beasts and participants strap in with almost no training, it’s less of a racecar driving experience than a whirlwind exposure to the high-testosterone world of fast cars and fast tracks,” a friend said. “The best part by far was observing how professionals handled the track after your turn was up. Makes you realize just how much of a sport this is!”
Back in Milan, it was time to decompress — in style — at the Armani Restaurant, where everything from the napkins and chairs to the lamps and saltshakers are designed by Giorgio Armani himself. While anyone can make a reservation, we had the privilege of dining with a few of Armani’s global design leaders. Each Armani representative was a living example of the elegant style and class for which the fashion brand is world-famous.
Another face-to-face encounter with Italy’s living treasures awaited us at Palazzo Arese Lucini in Osnago, an hour outside of Milan, where we spent the evening with the owners, Count and Countess Arese Lucini. Our hosts, joined by their beautiful daughters, gave us a private tour of their villa, which was splendid and majestic, but also charming. While the American frame of reference can often be measured in decades, theirs stretches across centuries, dating to 1500. The villa is truly a secret treasure.
Count Marco Arese Lucini took us to the chapel where he was married — and where perhaps his daughters will wed. The chapel was built with the house in the first half of 1600 and frescoed with scenes from the Bible, the Four Evangelists and, over the altar, a painting by Annibale Carracci of Jesus on the cross. Our hosts were married here with special permission (“consecration”) from the pope for this specific wedding.
Meanwhile, the villa’s library houses more than 20,000 rare books, including a 1480 Bible, the “sacrilegious” Luther Bible, original first editions of Galileo and Newton’s works, the first edition of the French encyclopedia, and documents from the American Revolution.
Count Arese spoke about the family being close to Napoleon Bonaparte and actively supporting him during the French leader’s campaign to free Northern Italy from the Austrian Empire’s domination in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The family holds in its archives numerous letters from the emperor together with the imperial seal, the camp bed said to be used by Napoleon during his Russian campaign (which they politely asked their guests not to sit or jump on), and the Légion d’honneur awarded to the family by Napoleon.
To have the family share their treasures and stories was extraordinary, and made us feel close to history. As an American, I was continually reminded of the youth of our democracy.
We also witnessed history firsthand at Castello di Brazzà, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, near Venice. This extraordinary villa blended a revered past, including an 11th-century castle and chapels, with modern-day, country club-like comforts such as a tennis court and swimming pools.
Owned by Count Corrado Pirzio-Biroli and Countess Cecilie Pirzio-Biroli, who hails from a noble Belgian family, Villa Brazzà has been in the Pirzio-Biroli family since the 10th century.
The landscape from the Dolomites mountains to the Adriatic Sea is spectacular and serene — no traffic, just the sound of the birds singing and our questions about the property’s intriguing past.
Count Pirzio-Biroli spoke of an illustrious family lineage that includes the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus; the explorer Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà, founder of the African country of Congo; as well as the well-known artist and student of Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, Ascanio di Brazzà, and his wife Giacinta Simonetti, who was descended from two doges (a position akin to a duke) of Venice.
We approached the 11th-century castle ruins in the backyard that are said to have inspired Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Luigi Da Porto, who wrote the original story of two star-crossed lovers that was later reprised by the Bard, and Lucina Savorgnan (both members of two distinct branches of the Savorgnan family) were said to be the real-life inspiration behind tragedy.
In the evening, our hosts invited another aristocratic couple that owned a villa close by to join us for an authentic Italian meal: The pasta was fresh and al dente; the ham was thick, salty and brimming with flavor; and the fruit tasted like it had been picked that morning (indeed, it had). We washed it all down with the fresh and bright local wine.
The conversation ranged from Italian and American politics to wine, music and Italian design. Federico, the heir, joined us with several of his 20-something friends for after-dinner drinks and coffee overlooking the property. It was a taste of aristocratic privilege that endures today while evolving for future generations.
Italy’s villas — pieces of history that live on as modern-day havens of luxury — are an intrinsic part of the country’s landscape. This is exemplified by Villa Sola Cabiati in Lake Como, one of Europe’s deepest and most picturesque bodies of water. Arriving by boat, we were at once struck by the villa’s Baroque architecture. We walked up a double staircase with an ornate gray-stone balustrade from the water to a wrought-iron gate gilded with an “S” and a Duke’s crown. This was the summer residence of Duke Gabrio Serbelloni from the second half of the 1700s.
Beyond the gate lay four parterre flower gardens, where the owners escorted us for cocktails. It was as though we were in a movie. The estate itself was, like so many of Italy’s villas, a living museum — home to magnificent artwork, 18th-century tapestries, a Sevres porcelain collection, and the four black Stradivarius violins that were played at the funeral of Empress Maria Luigia of Austria.
Legend has it that Napoleon spent many nights in the villa (he seemed to be shadowing us during our trip). We too felt like royalty as we dined with crystal, china, silver and service fit for kings, queens and emperors. At dinner, the large doors opened up to a view of Lake Como, with the colors on the walls complementing the lake’s shimmering reflection.
It was a spectacular vista — whose breathtaking beauty could only be rivaled by another Italian treasure: the iconic town of Positano on the Amalfi Coast, one of the most scenic stretches of coastline in the world. La Sirenuse, overlooking the bay of Positano, was our hotel — a refined haven of lemon trees, enchanting terraces, white-washed walls, vaulted ceilings, handmade tile and a natural ambience that reflected the stunning coast and cliffs to which it clings.
The American writer John Steinbeck, who often lived at La Sirenuse, said in 1953 that, “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”
And therein lie some of the idiosyncrasies that fascinate and frustrate observers of this complex nation. Italy’s beauty seems unreal, but of course not everything is dreamy. Luxury and the good life are still in abundance throughout the country, though not everyone is able to bask in it. Italian art and culture are still the envy of the world. Its limping economy and feuding political system are not.
The country will have to tackle huge challenges if it wants to spearhead a 21st-century renaissance. Yet Italy’s past remains an inextricable part of its identity, and always will be. It is the magnet that will continue to attract visitors — and a source of immense pride among its people.
Perhaps that’s why the overwhelming highlight of our trip was St. Peter’s Basilica and sitting in the heart of the Vatican, waiting for three hours to spend time with Pope Francis. St. Peter’s Square and the papacy itself speaks to Italy’s own journey, as the Catholic Church, with its venerated past, looks to forge a new path in a modern world.
In many ways, Pope Francis embodies this evolution, as he seeks to re-energize what many see as an antiquated institution by forcing it to rediscover its humble roots — and refocus on the poor and neglected.
As it did with all aspects of our trip, Dream&Charme arranged our morning with the pontiff, who has grabbed the world’s attention by openly embracing all people, not just Catholics. From the moment he washed and kissed the feet of a Serbian Muslim girl to his outspoken criticism of economic inequality and what he calls the “idolatry of money,” this pope is determined to remake the church’s image.
His inclusiveness was palpable in the crowd that day at St. Peter’s Square, where Buddhists, Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus and other faiths patiently waited for this holy man. As the hour grew closer, the crowd’s excitement was electric and contagious. We felt a kinship with the people around us, no matter their background.
Pope Francis entered on his Popemobile and slowly rode around the monumental square. The pope was energized, stopping frequently to hold, kiss and bless people. His prayers and homily were delivered not only in English, but in Croatian, Polish, Portuguese, Arabic, French, German, Italian and Spanish. His theme was inclusiveness — no one is considered unworthy in the church, we are all necessary, we all can be redeemed. My family is Catholic but not devout. His enormous heart and message of inclusiveness touched our souls. From his Argentinean compatriots sitting behind us to the Buddhist monks in front of us, it was clear his remarks — and his actions thus far as pope — had the same awe-inspiring effect on everyone in the audience.
In the end, the most uplifting moment of a trip that showcased Italy’s riches came from listening to a man who preaches simplicity and helping those who are less fortunate. From the haute couture fashion houses of Milan to the magnificent villas and their noble lineage that pepper the stunning countryside, Italy is dripping in luxury. But that isn’t the whole story. While “la dolce vita” may sound clichéd to foreigners, the sweet life still resonates with many Italians, who savor the natural beauty and bounty of their homeland.
There are problems, to be sure. There were plenty throughout Italy’s turbulent history as well. But the wealth of that history — its culture, art, innovation and soul — continues to be the lifeblood connected to modern Italy’s beating heart.
About the Author
Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit that aims to promote leadership, civility and finding common ground.