A Venice Valentine

Reflections on Venice, Dream of Venice Architecture

Roses ordered? Champaign chilling? Massage oil heating up to caress your favorite kumquat? Valentine’s Day is around the corner, intrepid paramours! If you can’t get hashtag-laid on this day of hashtag-romance you’d better reread the Kama Sutra. Or better yet, Dream of Venice Architecture, the latest dreamy installment from Venice cognoscente, JoAnn Locktov.

This bouquet of meditations on the world’s most seductive city might be all the company you need this Valentine’s Day. (And a bargain compared to the jacked-up prices you’d pay for the Lover’s Menu at your local boite.) Add to that, The Sultanette’s exclusive report on last week’s Metropolitan Museum of Art lecture, “The Brothel House of Europe: Venice on the Grand Tour” and your adult entertainment is complete.

Meandering Venice, Dream of Venice Architecture

But before we get to the brothels, some tantalizing foreplay. “What can we learn from a city that is over 1,500 years old?” poses Locktov in the opening of Dream of Venice. Her answer is an invitation to meander among its piazzas and secluded squares, passageways and bridges, accompanied by award-winning architects and designers.

No tired travel guide clichés here. Reflecting on how Venice has “inspired their work and lives, these aficionados of form and function explore the essence of a city “built where no land ever existed.” Their intimate musings tease out its timeless allure persuading us that, above all, Venice beckons.

Venice beckons, Dream of Venice Architecture

As New York-based architect, Louise Braverman describes it “at any moment, something mysteriously intriguing may happen.” Her contemplation is paired with a graceful colonnade that exists midbreath, both exposed and enclosed. Its arched ceiling offers elegant shelter from the grey mist that threatens to encroach on either side while globes of light entice the visitor to a distant encounter … with what? Whom? Be tempted at your own risk.

Venice is “tricky” offers New York architect Annabelle Selldorf next to an image of a secluded canal. Nothing is “innocent or forthright” in this city where the only thing forbidden is your inhibitions. “Deception is everywhere, perhaps with the intention of protecting a precarious paradise.” Here, as throughout the book, the stunning photography of Riccardo De Cal, an award-winning documentarian for his films on Italy’s grand artistes, evokes a delicate, ethereal power.

Knock, Knock … Dream of Venice Architecture

Constantin Boym, Chair of Industrial Design at New York’s Pratt Institute, brilliantly describes the city’s mercurial allure through its doorways, held together “only by a miracle” – each portal with “its own unique face and expression.” The accompanying image is a peacock blue door that calls to us at the end of a timeworn stone walkway like a proud, aging courtesan.

Did I say courtesan? Time for the promised report (as if you forgot) on “The Brothel House of Europe: Venice on the Grand Tour” at the Metropolitan Museum. “Don’t say the Met never offers something scandalous,” Kevin Salatino, director of Art Collections at The Huntington Library and expert on Venice licentia began this fascinating lecture. And after he warned the audience of upper eastside ladies-who-lunch that it contained licentious language, The Sultanette was all ears.

In the eighteenth century, British aristocrats-in-training were sent on a pilgrimage to the continent, a “Grand Tour” designed to transform the future Earl of Beef Wellington from provincial twit to worldly twit. And while Rome was the main event, Venice was the requisite detour.

Venice adorned, Dream of Venice Architecture

It boasted more theaters than any city in Europe and its fading republic was an inspired example to aspiring custodians of the empire. But most likely its popularity was based on the famous description of parliamentarian George Selwyn: “Venice is an exquisite courtesan.” Or reports like the gentleman visitor who warned that “the wickedness of that place is beyond all imagination.” Most alarming was the unsettling habit of Venetian society to wear masks, not just during the depraved month of Carnival but a full five months preceding it!

No wonder it was a favorite hangout of Casanova and de Sade. And a refuge for woman like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who escaped her husband to live with a lover half her age. Venice is the place to be, she advised a friend, “if a woman has any mind to be wicked.” Lady Wortley even promoted the mask as an anti-aging device – the perfect camouflage for a ripening coquette’s wrinkles.

Venice socialites, Dream of Venice Architecture

Venice was the place to let your hair down and everybody got into the act. Along with its fabled courtesans and prostitutes, nuns were known to entertain in the cloister. There was a rare tolerance of homosexuality, cross-dressing was a sport, a unisex mask costume made gender-bending de rigueur, and the castrati, according to Salatino, were the rock stars of the day. Simply breathing the air of Venice was a threat to your moral turpitude.

But more than its lusty charms – beyond its escape from suffocating propriety and society’s expectations – what Venice really offered was an invitation to follow the distant globe of light, open the unfamiliar doorway, pursue the precarious paradise. The invitation lives on, perfectly expressed in its network of hidden passages, the sotoporteghi.

Precarious Paradise, Dream of Venice Architecture

Dream of Venice Architecture contributor, and publisher of Renaissance Rules.com Randy Bosch takes us down these “narrow, twisting, dark and mysterious tunnels bored through ancient existing buildings.” Like a subterranean force field, “they conspire with crooked bridges and offset streets to link islands never intended to join.” To follow them is to risk the unknown, says Bosch, but the reward is “wonders reached only through them.”

Let those in need of predictable romance have their wilting roses. If you’re looking for a romance with life this Valentine’s Day, The Sultanette recommends taking a dive between the covers of this voluptuous guide to the heart of Venice.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Redress For Success

Photo: TheSultanetteI didn’t want to like Jacqueline de Ribes. Just another hotel-particulier-born French woman with fabulous clothes. She even knew how to do an honest day’s work, not that you can compare running a fashion house to flipping burgers. But it was time The Sultanette raised your bar with another installment of CULTURE SNATCH, so I headed uptown to take a look at Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at the Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The introduction to the exhibition only fueled my animosity. It drooled of her “relaxed confidence and precocious sophistication” at once “noble and mysterious.” Avedon adored her nose. She was on Capote’s A-list of “swans.” Her profile was more photographed than the Taj Mahal.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

The red and the black.

But as each spotlighted mannequin emerged in the darkened gallery, revealing another side of de Ribes, I succumbed. “The fact is there are at least fifteen Jacqueline’s,” Carolina Herrera said of her, “all of them fascinating.” She knew who she was. Every one of her.

Jacqueline de Ribes was born on 14 July, 1929, anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Her parents favored yachts over children. Her grandfather who doted over her died when she was nine. “He was the only one who loved me,” she tells Amy Fine Collins in her Vanity Fair profile, “The Last Queen of Paris.” With the outbreak of World War II, she and her siblings were shuttled with nanny and governess to safe havens outside Paris shared with occupying German troops.

PHOTO: The Sultanette

Backless but not tactless.

When she was eighteen she met Vicomte Edouard de Ribes whose ancestors had financed La Nuit de Varennes, the ill-fated attempt (depending on whose side you are on) at Marie Antoinette’s escape from the guillotine. Two years later she became Vicomtesse de Ribes and set about escaping the strictures of a bourgeois marriage and her reactionary father-in-law. She skied in Saint-Tropez, hosted black-tie dinner parties in the wing of her in-laws 19th-century Parisian residence, and dazzled the beau monde with her singular style.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Dressed up goose down.

It was a successful arrangement. After sixty-two years of marriage, she tells Fine Collins, “To catch my husband is not easy. He thinks that he can’t catch me either. This is the secret of the couple. We love each other – but we agree we need independence. Sixty-two years with the same man is not so easy! It’s marvelous when you can manage to make it work. There are so many different ways of loving. How can you know someone is the best if you cannot compare? The French attitude of marriage, couples, love is complex.”

One distraction was the “Ball of the Century” – the masked Bal Oriental orchestrated in 1951 by flamboyant and filthy rich Charles de Beistegui. On the way to the event at Beistegui’s Palazzo Labia in Venice, hoards of invading Rolls Royce’s caused bumper-to-bumper traffic on Switzerland’s Passo del Sempione.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Haute Oriental.

Among the thousand guests photographed by Cecil Beaton were the Aga Khan III, Barbara Hutton, Orson Welles, the Duchess of Devonshire and the Princess de Polignac. Dior and Dali designed each other’s costumes. Lady Diana Cooper showed up as Cleopatra. For those who appreciate men with hoses, a brigade of Venetian firemen formed a human pyramid in the grande salle.

Anyone care to sign up? But the glitterati wasn’t enough for de Ribes. Nor was Capote’s anointing her one of society’s swans. “The swans of the times of Truman Capote did nothing,” she tells Robert Murphy in a Bazaar interview. “They did not work. They didn’t fight for life.” At the Met show, she is quoted as saying, “I am not a lady who lunches.”

PHOTO of photo: TheSultanetteShe had dipped a toe in the fashion world “apprenticing” for Cassini and Pucci. Diana Vreeland had arranged a photo shoot with Richard Avedon. Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent were confidantes. In 1956 she was voted into the International Best-Dressed List and in 1961 to the Hall of Fame. In 1982 on her fifty-third birthday, she informed the family that she was going into business as a fashion designer.

“Whatever I did in life it was against,” she tells Fine Collins, “Nobody ever approved.” The Sultanette can always get behind a contrarian vicomtesse. But as I took in the show, I grew to admire more than a spunky aristocrat’s metal. This babe knew how to put herself together. I liked … mea culpa! … the way she looked.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Demure meets décolletage.

Today admiring a professional woman’s appearance is met with a flurry of reprisals: It’s politically incorrect, demeaning, objectifying! A man is never described by the clothes he wears! The fashion and beauty industries are in cahoots with craven media moguls to keep women enslaved to unattainable standards! A woman who wafts around the workplace like a female won’t earn the respect of male peers!

Who says? Maybe that works until a woman steps up, stops listening to chauvinists of both sexes, and reveals all – balls, brains, and bling. If she is subliminally judged by the men’s club, so what? Following the rules like good girls never got us anywhere. I’m not suggesting that a professional woman undermine her dignity. Only that she takes control of the definition.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Polka dot disruption.

De Ribes’s haute sexuality was born of self-assertion. She exudes the enigmatic, intangible power of a female who follows her own rules. In all their back-slapping, gonad-bonding bravado men still find that confounding, perplexing, and baffling. They have been brought up as rational beings, poor left-brainers, perhaps that’s why they have so much trouble controlling their penises.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Bows take a bow.

Yes, de Ribes existed in a milieu when a woman’s power was equated with her presence. Yes, women were shut out of male-dominated professions. Indeed, that right of entry has been, and is justifiably fought today. But if there is a war between the sexes does that mean we dismantle our nuclear allure?

I arrived at the final gallery of the exhibition, an homage to the glitterati’s glam orgy at the Bal Oriental. It may have been the romp of the century for some but for de Ribes such affairs were to be taken seriously. “Balls were not for one’s amusement,” the show quotes her as saying, “They were for being ravishing.” If you’re going to shatter the glass ceiling why not dress for it?

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style closed on February 21. Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France is hot on her heels at the Met until May 15. Look for The Sultanette’s CULTURE SNATCH to come.