Friday, August 12, 2011

Continuing with my recommendations for some recent good reads, this post is devoted to just one: Hotel Il Pellicano (Rizzoli, 2011, $60). It landed on my desk on one of the hottest days of the year in New York, and I was mesmerized by the cover image. It seemed incredibly appropriate that I read this during the dog days of summer, so I immediately dove in. With text by Bob Colacello (former film critic of Village Voice and editor of Interview, author, and special correspondent for Vanity Fair) and Bronwyn Cosgrave (fashion historian, journalist, and author), this is mostly a book of photos, fabulous photos, by John Swope (who established himself as a photographer in Hollywood in the 1930s and after the war became a Magnum photographer; he became an investor in Il Pellicano and documented the 1964 ground-breaking of the hotel); Slim Aarons (who began his career as official photographer for the U. S. Military Academy at West Point and later became a photographer of the jet set for Life, Town & Country, and Harper’s Bazaar; he aimed his lens at Il Pellicano guests from 1967 to 1991); and Juergen Teller, a German photographer born in 1964 who is credited with campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Missoni, Helmut Lang, etc., and whose work has been shown at Tate Modern and MoMA – he and his family were invited to Il Pellicano in June 2009, when he also captured the hotel’s Globetrotters’ Party on film.

Readers of my Tuscany and Umbria book know that Dianne Hales -- author of one of my most favorite books, La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language (now a Broadway Books paperback) who maintains a great site you should know about, -- is a great fan of Il Pellicano, the hotel perched on a hill overlooking the coastal Tuscan town of Porto Ercole. And, in the May 2011 issue of Dream of Italy, she relates that the first time she went to the hotel it took her breath away: “I want you to bring me here every year for the rest of my life,” I said to my husband Bob. That was 1990 and we have indeed returned annually. How could we not? No place on earth may be more romantic.”

Though I’ve not been a guest at Il Pellicano, I agree that it is incredibly romantic (but in fairness I must admit that the village of Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast, might give Il Pellicano some stiff competition!). In the same year that Dianne Hales first visited the hotel, I was very fortunate to be invited for drinks there that summer by the then-proprietors of the Cala Galera Marina, who were old family friends of my good friend Charles (readers of my book may recall that Charles contributed an account of his salad days in Porto Ercole on pages 71-75). I no longer remember if we had drinks in the Il Pellicano Bar, at the poolside restaurant, or the all’aperto bar – I mean, I was given a tour of all the public areas of the hotel, but most of the time I was practically pinching myself to make sure I really was in this place that didn’t even seem like a hotel. It felt more like a grand party, one that I wasn’t invited to officially but that I was in the middle of nonetheless. It was intoxicating, stunning, hugely appealing, and downright sexy.

As Bob Colacello writes in ‘A Visitor’s Note,’ when he finally visited Il Pellicano, after hearing about it from friends, he wanted to stay for two weeks, or two months. “At Il Pellicano, the world beyond disappears. It’s a place to rejuvenate, to have a real vacation, not to network, or to see and be seen…it’s Italy the way you dreamed it would be.” He also accurately points out that both Il Pellicano and Porto Ercole are such an anomaly. “Mass travel has created mass development and mass disappointment,” and places that were once unspoiled – Marbella, Mykonos, Puerta Vallarta, etc. – have utterly changed. Porto Ercole is better known today than it was in1990, but still, I meet very few people who’ve been there. As I wrote in my book, “Porto Ercole is a pretty, pleasant coastal village with a refreshing lack of sites to see, though it’s noteworthy for the fact that Michelangelo Merisi – Caravaggio – died here in 1610. And when the Argentario area came under the control of Spain in the late 1500s, Philip II had the Forte Stella (“star fort”) built, seeking the advice on the fort’s design from Cosimo de’Medici, who recommended Bernardo Buontalenti and Giovanni Camerini. The Argentario was described as “scarcely undiscovered, but neither is it a byword among Mediterranean resorts” by Doone Beal in Gourmet (July 1988), and I think this is still accurate.” Bronwyn Cosgrave, in her essay, ‘A Tuscan Home Away From Home’ shares the opinions of several people very familiar with both the hotel and its locale. One, Frida Giannini – creative director of Gucci -- says, “There is no shopping in Porto Ercole and no showing off at Il Pellicano.” Another, Daisy (Countess Desidera) Corsini – of a very distinguished and princely Florentine family dating back to the 13th century; you may be familiar with her family’s Palazzo Corsini at via del Parione 11, one of the most prestigious examples of the Baroque style in Florence -- says that Il Pellicano, just like Porto Ercole, “has never been a jet-set place like Sardinia or St. Tropez. It is about family. Some people come here and say, “Where is Prada? Where is Gucci?” We tell them: “Go back to Rome.”

Il Pellicano (the hotel) was conceived by Michael (British) and Patricia (American) Graham, who, in 1962, “accomplished ‘what a lot of people talk about, after their third martini, but seldom do – they chucked all their so-called “security” and changed their lives” as San Francisco Chronicle Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Herb Caen noted. Bronwyn Cosgrave reveals that after the Grahams were refused a loan from the Italian government that they’d counted on, the financial backing for the hotel came from a consortium of close friends. Michael reportedly gathered about twenty friends together and told them if they’d contribute, they and their families could come to the hotel gratis. But Michael Harris, an advertising executive who’s been staying at the hotel with his wife since 1967, said Graham “forgot one thing. Some of these people had very large families. They ate him out of house and home! So Il Pellicano never made any money.” The hotel was acquired by Roberto Sció in 1979, and his daughter, Marie-Louise Sció, an architect, oversaw a two-year restoration of the hotel in 2006. She was aiming for a very homey look, but “it all had to look Pellicano.” Bronwyn Cosgrave observes that “by using Pellicano as an adjective, Sció alludes to something its guests understand – that is, Il Pellicano is as much an attitude as it is a hotel, combining the old-school polish of Roberto Sció with the freewheeling spirit of founders Michael and Patricia Graham.”

Il Pellicano (the book) is a beautiful, must-have family album of la dolce vita. I love the thick cloth binding, and how the endpapers feature a red wave design on a bright white background. I think I love the black-and-white photo section by John Swope a tad bit better than the color images, but only just a tad. Missing, to my mind, is pictures of the restaurant with some accompanying recipes (after all, it has earned two Michelin stars) and of guest rooms – I, for one, would surely glean some ideas from the rooms’ style and décor. But, I suppose that since the hotel is closed from mid-October to mid-April, the focus of the photographs is outdoors, and its publication now is not accidental as it’s a true song of summer: I can practically smell the suntan lotion while I turn the pages. A nod to the level of service at the hotel is found in the book’s acknowledgements by Roberto and Marie-Louise, who express their thanks to the hotel staff “with special mention for those boys and girls years ago who worked so hard jumping up 94 stairs and down 94 stairs just to bring water to the guests on the beach” (before they got the license to build the elevator).

Bob Colacello recalls ordering a club sandwich and fresh limonata lunch down on that cement beach (which, though it doesn’t sound like it is actually very chic and is reached by those many stairs or by taking the outdoor elevator) and revelling “in the rays of the Tuscan sun. That’s an Il Pellicano day: living in your bathing suit, reading a fat royal biography or slim avant-garde novella, breaking for dips in the warm, clean, emerald sea or in the very civilised saltwater pool.”

Hotel Il Pellicano is a member of Relais & Chateaux and its Michelin-starred restaurant is under the direction of Chef Antonio Guida. Room rates range from 420-880 euros and suites from 765-1900 euros.

Porto Ercole is in the region of La Maremma, and a good resource for the whole area is (click on the British flag for the English version). Other nearby places to visit that I recommend are Orbetello, Porto Santo Stefano, Grosseto, Pitigliano, and Isola Giglio, where I had to buy two pairs of plastic blue sandals because I lost a single sandal (from my left foot) in the deep and clear water of the Tyrrhenian Sea. I still wear them today anytime I’ll be on a rocky beach.

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