Venice Is Full of Secret Palazzos for Sale
The listings are so extravagant, no one knows they exist.
The rear of a midsize palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal doesn’t look like much—a wrought-iron gate, a stucco wall, a few windows with black shutters. Step inside, though, and visitors will find themselves on the vast ground floor of one of the choicest palaces in the city. Spread across nearly 30,000 square feet, the 16th century mansion contains original frescoes, ancient silk wall coverings, and some of the finest plaster work in Venice.
“It’s all just gorgeous,” said Ann-Marie Doyle, director of Venice Sotheby’s International Realty, as she entered a ballroom dominated by a colossal Murano glass chandelier. “I could spend my life in this room.”
Someone could, certainly, but for the time being the palace is deserted. Its owner, the patriarch of an Italian banking family, died a few years ago. Since then, “it’s pretty much been empty,” said Doyle, save a single housekeeper, Manola, who keeps its grand halls presentable for guests who have yet to arrive. The deceased owner’s children “are all busy and live in different places,” Doyle said. “It’s the classic story of figuring out what to do with it.”
That might change soon: The house is secretly on the market. Far from hanging a “For Sale” sign on the Grand Canal, Doyle, at the behest of the family selling it, has done virtually nothing to promote the house. “The owners started out being super-, super-secret,” she said. “Now they’ve changed, at least a little.” By that, she means they’ve allowed her to post online a single image (of a wall, in a drawing room), along with a two-sentence description. And while the photos in this article haven’t previously been seen by the public, that’s as far as the owners will go. They still refuse to publish or even indicate a what it would cost—merely “Price on Request.”
The palazzo is one of Venice’s so-called “whisper listings,” houses that, for whatever reason—discretion, exclusivity, or a distaste for even the remotest hint of publicity—remain secret, available only to those who contact real estate agents, are vetted in advance, and who can demonstrate a willingness (and the funds) to invest their time and energy into the city of Venice.
“We select the people in advance,” said Serena Bombassei, head of sales for Venice Real Estate, an affiliate of Knight Frank. She was standing in the entrance hall of an apartment that comprised most of the piano nobile of a 15th century Gothic villa, also on the Grand Canal. The interior of the apartment’s main spaces are largely unchanged since the palazzo was built.
The silk brocade walls are flecked with gold thread, and are original. So, too, are the gold-leaf paneling in what’s now the bedroom, the elaborate frescoes that line the main reception hall, the painted beamed ceilings, and the clear Murano chandeliers that dot the apartment. Because of its historic nature, restoring the apartment is a daunting undertaking, which may be why its present owner has left the necessary updates to someone else.
“We want quality in this city. Money is important, but Venice needs help,” Bombassei said. “We need to maintain the beauty of the city, so we want people to buy property like this, but they also have to give back to the city, too. Venice is very small, and it needs to stay alive.”
To that end, Bombassei (and the apartment owner) opted to put the apartment on the market only via a password-protected website, and they refuse to acknowledge even a rough price range for the listing. The only dollar amount she’d mention was the estimated renovation cost: “It needs a complete restoration,” she said. “The price to do so would be about a million euros [$1.1 million].”
It’s one of five apartments she said she represents exclusively that are secretly for sale. “It takes a bit longer to sell,” she admitted. “But you can actually keep the price more firm this way.”
While this is, on the face of it, an odd marketing tactic, on an intuitive level whisper listings make sense: There are only a handful of people willing and able to sink their money into Venice, and those interested in doing so are probably willing to pick up the phone and call a broker. By keeping these buildings “off the market,” their owners can simultaneously control the market and avoid something so sordid as a listing on the internet.
The downside, of course, is that they remain hidden from a rapt public. “I’m so delighted to show anyone this place,” Doyle said, as she climbed the stairs to the second floor of the 30,000-square-foot palazzo. The 30-foot-long Oriental rugs, centuries-old furniture, elaborate velvet curtains, and small library can be included in the sale. The dozens of elaborate chandeliers, all original to the palazzo, come with the purchase price. “I’ve kept it so quiet for so long, I thought no one would see it.”
Even after a tour of the whole palazzo, it was still difficult to see the entire building: The housekeeper couldn’t count all of its bedrooms and secret doors, back passageways, and vast, empty halls that gave way to literal cabinets of curiosities. Entering the dining room, for instance, a visitor admired the massive table service of plates and tureens on display behind a glass case. “Mussolini ate off those,” she said in a careless aside, not bothering to stop.
A Few Concessions
There are some Venetian listings whose owners have chosen to market more publicly. One apartment, which was renovated by a French and Italian couple, was recently put on the market for 8.8 million euros. Directly across from the Gritti Palace, the apartment is decorated with Gobelins tapestries, a 15th century, hand-painted settee from Cordoba, Spain, and bone dressers by the mid-century French designer Maria Pergay. (The furniture can be included in the sale.)
Similarly, an apartment near the Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca has a full internet listing. Spanning the top two floors of a building that also includes a private, communal courtyard, the apartment’s proximity to the Hotel Cipriani “reminds people of Beverly Hills,” said Bombassei, who also represents this listing. “And Americans are willing to buy property on the Giudecca.”
Still, the brokers’ whisper listings seem to be the cream of the crop. It could be their interiors, their location, or their history. Or it could be the secrecy itself.