Private palaces, castles and palazzos in Europe quietly open their doors to cultural institutions, enabling visitors to see priceless, museum-quality art and antiques that have remained in the same family for generations.
Similar to the Grand Tours of Europe that were so popular among the British upper classes and landed gentry during the 18th and 19th centuries, it is possible to tour private palaces throughout Europe, meet their royal owners and receive personal tours to see art, antiques and family heirlooms that have been passed down generation after generation.
While 150 years ago, a traveler needed a letter of introduction from a royal insider to gain entry, it is now possible to have this experience as a patron of a cultural institution. Indeed, tours organized for such non-profit organizations as The American Friends of Versailles,The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The World Monuments Fund, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Morgan Library and The Frick Collection, are given access to art collections usually under lock and key and never available for viewing by the public.
A Private View of Italy is staffed by expert art historians, archaeologists and architects who are selected for each excursion based on the specifications of the group. The access the firm can arrange is so special, that his groups have the opportunity to view collections that locals have never even seen, explains Aluffi-Pentini.
“American Friends of Versailles benefit trip guests savor rare privileges in visiting impressive properties, still privately owned, and beholding their museum quality artworks and furnishings,” says Kristin Noelle Smith, Executive Director, The American Friends of Versailles. “Meeting the proprietors and being among their antique treasures, created with magnificence of skill and housed behind closed doors, is a unique and fantastic experience indeed.”
In October 2015, The American Friends of Versailles took a group to Florence, Italy with an itinerary that was organized by Aluffi-Pentini’s A Private View of Italy. The tour included visits to private palaces and villas where the group viewed masterpieces painted by the likes of Canova and Caravaggio, accompanied by an art historian who shared insight about each painting and the artist behind it.
The American Friends of Versailles group visited private gardens, including one at Villa Capponi and were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace by the head gardener. The group was also invited to a privately-owned convent, Convento di San Matteo, where they were hosted by Marchesa Gondi whose family own it to this day. The group were later hosted to a banquet in the magnificent dining room at the Gondi family private palace in Florence hosted by Marchesi and Marchesa Gondi.
The group attended a luncheon at the Palazzo Corsini al Prato as guests of its owner, the Principe Corsini, a member of one of Florence’s most important and grandest families, who lives in the palace with his wife. The private palace’s garden, which features lemon trees, wisteria, roses, tulips and peonies, dates back to the late 16th century.
In Palermo, the group visited the 18th century Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi, a private palace and residence, where they were treated to a personal tour by its owner, Princess Carine Vanni Calvello Mantegna di Gangi. There, the group spent time in the famous ballroom where the movie, “The Leopard” starring Burt Lancaster was filmed.
Another highlight in Palermo was an extravagant formal dinner at the Palazzo Ajutamicristo which was hosted by its owner Baron Calefati. The Palace was designed by distinguished architect, Matteo Carnilivari, and was a favorite place to a number of notable figures, including Queen Giovanno, wife of King Don Ferrante of Naples, who lived here at the turn of the 16th century. Other notable residents include Emperor Charles V, the King of Tunisia and Don Juan of Austria (brother of King Philip).
In Syracuse, the group enjoyed a lavish lunch at the Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco, a Sicilian Baroque-style palace hosted by its owners, Baron Beneventano and his wife, The Baroness Beneventano. The Sicilian Baroque-style private palace dates from the middle ages (though it was largely rebuilt during the late 18th century) and was once the home of King Ferdinand I of the Deux Sicilies (ancestor of Princess Beatrice) and is famous for its frescoes by Ermenegido Martorana and its enormous Murano chandeliers.
The American Friends of Versailles enjoyed an evening at Palazzo di Lorenzo di Castelluccio, an exquisite palazzo in Noto, where they were treated to a lavish meal hosted by its owner, renowned French film producer Jean-Louis Remilleux. The private palace, which was restored over a five-year period, is filled with priceless antiques and paintings.
“It is truly uplifting to meet dedicated people in the U.S. and Europe who believe in historic restoration and preservation, to maintain the artistic achievements of the past so that future generations may enjoy and be inspired by them too,” says Smith of The American Friends of Versailles.
Indeed, experiences like this can not be compared to a typical visit to a country by a tourist. For members of a group such as The American Friends of Versailles, this is a trip of a lifetime—and an opportunity to visit palaces, see hidden treasures and rub elbows with royalty.