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 Rome-based firm that specializes in organizing these special tours is A Private View of Italy, which was founded by Count Stefano Aluffi-Pentini. An art historian, Aluffi-Pentini’s firm organizes bespoke private tours of grand villas, palazzos and chateaus throughout Italy and Europe (through its Private View of Europe division) for non-profit organizations and small private groups (for a price of around 5,000 Euros a day). Aluffi-Pentini’s A Private View of Italy encourages its guests to discover the hidden treasures inside these private palaces—many of which are still in the hands of the descendants of the original owners—and see museum-quality art that has never been on view to the public. In addition, many of the private palaces and villas on these tours are architectural masterpieces designed by the likes of revered 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio.
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.
Such once-in-a-life opportunities have been possible for those who have traveled with The American Friends of Versailles. The non-profit organization which exists to improve and promote positive goodwill between the U.S. and France, has organized extraordinary trips to such places as Spain, France and Italy. A portion of the cost to participate on a trip with The American Friends of Versailles serves as a charitable donation toward underwriting an important restoration project at The Palace of Versailles.
“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 American Friends of Versailles were also invited to a sumptuous dinner hosted by the Marchese and Marchesa Ginori at their magnificent Palazzo Ginori. The Ginori’s palace was built between 1516 and 1520 according to designs by Baccio d’Agnolo and enlarged between 1691 and 1701 under the supervision of the architect Lorenzo Merlini. The Ginori family have lived at this site since the 15th century—even before the palace was constructed. Guests were amazed by the spectacular porcelain collections of the celebrated Ginori factory, which are conserved and on display in the palace.
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 October 2016, The American Friends of Versailles traveled to Sicily. The program, which was organized and led by S.A.R. La Princesse Béatrice de Bourbon des Deux Siciles, an American Friends of Versailles Board Member, included visits to palaces still inhabited by descendants of original owners, private tours of historic sites and elegant feasts hosted by princes and princesses.
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.
Princess Beatrice also arranged for the group to meet with the Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, who hosted The American Friends of Versailles on a private tour of the Villa Niscemi in Palermo (where jeweler Fulco di Verdura spent his childhood) followed by a luncheon on its terrace overlooking the beautiful Parco della Favorita. Villa Niscemi was the main residence of the Valguarnera family for three centuries and its origins date back to the 16th century.
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.
Carrie Coolidge is Co-Editor of Pursuitist and is based in Manhattan. From 2009 to 2011, Carrie served as Co-Editor of Luxist, the luxury lifestyle website at AOL where she ran the Luxist Awards, a program that honored the very best in fine living. From 1996 to 2009, Carrie was a Staff Writer at Forbes magazine, where she covered real estate, personal finance and the insurance industry, among other areas. Carrie is also the author of six books, including "The Business of America is Business". Follow her on Twitter: @carriecoolidge