Back in Venice, life seems to flow more gracefully. Bianca is trying to put some distance between herself and the media attention that has enveloped her family. “My mind, these days, is focused on a much more interesting issue,” she says, half jokingly. “I must tend to the needs of a demanding creature.” That creature is the family palace. Even in Venice, a city not known for architectural demureness, Palazzo Papadopoli is impossible to miss. With its 21,000-square-foot interior, it’s the largest private palazzo on the Grand Canal and one of the largest in Venice.
“Nicolò Papadopoli, a forebear of my father, bought this palace in the middle of the 19th century and transformed it completely,” says Bianca’s husband of 19 years, Count Giberto Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga, whose long name mirrors an equally complex family history that goes back 800 years. The Papadopolis, an industrial dynasty of Greek origin, were so rich that when Napoleon went to Venice, he taxed them 10 times more than he did other aristocratic families. “Venetians would say the Papadopolis were so wealthy, they owned their own wave in the ocean,” says Giberto.
The Papadopolis bought two smaller palaces next door and tore them down in order to make space for a garden and a new wing. Michelangelo Guggenheim, the chicest designer of the era, reimagined the rooms to reflect the period’s taste for bombastic, overdecorated interiors. Some rooms are so spacious that the Arrivabene brood—four girls and a boy, ranging in age from six to 16—use them for roller-skating and playing soccer.
Maintaining the palace has plagued the Count’s sleep for decades. “I was nine years old and living in Rome when my father died,” says Giberto, whom friends and family call Gibi. “By that time most of the Papadopoli and Arrivabene fortunes had been dispersed. My mother, my two sisters and I were left mostly with this crumbling old palazzo and a lot of worries.”
A handsome 46-year-old with a beard and a mane of graying hair, Giberto got himself a real job as soon as he could. After working in advertising in Milan, he jumped at an opportunity in Venice to work for Aon insurance brokers. He is also a self-taught designer and recently founded a company called A Venetian Design that produces a line of sophisticated glassware. “I used to design things for my family and friends,” says Giberto. “When the demand became greater than expected, we decided to get serious.” Every piece, whether it be a cup, a candleholder or a carafe, is hand-blown in Murano.
“Venetians would say the Papadopolis were so wealthy, they owned their own wave in the ocean,” says Giberto.
A series of large glasses displaying the facade of a Venetian palazzo are hand-engraved using a painstakingly slow technique that is nearly extinct. Giberto says his father, a high-ranking officer in the Italian navy, imparted to him an unusually stern education: “I remember him coming into the nursery when we were kids just to make sure I washed with icy cold water, while my sisters were allowed to have warm baths.” He blames that strictness for making him feel what he describes as “a manic pressure and responsibility about keeping up family traditions and a sense of place.” His heightened sense of duty includes a lifelong commitment to holding on to the family palazzo.