A two-contessa evening is charming indeed

Candlelight, troubadours and the Grand Canal -- splendidissmo!

July 28, 1999|By ALICE STEINBACH | ALICE STEINBACH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It is never a good thing to be late for a dinner party, especially if the invitation reads: "Dinner with music in the Renaissance Garden and Palace on the Grand Canal, Palazzo Bernardo Nani, hosted by Contessa Elisabetta Lucheschi."

After all, it is not every day that one dines with a contessa.

This thought is very much on the mind of an American in Venice -- we shall call her Signora S. -- as she hurries to catch the private motor launch that will take her to the Hotel Cipriani. It is at the "Cip," as the hotel is called by the cognoscenti (and by Signora S. since hearing an Armani-clad man on the plane praise the "Cip") that she is to meet Robert Wilk, an American who lives in Venice and often organizes such dinners and events for small groups. He has given Signora S. instructions to catch the launch at the edge of Piazza San Marco. "If it's not there, just dial the phone and ask the hotel to send it for you."

Frankly, she could not imagine it: The "Cip" sending its private motor launch to pick up Signora S.! Even now, as she lifts the receiver at the private pier and hears a voice on the other end say, "Pronto" -- which she knows from studying her "Harrap's Italian Vocabulary, 6000 Words and Phrases in 65 Subject Areas" means "Hello" -- the whole scenario seems unreal. Haltingly, she asks that a launch be sent for her.

Without missing a beat the answer comes back, in English: "We provide to send it right away, Signora."

Within minutes, the elegant little wooden launch arrives, and the skipper of the vessel helps the Signora on-board. Leaping from dock to boat, Signora S. makes a mental note: Must never wear stiletto heels again in Venice unless, of course, one is having dinner with a contessa.

Smooth ride

Within minutes the beautiful gardens and pool of the Hotel Cipriani rise, like a mirage, from the shimmering waters of the lagoon. After thanking il capitano for the extremely kind and most wonderfully pleasant ride -- everyone is so gracious in Venice that it has inspired Signora S. to new heights of verbal ingratiation -- she walks through a winding path of flowers and enters the lobby.

Inside she spots Robert, a tall, graceful man who bears a striking resemblance to Peter O'Toole. After greeting Signora S. with a quick kiss on each cheek, Robert introduces her to the other guests. He then leads the assemblage onto another private launch. Soon they are in the fabled Grand Canal -- the great S-shaped body of water that divides Venice in half -- headed for dinner at the 15th-century Palazzo Bernardo Nani.

Signora S. loves the idea of living in a house with a name. She once gave serious thought to naming her home in Baltimore; something along the lines of Residenzia Favorita. It had seemed a bit pretentious at the time, but perhaps she abandoned the idea too hastily, Signora S. thinks now, as she passes palazzo after palazzo, all named, like children.

But as the launch approaches la contessa's palazzo -- passing first under the Ponte dell' Accademia, one of only three bridges spanning the Grand Canal -- all thoughts of houses and children disappear. Realizing this is a night to be remembered, Signora S. steps fully into the moment.

And what a moment!

It is like a fairy tale remembered from childhood: The waters of the canal alive with ribbons of shimmering light cast by a sun about to set; two uniformed doormen waiting to help the guests disembark at the private landing pier; three troubadours serenading their visitors as they pass through the vaulted entry hall to the lush garden behind the palace -- a Venetian treasure never seen by tourists from the canal.

Waiting in the garden is a tall patrician-looking woman with short white hair that waves back like wings from her Roman face. Dressed in black, a cashmere shawl thrown around her shoulders, she is the picture of simple elegance. "It is just the way I imagined la contessa would look!" Signora S. whispers to Robert.

"She is a contessa," Robert whispers back, "but not our hostess, Contessa Lucheschi. Her name is Tudy Sammartini and she is an expert on Venetian gardens."

A two-contessa evening! It is beyond Signora S.'s wildest dreams. In a celebratory mood, she accepts a glass of champagne served under an arbor covered with wisteria blooms. "The vines are hundreds of years old," Contessa Sammartini says.

The co-author of a book, "Secret Gardens in Venice," the witty contessa who, like Signora S., often ends a thought by adding the words "blah, blah, blah," conducts a tour of the garden. The yellow roses tumbling down a wall, she says, "are mid-19th-century roses." And the palm tree in the center of the walled, 100-foot-long garden is "the tallest palm tree in Venice." She explains that it is Venice's "micro-climate that allows us to have everything -- from palm trees to red maples."

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