Venice has never had a big population — today only 60,000 people live there — but it has always been staggering in its riches and keen to display them. For lovers of design and style there is no more satisfying place to visit, or to buy a home confident in the knowledge that you will have a lifetime of pleasure and discovery.
Curious and keen for hobbies and interests, more home buyers are leaving the coast for cities of interest. And for lovers of textiles and craftsmanship, Venice, often called La Serenissima, will not disappoint.
Craft has long been used as evidence of wealth and power in religious, royal and military circles. The weavers' art defined entire eras. Velvet made the fortunes of bankers and merchant states. For centuries, cities such as Lucca, Florence, and the maritime republics of Genoa and Venice dominated world textile markets with their velvet, influencing the prices of raw materials, commercial treaties, fashion, technology and new discoveries.
In grand tradition
Silk weaving was well-established around the Mediterranean by the beginning of the 15th century, and figured silks, often silk velvet and silver-gilt, became the must-have choice of Italians, whose skilled workers produced stately floral designs and patterns that were exported across Europe.
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Fortunes made from this fabric built Venice. Silk is a story told through Venetian chapels and chattels. Their drawing room furniture, their carpets and curtains, their bedchambers and chairs all draped in luxurious, intricately patterned, jewel-coloured cut velvet. Craftsmen and architects devoted their lives to the embellishment of grand Gothic, Byzantine and baroque buildings, with carved doors, crafted furniture, gilded panels, twirled, scrolled and painted ceilings. Visiting today, your neck aches staring up at luminous pastels of winged angels and chubby cherubs telling tales of classical tragedy and triumph. Never an opportunity is lost to trompe l'oeil a door or gild a throne, to fill a richly carved alcove with berry-bright Murano glass blown into fruit bowls, perfume bottles, vases and glasses.
Chandeliers drenched in gold and hung with a million crystals are the lighting of choice for every interior, even the smallest anteroom. How could you not learn about proportion, steal ideas and capture style? On any scale there is a lesson to be learned.
Shimmering Donnafugata faber, Vello d'Oro and Candalu' fabrics (left) and sumptous Gritti fabric (right), both from the Rubelli 2014 collection
Gold, silver and jewel hues
The Rubelli family — parents, brothers, sisters and aunts — are among the oldest and most respected silk merchants in Venice. They welcome visitors by appointment to view their magnificent archive of more than 5,000 textile records in pattern books going back to the 15th century. Among the oldest of documents housed there are fragments of silk velvets with a raised pattern and richly glacéed in gold.
For five generations this family has designed, spun, dyed and woven fabric from their own mills. Enviably, they work from a stunning Venetian head office, Palazzo Corner Spinelli, a little gem of a Renaissance house built in 1490 that was the home of a silk merchant. The fresh and exciting collections they produce here sell worldwide.
Inspired by their past, passionate about preserving these antique heirloom textiles, their industrial craft survives in an easy alliance of ancient and modern. No one makes a more infectious ambassador for the brand than Nicolo Rubelli, 49, the warm and friendly chief executive and sales director. He lives a short walk from the palazzo, in a house with an impressive collection of antique maps and is as happy salvaging old looms as he is building new ones.
Candalu', Carlo, Bloody Mary and Donnafugata fabrics from the 2014 Rubelli collection (left); Rubelli textiles have always "dressed" The Gritti Palace (right). Call +39 041 794611
Outstanding in the Rubelli collection are its gilt and silver textiles. In the same way iridescent taffetas and lustrous velvets worked to light up dark interiors of Venice past, they work today in our international cities where tall buildings steal our sunshine. Their metallic double weave reflecting the light, these fabrics are loved by Londoners. Glinting gold, with brush sweeps of silver and the highlights of tonal colour, this is not fabric as a background but as a centrepiece. It creates atmosphere and makes a statement. So much more space-efficient than adding a large piece of furniture.
The Rubelli family are generous as restorers in their home town. Their team is involved as suppliers and sponsors in the analysis and restoration of complex soft furnishings, matching the colours of original drapes with highly elaborate and elegant shading and tonal effects in landmark buildings across the city. Walk through the Palazzo Reale, the flamboyant 16th century Palazzo Papadopoli, now a magnificent Aman hotel (stop for a cocktail maybe), visit Palazzo Mocenigo, the Venetian textile and costume museum reopened in November.
Rubelli supplied all the fabrics for the rooms: from light blues to Pompeian red. Drink cappuccino in Italy's oldest Caffè Florian, and enjoy Rubelli's flame red — and flame-retardant — velvet there in the Room of the Illustrious Men. And book your visit to the Gran Teatro La Fenice, one of the most famous opera houses in Europe, where Rubelli silk damasks decorate the magnificent Sale Apollinee, and its velvets upholster the auditorium.
It is a charming silk route with the Rubelli family, whose history is part of the warp and weft of Venice.
Fact file and contacts
- The 2014 Rubelli collection, A Stiller Life, launches in London today. View and order it at the family's showroom in Chelsea Harbour, run by Vivienne Griffin. Fabrics start at £90 per metre.
- In Venice, view the collection by prior appointment at Palazzo Corner Spinelli, San Marco: rubelli.com (+39 041 241 7329)
- Palazzo Mocenigo, Santa Croce: +39 041 721798
- Palazzo Reale, Piazza San Marco: +39 041 271 0138
- Caffè Florian, San Marco: +39 041 520 5641
- Gran Teatro La Fenice, Campo San Fantin: +39 041 786511
- The Gritti Palace hotel: +39 041 794611
£3,735,000: a four-bedroom penthouse in a prime area of the city with three terraces and fabulous views. Call 020 7629 8171
Buying in Venice
Huge demand from tourists coupled with a shortage of high-quality flats to let mean the right property can easily bag 30 weeks' rental a year with possible yields of five or six per cent.
Prices peak along the Grand Canal and around Le Zitelle. Knight Frank has a one-bedroom 620sq ft flat on Giudecca for £290,000 and a twobedroom restored flat nearby at £563,000. Sotheby's has canal-front flats in restored 15th-century Palazzo Molin del Cuoridoro near Piazza San Marco from £492,800 to £4 million.
- Sotheby's: venicesothebysrealty.com; (39) 041 522 0093
- Knight Frank: knightfrank.com; 020 7629 8171