Let’s be honest, at some stage we’ve all day dreamed (even for a moment) of becoming a princess, right?
When the opportunity came up to meet two Italian princesses, I could hardly say no – let’s face it, this is probably the closest insight to royalty I’ll ever have.
Princess Giulia Panichi Pignatelli, and her daughter Princess Stefania, are descendants of the Royal House of Aragon. They are able to list a fascinating line up of characters in their family tree, not to mention two popes and a saint! After her mother passed away about twenty years ago, Princess Giulia, a fashion designer, was left with the daunting prospect of becoming care-taker of her family’s home in the southern hills of the Marche region of Italy, about 180 kilometres, north-east of Rome. Her family has lived in the country home since 1750, and whilst the property was extremely comfortable, like all old buildings, it needed extensive restoration and on-going conservation. In Italy, it is virtually impossible to receive government grants for the restoration of private buildings, so the Princess needed to find a solution to save her property.
PRINCESS GIULIA: After my parents died, I spent one or two years asking myself, “Giulia, what are you doing with this huge house?” The expenses were beginning to be really enormous. Finally I decided to open the house to the public and began with two rooms, then four rooms, and slowly we developed the palazzo into what it is today.
The historic residence is now a luxury boutique hotel and restaurant, set in magnificent gardens designed by the famous German botanist and landscape architect, Ludwig Winter in the 1870s. Guests can stay in stunningly decorated suites in the main house, or charming apartments in another building within the grounds of the property. Princess Giulia’s previous career in fashion, and knowledge of fabrics and colour, is hugely evident in how she has decorated the interiors.
Princess Giulia: I was one of the first designers in Rome going to New Delhi and Jaipur to source fabrics and embroidery. I was designing gowns that were inspired by some of the looks from the 1930s with beautiful beading, etc. My experiences in India gave me inspiration on how to decorate the rooms here at the palazzo; I have used a lot of silks, beautiful silks, particularly in our Oriental Suite.
As I wander though the palazzo, there is no doubt that there is a designer’s eye behind the look and feel of this place. Every room, every object delicately placed, looks like pages from Vogue. Sitting on one of the over-sized sofas in the Princess’ main salon, I reflect on some of the other interviews that I have conducted with creative people. Like Princess Giulia, they are very imaginative and inventive, but on further consideration I realise so many of them are extremely entrepreneurial, and are prepared to take certain risks. Is creativity a prerequisite for entrepreneurism? I put this theory to the Princess.
Princess Giulia: In the year 2000, when I first opened the palazzo to guests, I also helped establish a cultural association with owners of historical houses and cantinas in this region. The aim was to support and learn from each other. I called the fifty-four owners to a meeting here and told them, “Look, it will be impossible in the future to maintain these properties, if we don’t open to the public”. But do you think many of them have done what I told them? No. They were very doubtful, very uncertain, and would say to me: “Giulia what are you doing hosting people you don’t know, they will take things from the house”. But can I be honest with you? We had burglars before we opened to the public, but since then, everything has remained in its place!
Princess Giulia and I enjoy a moment of laughter together, and my faith in humanity is restored a little more. As the Princess explains to me, if she were to try to restore the palazzo today, in one hit, it would cost 10-20 million euro, and in fact be impossible for her.
After a guided tour by the Princess through the gardens, we pause at the family’s tiny, fresco adorned chapel, where her mother was laid to rest. I ask Princess Giulia about the future of the property and the passing of responsibility onto her daughter, Princess Stefania.
Princess Giulia: Stefania is very keen, in a modern way of furthering the evolution of this property. So I see the future as very solid; there is a strong foundation and she is the right beneficiary of this ancient family history.
As I start to say thank you and goodbye, Princess Giulia opens her arms to me and I lean in for a big, warm hug. Somehow I don’t think this princess is too concerned with protocol, she is a forward-thinking princess for the 21st Century.
More information on Borgo Storico Seghetti Panichi