Matilde Salvo Bocca and brother Bernabò, second-generation co-owners of SINA Fine Italian Hotels, walk through the lobby of The Centurion Palace in Venice, built on ruins dating back to the Roman Emperor, writes Margie Goldsmith. They restored and opened the hotel in October 2009, adding it to the empire began by their father.
Matilde's father, Count Ernesto Bocca, did not expect his daughter to go into the family hotel business. He was a businessman, not a hotelier, and owned the most important tannery factory in Italy which employed 2,000 workers. He loved travelling in luxury and thought it would be exciting to create a hotel and host high-spending travellers.
To realise his dream, he sold the factory, found a partner with hotel experience and began to open hotels in major tourist destinations. The first hotel he purchased was in 1959, the Grand Hotel Villa Medici in Florence. He followed this with the Bernini Bristol in Rome.
Matilde, who speaks four languages, worked in public relations for FIAT. But she decided she wanted to try her hand in the hotel business and her father agreed, despite this being slight unusual. "In Italy, the men normally take over the father's business," Matilde says. "My father expected my younger brother, Bernabò, to take over the helm."
When Count Ernesto Bocca passed away in 1990, Bernabò became CEO and president at SINA and Matilde was vice president. Bernabò deals with financial aspects and Matilde supervises renovations and sales and marketing. Important decisions are jointly made, including which new properties to buy.
"My father had definite views about selecting a hotel," says Matilde. "It couldn't be too large, it had to be in a perfect location and it needed something special, such as tradition or ambiance. Unfortunately my father had already passed away when we discovered and bought the Centurion Palace, which we spent the next three years restoring."
The Centurion Palace has both old and new. The old is evidenced by an ancient Roman coin found during the restoration depicting the head of Antinoo, a friend of Emperor Adriano, and now in a nearby museum. The Bocca siblings have named the hotel's bar and restaurant Antinoo, in his honour and to respect the property's ancient past. But they have also created the "new" by making the interiors completely contemporary.
In the lobby is a large, hand-made crystal chandelier shaped like a gondola, one of the many custom pieces throughout the hotel designed by Florentine, Arch. Guido Ciompi. Matilde, who closely supervised the restoration, says: "The Centurion Palace recalls the idea of the door to the East, with precious fabrics and special colours."
Matilde's choice of furnishing was a financial decision as well. "Imagine trying to locate enough antiques to furnish this hotel and think about how expensive it would be," she says. She was brought up with her close-knit family in an 18th century villa in Turin filled with antiques and, as a result, knew she could never live with reproductions.
The solution was to decorate the Centurion Palace in a contemporary style. Each piece of furniture, wall covering, lamp and chandelier has been designed and created specifically for the Centurion Palace.
"When I saw the original drawings, I never imagined it would be so unique, perfectly combining the typical Venetian façade with the contemporary interiors and special creations like a big frame containing the bar or wooden stencils on orange walls in the suite," says Matilde.
A third generation of Bocca is already working in the hotel – Matilde and Bernabò's niece is already a sales manager in the hospitality organisation with hopes and dreams of her own for the future of the family business.