Exclusivity Italian Style

Duomo di Milano

Duomo di Milano

So, what comes to your mind when you hear Gucci and Ferragamo? Furla and Armani? Yes, Italian fashion, elegance, exclusivity…and expensive, of course. Well, I wish to share with you a little story about what Italian exclusivity REALLY is. Every word of it is true.

I was in Milano several years ago and happened to mention to the Milanese friends with whom I was staying that I was looking for a particular gift for a friend back in the States. I wanted something elegantly Italian, for the home, perhaps a silver serving platter, or similar. Not to worry, said my Milanese friends, we know exactly where to take you, and we know you will find exactly what you want. We’ll go tomorrow, first thing.

The next day we took a taxi to a certain square and walked to a certain address. We were in an upscale residential area, with no indication whatsoever of any commercial activity within sight. But my friends were sure: unhesitatingly they walked me to the portone of a stately palazzo, and rang the bell for a particular apartment. There was no clue to identify the establishment we were interested in.

A matter-of-fact voice poured out of the citofono, wanting us to identify ourselves and state our business there. My friend spoke, giving his name and adding he was bringing a friend (me!), who wished to see the display. He also apologized for disturbing their tranquility, and expressed a hope that we were not inconveniencing them TOO much, and that we could come back some other time if that was more convenient. At this we heard the click of the portone opening and we went in directly.

The inner courtyard of the palazzo, with a narrow elevator off to one side, was typical of thousands of other residential habitations throughout Italy. I wondered where was the silver I had been promised, I looked for names, directional arrows, advertisements …nothing. At the behest of my friend I got into the elevator, he joined me, and we were laboriously transported several floors up. We exited onto a typical small landing with three doors, all unmarked, and my friend went up to one of them and knocked. The door was promptly open by a young man in coat and tie, who had evidently been expecting us.

I entered the room and was dazzled by the sight that now unfolded before me. I barely greeted our host, I could not wait to see and explore all that was now revealed. Every inch of wall, with the exception of the door openings, was lined from floor to ceiling with dark shelves illuminated by hidden lamps, and on the shelves was an exhibition of silver such as I had never seen before. Rows upon rows of sparkling silver creations, of every size and shape, from utilitarian serving platters and tea-sets to elaborate creations of artistic fantasy to exquisitely designed and crafted jewelry of all kinds. My friend and our host were still exchanging greetings, and I was lost in this world of brilliance and coruscating reflections, of convoluted designs intricately executed, of esoteric and subtle forms perfectly represented in this gleaming, incorruptible medium. This was artistry of the highest caliber, such as Renaissance artists routinely achieved in the Quattrocento and the Cinquecento. And here it was, in an anonymous Milano apartment, hidden away, available only to “friends of friends”, no fanfare, no marketing drumbeat, no sales, no advertisements…in fact, none of the salesmanship in which Gucci and Ferragamo excel.

For, in truth, none of these marvels owed their existence to commercial imperatives, none was produced with an eye to an eventual sale. Their reason for being, and this was sufficient, was their intrinsic beauty. They existed because they were beautiful, period. If someone wanted to buy them to add beauty to their lives that was fine, but it was not NECESSARY. To the young man who was playing host to us the matter was one of complete indifference: we could buy or not; he would in any case play the role of the urbane host, would offer us coffee, would inquire after our comfort during the trip, would tell us about the special alloys and techniques used in the manufacture of the pieces on display, would tell us about the history of his family (in the silver business for three hundred years!), and then, with the utmost delicacy, and only because we asked, he would mention a price. The price was a number, it did not matter, I was a “friend of friends”, I need have no doubt about its correctness. Above all, the decision to buy or not did not in the least hinge on the price, it was exclusively a matter of aesthetic sensibility, a measure of my susceptibility to the beauty I was shown, and a measure of the extent of my wish to possess such beauty.

There’s more to the story, but I have made my point. In this hidden-away Milano showroom runaway artistic expression, wild, free-spirited, clamorous, unashamed, combined with old-fashioned restraint and dignity to recreate a world of subtlety and grace, a world which few of us, unfortunately, get to glimpse any more. I wonder sometimes about the fate of this establishment, whose name I no longer remember. Does it still exist as it was? Has it been swallowed up by a conglomerate? Has it fallen to the blandishments of the internet and direct mail marketing? Is it still necessary to be a “friend of friends” to gain admission to the inner sanctum? Who knows. Perhaps one day I will go back to Milano and look for answers. But not yet, not yet…I have things to post online now.

Leave a Reply