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The Miracles of Venice

August 16, 1987|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan, of La Jolla, is a nationally known magazine and newspaper writer.

The earth movers had disappeared from the lot next door to my house in California, but then the cement-mixers arrived.

The foreman said he would bring in my trash cans, do anything else reasonable to make up for the noises. The bad news was that he would be around for most of the year, as would his good-natured crews with their whiny, grating machines.

It was time to travel. I needed pampering. So I knew things were looking up from the moment I stepped into the Hotel Cipriani motor launch at St. Mark's Square in Venice.

The craft was teak and mahogany, with gold-velvet cushions and white curtains trimmed with lace. As the captain closed the doors and pulled into the lagoon, even the hum of the vaporettos faded away.

Four minutes later, at the hotel dock on Giudecca island, a basso named Virgilio extended a hand and welcomed me by name.

A private phone between docks means that a guest can call a launch 24 hours a day--it whisks up in minutes. This also helps Virgilio perform that ultimate magic of greeting new guests like old friends and in a voice as resonant as opera.

It had not occurred to me before to stay anywhere but in the heart of Venice, which means within a stone's throw of the pigeons of St. Mark's.

The Cipriani provides a blissful fresh perspective to this elegant medieval city. After a day amid the cries of boatmen and the clatter of international tongues around the Doges Palace, it is soothing to step into a private launch and head across the water to the terra-cotta walls of the Cipriani.

The hotel is a serene enclave of gnarled pines and stately cypress, of hushed corridors in soft pastels, of rooms with silk brocade wall coverings, Fortuny spreads and draperies, which is a fitting touch because the only Fortuny factory in the world is about 500 yards from the hotel.

Among the miracles in space-tight Venice is a turquoise swimming pool 60 feet wide and more than 100 feet long.

They say that its vast size is because Guiseppe Cipriani, who founded Harry's Bar and conceived of the idea of a hotel at the tip of Giudecca, measured the pool in meters--instead of feet. The result is luxurious, its beauty enhanced by flocks of white umbrellas. Larks sing in the trees.

The pervasive peace is no accident, of course. When I met Natale Rusconi, the hotel's courtly managing director, he had just waved farewell to a countess and traded words on the subject of tides with the mayor of Venice.

Now he was quietly deploring cats. Two well-fed felines had been scrapping from a garden wall and some French guests had objected because of the hotel's "no pets" policy that forced them to leave their beloved dogs in Paris. Rusconi was attentive; he has a black schnauzer named Iago at his home on neighboring Zatterre Island.

But Venice is rampant with cats, and Rusconi's career has been crossed by these creatures before. Twenty years ago, just after he was named manager of the Grand Hotel in Rome, a major fashion show was to be staged in the ballroom before an international clientele hungry for news.

As the first models pranced down the runway to the flash of photographers, so did three cats that posed and preened like professionals. The ensuing flurry made front pages around the world.

"The Grand Hotel was built on top of an old Roman bath," Rusconi said. "The gallery system for bringing in water was never closed off. We never had rats, and I did not know we had cats until they used the Roman conduits to reach the ramp and steal the show."

The urbane Rusconi has been known to round up stray cats and deliver them by boat to the Benedictine monastery on the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

"The priest is a good friend," he said with a smile. "But I wonder if sometimes he rows them back?"

Not even this squire of privacy can always manage his neighbors. After a weekend of dreamlike tranquillity the sound of sledge hammers roused me from sleep. Beyond the hedges of my Cipriani garden, a construction crew had arrived to remodel an apartment house.

It felt just like home.

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