28 April, 2020
Once upon another time
“I feel as if I were inside an enchanted castle. The walls, the spaces, the echoes, the lights, it’s all incredible.” Salvatore told his sister Virginia, describing life at the San Pietro as they drove the 2 kilometers from her house in Positano. Since its opening eight years ago, he had been managing the administrative side of things. Now that her sons, Carlo and Vito, were in school, Carlino invited Virginia to come and give her a brother a hand working at the hotel. It was an offer she eagerly accepted and the kind of job she was good at. Before marrying, Virginia had worked at the Miramare, the first hotel in Positano, and she knew the hospitality business as well as anyone in their hotelier family.
Pulling into the parking lot at the top of the promontory, they found Carlino packing suitcases into his car. Now that his niece was here to help run things, he had decided to finally take the vacation he had been planning to the Loire Valley.
“Wait uncle, you’re leaving without telling me what I have to do.” Virginia said.
“Just go inside and see what needs doing.” Was his relaxed response.
Carlino was the dreamer, half-artist, half-genius, who envisioned the impossible and refused to accept anything less than the purest realisation of his fantasies. Salvatore and Virginia could handle the practicalities, because, as they often heard him say, “Practical things aren’t beautiful as well.” Carlo Cinque spoke the language of artists, a language without grammar; a mixture of silence, glances, sensuality, fragility and narcissism. He could have worked in the world of show business, if not for that merciless, unavoidable dedication to beauty. But as it turned out, the world of show business came to him.
The smart set had discovered Positano and with it, Il San Pietro. As film stars and directors flocked to the picturesque coastal town, Carlino was waiting, ready to welcome them to his house. For that is what the San Pietro was: an exceptional house that had turned out even more astonishing than his vivid boyhood imagination had dreamed; an enchanted castle that he filled with flowers, antique furniture, works of art and exotic animals.
Yes, once upon a time at the San Pietro there were penguins (Carlino found a way to attach a kind of leash that allowed them to swim in the sea and catch fish), foxes, toucans, a myna bird, a magpie, parrots, a hawk and an even more extensive dog family of a St. Bernard, two Jack Russells, a German Shepherd, two Newfoundlands and multiple Boxers. In the fifty years since its opening, the San Pietro has never been without a resident boxer. Alec, a striped boxer, was Carlino’s favourite; one could rarely be seen without the other close by. The day Carlino decided to adopt a pair of lion cubs, Virginia finally drew the line. “They’re not like penguins, uncle. They grow huge and become ferocious.’ In the end, she managed to convince him and he gave up the idea.
Guests enjoyed the multiethnic bedlam, with inhabitants from the North Pole, Africa and Asia spread out through the gardens. This particular eccentricity of Carlino’s was not without reason. He loved animals almost as much as he loved human company. Orphaned at the age of eight, he enjoyed the warmth of a family around him, and he returned that warmth and kindness to all, be they human or animal. For him, the hotel staff was part of the family, his guests were sacred, and many were friends; a mentality that Virginia, Carlo and Vito, still carry today.
A night concierge recalls stumbling upon the Italian director of the popular Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone, crouched in front of the myna bird’s cage trying to talk to it. “What’s its name?” Leone asked him.
“Federico. Federico. Federico.” The director called, hoping the bird’s name held the key to friendship. But the myna, unused to his sleep being disrupted at such a late hour, snapped back in perfect Neapolitan dialect, “Don’t be a pain in the ass.”
Leone stood stunned for the briefest moment, then his face lit up with utter delight. “I’ve got to find a way of signing you on.” He told the bird.
And why not? Many of Positano’s population had been signed on by the film industry to join the illustrious cast of Leoni al Sole, a film by Vittorio Caprioli that hit the big screens and launched the rural fishing village into international fame. Positano became increasingly known amongst the jet set as the destination for connoisseurs of beauty. And nowhere symbolised this beauty more fully than Il San Pietro. Throughout the Seventies, half of the hotel’s rooms were booked with actors and artists. It was a place where they could immerse themselves in The San Pietro life, meet old friends and make new ones, or use it like a desert island to escape from their fellow creatures and decompress.
If the hotel’s grand piano could talk, the stories it would tell of the hands who played it and the voices who accompanied its music, be it Quincy Jones, Leonard Bernstein, Armando Trovajoli, Nino Rota, Barbara Streisand, Tina Turner, Lou Reed or Renzo Arbore who was inspired by the caged bird in the grand hall to compose E’ Scappato il Pappagallo (The parrot has escaped).
If the walls of the grand rooms could talk, there would be enough material for a bestseller. But as with every family, the San Pietro holds its secrets close.
During the tourist season, Salvatore did not get much sleep and that was not entirely down to the long working hours. Like Carlino, he never wanted to wear a wedding band. Both men were married to the hotel, in love with the life that gives so much and yet asks for so much in return. They were handsome men, larger-than-life, cheerful, generous, fun-loving but quick to moments of silence, and most importantly, uncatchable. They embodied that old-world charm so attractive to the fairer sex and it was common to see them in the company of bunches of women. Virginia often teased Carlino about the number of ex-girlfriends turning up to his parties, all knowing about the others. These parties were legendary, made more so by the legends who attended them, amongst whom, his closest friend, Franco Zeffirelli, was most often seen. The two men’s friendship had come about quite naturally. The Florentine director had fallen in love with Positano and bought a nearby villa on the coast. A festive socialite and an aesthete, Zeffirelli found Carlo Cinque’s “house” on the promontory the perfect place to pass the time, where reality felt like a dream. Or a movie.
One memorable day the concierge received a call from Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s motion-picture alter ego. He was shooting a film on the Amalfi Coast and requested a room at the San Pietro. Unfortunately, the concierge apologized, the hotel was completely booked. Overhearing the phone conversation, Carlino grabbed the receiver.
“Don’t worry, Maestro.” He told Mastroianni in his typically self-assured, melodious voice, “We’ll be waiting for you. When do you think you’ll be arriving?”
“I still have to finish up today’s filming, plus the time it will take to reach the hotel from Amalfi.”
Carlino hung up with the look in his eyes of someone who is watching a film yet to be directed. Picking up the phone again, he called marble cutters, painters, plumbers, electricians and builders. The dream master would perform his magic and conjure a room where there had been none. His team of technicians descended on the ample terrace he picked out, adjacent to some rooms. A giant slab of marble was attached to a wooden frame rather than the wall in order to run the piping and electrical wires behind it. A large ceramic salad bowl with a hole drilled in its centre was transformed into the bathroom sink. The terrace pergola disappeared under a swath of fabrics found in storage. And since the terrace had few walls, he welded several large windows together to create a room with a 180 degree view. When it was finished, the room looked as though it had always been there with the rest.
The space was still being furnished when Mastroianni pulled into the San Pietro parking with Catherine Deneuve and their daughter Chiara who was just a few weeks old. Staking his reputation on his skill as an entertainer, Carlino whisked the lovers away on a tour that smacked of the Fellinesque in his portrayal of the San Pietro as dream-like and primordial in its nature, with surprises around every corner. A couple of hours and many drinks later, the actors crossed the threshold of the new room, never knowing that they were stepping onto a set staged solely for them, that would be dismantled once they left it. They stayed for three months. In honour of its famous guest, the room, rebuilt properly afterwards, was named 8 ½ after the Fellini film starring Mastroianni--a name which it has kept till today.
Many celebrities passed through the hotel, many returned and became regulars, embedding themselves into its history and legacy, as the San Pietro continued writing its own rules and inventing its own categories of time and space in the Neapolitan manner, in the Cinque manner. In short, a place where guests feel at home away from home.
A dilated space for dilated time.
It is hard to describe the feeling, the presence of harmony, entering and wandering in that space and time. The aroma of warm breakfast cakes and pastries freshly baked at 4:00 am, the perfume of the lemon trees as you work out on a platform overlooking the sea, the menu at the beach restaurant that takes your taste buds back in time to rediscover intense flavours lost to mass marketing, the pleasure of withdrawing from the world on your personal terrace immersed in nature. There is nothing ostentatious or snobbish in the personalized luxury offered. The San Pietro, as quoted by the New York Times in 1982, is a sort of “place for the soul”. From 1970 to today, thousands of guests have visited Il San Pietro, but for those who keep returning it is a sentimental place, where they leave a little piece of their heart to come back to year after year.