featured in the gorgeous, exceptional, visually sumptuous film I Am Love, Milan’s Villa Necchi is open to the public. here’s a shot of the grounds, the beautiful pool where (spoiler alert) Edo dies.
The bell at her door rang shrilly; though she was expecting him Francesca was startled, and she dropped the lipstick she was applying. Paolo rang the bell again.
“I’m coming!” she called out.
She opened the door.
“Come on!” he said, grabbing her shoulders to kiss her. “I don’t want to be late.”
“Just a minute,” she said, turning back into the apartment. She took her small satin Bottega Veneta minaudiere and a champagne-colored mink stole that had been her grandmother’s. He closed the door behind her.
“You look incredible,” he said as they waited for the elevator. “Is there a technical term for what you’re wearing?”
“It’s a jumpsuit,” she said, laughing.
“Ah, a jumpsuit,” he replied. “It looks like it’s complicated to get into and out of.”
“Not horribly complicated,” Francesca said.
“Hopefully not too complicated for me to figure out,” he grinned.
“You do know we’re going to the opera,” she said as she climbed into the passenger seat of his Maserati.
He reached over the gearshift to stroke her leg. “The opera doesn’t last all night.” He turned the key in the ignition and they roared out of her drive.
[after this: trying to drive.]
When she got back to her flat she collapsed on the sofa and returned Paolo’s calls.
“What happened to you?” he asked when he answered his phone.
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. It’s this thing with my brother, and his bank. Something happened last night–I’m not entirely sure what it is, but it’s bad, and Ricci’s involved–and I felt like I had to come home to see him.”
“You didn’t even wake me up,” Paolo said finally.
“I know. I didn’t know what to do. I just felt like I had to come back to Milano. If I had gotten you up, maybe I would have changed my mind. But I think I did the right thing. I got to spend some time with Leo, I took him to the aquarium–Giulietta just seemed a little bit off, I mean, obviously, but still, when I got there it was like she was on something. So I took him out, and we had fun–he’s such a funny little kid. Sometimes I think he’s like Ricci and sometimes he reminds me of myself.” She paused.
Paolo waited to speak. “I would have come with you.”
“What?” She was surprised. “No, you wouldn’t have. It would have been too weird.”
“I would have. I wish you had gotten me up before you left.” He sounded hurt.
She sighed. “Really. You would have driven two hours with me, gone to my brother’s house, tried to have a conversation with my crazy sister-in-law, who probably would have asked you all sorts of ridiculous and strange questions because she’s like that anyway plus she’s on some sort of sedatives, then you would have taken my three-year-old nephew to the aquarium and had inane conversations about whether fish sleep or not, and then, to top it all off, go out for lunch at a Chinese restaurant with my brother who just lost a ton of money that wasn’t his to begin with and really seems to be at the absolute end of his rope. You would have done that. I don’t think so.”
“You didn’t even give me the chance.” He was hurt, undoubtedly. She couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t like she had left him to go to Paris and party with Kanye West.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I really wasn’t thinking about anything other than getting home.”
“It’s ok, I know.”
“I had a conversation with a stuffed animal sea lion.”
“A sea lion,” she said. “It’s a marine mammal. Looks like a seal, but with whiskers. Like a walrus, but no tusks.”
“How exactly did this happen?”
“I bought it for Leo at the gift shop. And then one thing led to another, and there was a point when I asked the sea lion what his favorite Chinese food was.”
Paolo laughed, and for a moment, Francesca was relieved.
image via The Sartorialist
Marco turned his wrist to look at his gold Patek Philippe watch. “It’s past my bedtime,” he said. “You two feel free to stay as long as you’d like, but I’m afraid I’ve got to be heading home.” He gestured to the waiter.
“We’ve got to go, too,” Francesca said, looking at Paolo. “Will you drop us at La Scala so we can pick up the car?”
“Of course,” her uncle replied. “I’ll drop you home if you’d like,” he offered. They stood and began walking towards the door.
“I’d better get the car,” Paolo said. “Thank you, though. And thank you for a wonderful evening.” Francesca smiled at Paolo’s manners.
“My pleasure, young man. My sons are going to be quite impressed that I spent so much time with a professional footballer, even if you do play for the wrong team. You’re a fine young man. Keep up the good work.” He turned to Francesca. “And you, my darling. Don’t worry about your brother–I’ll speak with him and do what I can.” He kissed her forehead. The driver and the Bentley were waiting for them outside the door. They drove the few minutes to La Scala and pulled up in front of the valet.
The driver opened Paolo’s door and he got out to retrieve his car. “Stay here,” Marco told Francesca. “You shouldn’t have to wait in the cold. And I want a word with you.” She scooted to the middle of the backseat so her uncle could see her face.
“Yes?” she asked.
“I meant what I said to Romaldo; I do think he’s a fine young man. He’s talented, he’s loyal, and he’s obviously in love with you. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he sincerely loves the opera. But be careful, my dear. You’re more than he is.”
“I don’t think–”
“You know you are. You’re going to break him. Be careful.” Francesca saw the bright lights of Paolo’s Maserati in the Bentley’s rear view mirror and heard the car’s low growl behind them. The driver opened her door and Marco’s. “Buona notte, my darling,” her uncle said, kissing her cheeks. “Give my regards to your mother,” he added, as an afterthought.
“‘Notte, zio,” she said. “Thank you.” She trotted to Paolo’s car, where he had propped open the passenger door for her.
She went to dinner with her brother and his tiresome wife anyway. It wasn’t that she disliked her sister-in-law, Giulietta, she just preferred not to listen to her talk. And she had been close to Ricci, as a child, especially after her father died. Ricci had stepped in and taken care of her, more like a father figure than a brother. She was closer in temperament to her brother Michele; closer in age, too, but Ricci had always been protective and kind, if not entirely understanding.
They had planned to meet at a Japanese restaurant near her, in Brera. Giulietta was notoriously late so Francesca gave Ricci’s name to the maitre-d and expected to have to wait with drink at the bar.
“It should be three, under Ricardo Ghiberti,” she said to the host.
“Four,” the host answered, “and one guest has already arrived. Would you like to be seated with him?”
Francesca scanned the dining room, confused. Michele was out of town, and didn’t get along with Giulietta anyway. They only all had dinner together once a year, at Christmas. She nodded, and the maitre-d led her to a table in a far corner.
Fully engrossed in his blackberry, Bruno sat facing out to the dining room. Francesca saw him and froze for a moment. Damn Ricci and damn Bruno. As if this dinner wasn’t going to be awkward enough. By that point, Bruno had seen her walking with the host and was smiling; he was standing up from his chair to allow her to be seated. Francesca did have that to recommend him: his manners were impeccable.
“Ciao, Francesca,” Bruno said, embracing her familiarly.
“Ciao, Bruno. What a surprise,” Francesca replied.
“I was surprised myself,” he said. “I had just mentioned to your brother that I’d seen you last week, and he told me you had plans for dinner and invited me along.” He paused. “You did say that we could have dinner sometime.”
Francesca nodded. Bruno looked good–no longer a businessman on holiday, he wore a finely-tailored suit and tortoiseshell reading glasses. He looked like he belonged. “I received your flowers,” she said. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.”
“It’s nothing,” Bruno said. “I feel so badly. How much longer do you have to wear that?” he asked, gesturing to her air-cast.
“The doctor says four more weeks,” she answered. “I’m getting used to it.” She looked around for her brother and his wife. “Have you heard from Ricci?” she asked Bruno.
He pulled out his blackberry. “He told me he was running late,” he said, scrolling through his messages. “That was about twenty minutes ago.”
“He’s always late,” Francesca grumbled. Bruno ordered a bottle of wine and they were well into their first glass when Ricci and Giulietta finally arrived. Her sister-in-law was wearing thigh-high Jimmy Choo stiletto boots and trailing Tom Ford’s Neroli Portofino scent. Her brother seemed more distracted than usual, and Francesca felt like it almost wasn’t fair to ask him why he thought it was a good idea to invite Bruno to dinner.
“So after fifteen years,” Bruno began, “suddenly Francesca and I have seen each other twice in a week.”
“Oh, yes,” Francesca answered unconvincingly. “I’m sure you heard about our accident in Capri.” A pained look crossed Bruno’s face and immediately she felt horrible for having mentioned it like that. “I hope you enjoyed the rest of your vacation,” she added quickly, trying to ameliorate her temper.
“It was fine,” Bruno said. Ricci and Giulietta said nothing and kept looking back and forth from Bruno to Francesca, like they were watching a tennis match. “We had lovely weather,” he added.
Francesca drank the remaining wine in her glass and Bruno signalled for the waiter to refill it. Ricci told the waiter they’d do the omakase then began talking with Bruno about some sort of derivatives; Giulietta asked her opinion on whether bell-bottom jeans would actually be making a comeback in the spring like all the magazines said they would. Francesca took another long swig from her glass of wine.
She should have stayed home. She should have just stayed home and watched MTV. But when Bruno and Ricci started talking about football, her ears perked up. Bruno was a Lazio fan and Ricci’s team was Inter, both strong this year but neither as strong as Juventus. Bruno said his bank had box seats for Lazio and Ricci should come for a game some time when he was in Rome. Giulietta saw she had lost Francesca’s attention and tuned into the men’s conversation to see what she had been missing.
“Don’t tell me you follow football,” she pressed Francesca.
“I don’t, really,” Francesca said, shaking her head. “I shot a spread at a stadium last month.” That was safe–it was going to be obvious when the magazine came out.
“I don’t know a thing about the game,” Giulietta continued, “but I could watch those players all day long.”
Francesca laughed, almost so loudly that she worried she’d give herself away. “I’ll have to take a good look,” she replied.
“They’re all over the magazines,” her sister-in-law said, “with their girlfriends in Ibiza or Mykonos or Miami.”
“I’ll keep an eye out,” Francesca smiled.
“Francesca hangs out with models all the time,” Bruno joked. “Footballers’ girlfriends won’t impress her.”
Giulietta looked puzzled. Ricci just looked tired.
“We went to a party the magazine threw in Capri,” Francesca explained. “Bruno got to meet some of the models.”
“You never take me to parties with models,” Giulietta pouted.
“I think she felt sorry for me,” Bruno quipped. “I made it sound like I never had any fun.”
“I suppose global economic collapse just isn’t what it used to be.” Ricci hadn’t spoken much all evening and when he did, it was like a tray of dishes dropping in the distance: they all stopped and stared at him. Of course that’s why he had been so distant and distracted.
“He didn’t mean it like that,” Francesca said quietly, cutting the silence.
“I’m sure it’s easy for you to say, with your Prada this and Gucci that, all anorexic smiling girls and photos of shoes on yachts in Capri–”
“What I do promotes the Italian economy,” Francesca said, keeping her voice calm and measured. She had never seen her brother so upset. “You know that. These brands are made in Italy. It is an actual industry.”
“What are you going to do when your precious brands can’t get anyone to secure their loans? When lenders call in their revolving lines of credit?”
“Ricci, relax,” Bruno said cautiously. “I’m taking it as seriously as you are. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“What I don’t know is what’s going to happen when this–” Ricci gestured around them at the restaurant, its chic patrons, its dark teak and sushi chefs, “–all this, is gone.”
Giulietta began sniffling and crying quietly.
“Oh, shut up,” Ricci said to her.
I’m working on an opera scene (Paolo likes opera, remember?). The first opera I ever saw, and my favorite to this day, is Verdi’s Rigoletto. Like any self-respecting Italian opera, it has a healthy dose of scandal, womanizing, family drama, date rape, and royalty. I was fortunate to see this opera at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, probably the world’s second most famous opera house, and second only to La Scala in Milan, where (if I can finish this chapter) Paolo and Francesca go to see Rigoletto on opening night. I guess I’m just sentimental like that.
She scheduled lunch with her best friend for Friday afternoon. Cristina was customarily late, so Francesca sat alone at a small table at Pane e Acqua, drinking sparkling water and wishing she had a glass of wine. It would make the conversation easier, she thought. Then again, it was barely noon, and Cristina was already going to be inclined to look at her judgmentally. Better not to start drinking before her friend arrived.
Cristina burst into the restaurant and waved excitedly at Francesca, bustling over to their little table and nearly upsetting two vases and a bottle of wine on her way. She wore a quilted Burberry jacket and carried a giant nylon Prada tote, which Francesca had once joked resembled a baby bag, a comment she had to retract when she learned Cristina and Giovanni had unsuccessfully been trying to get pregnant for months. Francesca smiled and waved back at her friend, standing as she approached the table to hug and kiss her.
“Ciao Cristina! You look great,” Francesca said.
“Shut up,” Cristina answered. “You’re ridiculous, I look like a mess and I know you hate this jacket. But it’s cold out and I can’t find anything in my closet.”
“You know I don’t think that. It just reminds me of the countryside.”
“False. Stop now before you say something else asinine.”
Francesca sighed. “That’s not going to happen. I have a story for you.”
“Hah! I knew it! I knew something was up when you called to have lunch after not doing anything for months. What happened with Bruno?” Cristina had a preternatural ability to remember names and other details of Francesca’s personal life.
“Let’s order first. It’s not Bruno. And I’m starving.”
After they placed their orders (Cristina for a salad, dressing on the side, Francesca for pasta), Francesca launched into the full narrative of Paolo Romaldo, beginning with the afternoon at Stadio dell’Alpi and ending with “I’m dating a beautiful woman named Francesca”. Cristina ate while Francesca spoke, first her entire salad, then, as Francesca kept talking, her untouched linguine, reaching across the table to twirl the pasta on her fork.
Cristina paused for a moment to swipe her iphone.
“This man? This is the man you’re dating?” Cristina had pulled up a photo of Paolo Romaldo from the game earlier that week. He was sweaty in his uniform, captured mid-run, the ball at his feet.
“That’s the one,” Francesca replied.
“You have got to be shitting me. Do you know what a big deal this is? You go from having all those boring boyfriends and non-boyfriends and now, all of a sudden, you get the most perfect man in the world? No way. No fucking way.”
Francesca laughed. “He’s hardly the most perfect man in the world,” she began.
“You’re just saying that. Give me an example of how he’s not perfect. He doesn’t have a job? Nope, that’s not it. He’s ugly? Uh, right. He can’t keep an erection? Highly doubtful, I’ve seen those photos on the blogs.”
“What photos on the blogs?”
“The ones of him popping a boner on the beach. Please.”
“Oh my God, Cristina. I can’t believe you.” Francesca was shaking with laughter.
“I’m telling you, I’ve seen it. It’s impressive. And it sounds like you’re pretty satisfied…” She waved at the waiter to come over. “We’d like some espresso, please, and a couple of those chocolate biscotti.”
“It’s pretty great, yeah,” Francesca answered. “I just wonder how long it can last. I’m always traveling, he’s always traveling, even when we’re not we don’t live in the same place. It’s not really a plan for stability.”
“It’s the best thing in the world,” Cristina said. “Every time you see him it’s exciting. You never have to do his laundry. How is this bad?”
“I suppose,” Francesca conceded.
“Do you like him? I can tell you like him. You’re blushing, now. You like him. Do you love him?”
Francesca paused. “I do like him. I don’t know if I love him. I don’t know how I would know.”
“I think you just decide,” Cristina said, reaching for a biscotti. “As a friend, I’m telling you I think it would be a wise decision.”
“You’re getting ahead of things,” Francesca replied.