Three days of ceremonies, 600 guests, a whole plaza closed to traffic, a table 90 yards long for the buffet, set up in two hours and then taken down, and an aerial TV camera that never lost sight of the bride and groom. Plus music and sets in Palazzo Pitti, where a winged horse was installed, dancing at Teatro la Pergola the next day, then the henna ceremony in Palazzo Corsini, where an enormous elephant was reproduced in papier-mâché. At last, the wedding dinner at Villa Le Corti with fireworks at the end. All this took place in Florence last weekend. The couple, Kevin Sharma of Kuala Lumpur and Aradhana Lohia, daughter of the Indo-Thailandese magnate Aloke Lohia, chose Italy to say "I do". The bride had studied there for a year and was in love with its atmosphere.
Nothing was left to chance by Matteo Corvino, event designer for high-society parties, who lives in Paris and is a trusted collaborator of Francois Pinault. The bride's family already knew him as he had organized a party for the Lohia's thirtieth wedding anniversary a few years ago in Bangkok. That banquet cost something like 12 million euro. Every detail was negotiated by the personal secretary of the founder and CEO of Indorama.
The Lohia family's wedding is only one example of the particular preference many foreigners have for Italy, a sentiment that has not be touched by the crisis. The locations chosen for weddings include Capri, Florence and Rome, but the location most desired by the couples is without question Venice, for the beauty of its natural setting. "Last year that was where I organized the wedding for the daughter of the Indian iron magnate, Pramod Agarwal. The negotiations took six months, almost as long as it took me to organize the wedding, but the results were stunning," says Christina Monitory Mandelli, CEO of the Endogroup, a company specialized in the organization of events and wedding planning. No last minute whims, as you might expect; the requests were very precise and ranged from the choreography to the initials on the cake.
The manager doesn't mention figures but doesn't deny the figure of 20 million euro that some newspapers wrote. "After the Arabs, Russians and Indians, now it is the turn of South American weddings," she goes on. "In mid-May I am organizing a three-day wedding event in Venice. The bride is Mexican and the guests will include many prestigious names," she adds. Here again, quoting figures would be taboo, but one thing is certain: Elton John will perform (the bride is a fan of his). And he won't do it free. In June, the CEO of the Endogroup will be back in Florence for the wedding of an American couple. 400 guests have been invited and the city will be in an uproar again.
There is also the case of couples who, rather than go to a foreign country, prefer to bring Italian style into their own home, and don't care how much it costs. The largest requests come from Armenia, Kazakhstan and Byelorussia. And it costs plenty. For a three-day wedding event with 500 guests, some will go so far as to spend 50 million euro between security services, transportation with private means and whims of the bridal couple. "In the Eastern countries, for example, the idea of buffet service is inconceivable, even for a cocktail before dinner," explains Montori Mandelli. "They are used to being served and we may have to provide a waiter for each guest."
At first there were a few misunderstandings: "One in particular: in the East, they don't serve the different courses in sequence, one after the other, but rather, they expect to see the entire menu on the table at the same time. This requires a tremendous amount of effort on the part of the chef. And then there are the beverages. The Russians want hard liquor right from the beginning, and it has to be the best. A bottle of Dom Perignon reserve for each person and for the toast we're talking about jeroboams (3 liter) and mathusalems (6 liter) bottles: they love the cascade effect in the glasses, which Italian weddings abhor because it's considered in poor taste. Also, they often request a cigar room."
The chef most beloved abroad is Chicco Cerea, of the restaurant Da Vittorio, who doesn't accept more than one foreign engagement a month. "Some couples pick me because they've been to Italy and have tried my cuisine. In addition to my closest collaborators, I always take my headwaiter and his whole team: we seldom use local labor." Despite a 3-star Michelin rating, he has sometimes had to bend to some capricious last minute demands. "Like when a bride insisted on chocolates with the initials in gold. Or hand embroidered napkins, also with the initials in gold. If I'd known about it in advance it would have been better," he adds, seraphically.
Migrating for a few days across the border to organize a wedding brings in double the fee, with board, lodging and transportation all included in the bill, obviously. "But in spite of the income, I prefer to work in Italy," Montori Mandelli specifies. "Though our clients are wealthy, we quite often encounter more difficulties in their countries with the organization of these events."
Figures with six zeroes are not unusual for Guendalina Litta's wedding organization, another name that counts when it comes to exclusive events and fabulous weddings, one of the favorites of Italian aristocracy. But she doesn't volunteer any names: "I've been in this business for thirty years and discretion is important for my clients. These are people who dispose of considerable fortunes, for whom spending 100,000 euro a day is nothing unusual. And their weddings simply reflect their lifestyle, nothing more, nothing less."
Riccardo Cioni, expert in luxury events, agrees: "In some countries the wedding is experienced as the party of a lifetime, in which it is essential to make a display of all the resources one has access to. It is a matter of business and politics, more than the couple getting married. In Italy it is not considered elegant to show off and so it happens that the most aristocratic families choose to keep a low profile. In many foreign countries the opposite is true. And let me add, thank goodness! In some cases, I've even been called back for the second marriage."
Corvino has had some pretty strange experiences with foreigners: "I only work by word of mouth, and I prefer Indian and Arab clients. I'm used to strange things. Once I had to organize a wedding for an Arab princess. Meetings were held at night and I didn't find out who she was until she was certain of picking me. She wanted to build an island a little over a mile square in front of Jeddah and had ordered 250 palm trees from Hawaii. The invitations were transparent blocks with a flamenco dancer inside. Then the wedding was called off because her father died and she is still respecting the year of mourning. I feel like one of those scenographers of big Hollywood movies, I can't impose my taste but have to do my best to execute the orders of the director and the producer," he jokes. "And you know why they appreciate me? I don't like to waste money." A bit of explanation might be called for here since in any case we are talking about millions of euro. «It's the passion of the husbands more than the wives that I often have to say no to. I've found out that they say I have a bad character. It may be true but I am always acting in their interests," he concludes.
Security in high-society weddings is important too. Dario Valli, expert in security for the stars, knows all about that. Recently he spent four years in the United States as a bodyguard for Serena Williams, who had received death threats from a stalker. In Italy he guards the top stars, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Tom Cruise, and even Justin Timberlake, who hired him to handle the security at his wedding in Italy to Jessica Biel a few months ago at Borgo Egnazia, near Fasano (Brindisi). "Most of our requests come for the weddings of Arabs, Lebanese, Indians and Russians," says Valli. "Often the father of the bride requires security personnel. For an average of 400 guests at the ceremony we use about fifty men."
Among the main activities are site inspections, sweeping for microphones and spy cameras and stipulating confidentiality contracts with the local personnel. "Problems arise above all when there are paparazzi in circulation. It's important for us to know in advance about every movement of our client. Usually the more well known a person is, as in the case of foreign politicians, the more a specialized escort is required. This type of bodyguards is unnoticeable, but effective. In other cases, especially for the Russians, the bodyguard is considered a status symbol and they want people that stand out in a crowd. The cost is about 500 euro a day for a bodyguard." There is no shortage of jobs, in other words. "That's right, but I have to tell you that sometimes, right in the middle of a delicate operation, I dream of being poor on a desert island," he smiles.