It was Napoleon who described St Mark’s Square as “the finest drawing room in Europe”, a typically flamboyant statement. Were he to see it today, I can’t help thinking that Boney might take issue with the backpackers who pile into Venice dropping only detritus from their packed lunches rather than any serious money. Nevertheless, there are a few places around this most famous of Italian piazzas that do their best to maintain the standards that Napoleon presumably had in mind, and my favourite is the jeweller Nardi.
Nardi opened in 1926 and is still in the hands of the eponymous founding family. It is a beautiful shop, in the old-fashioned way. Venetian velvet covers the walls. The vitrines of brooches, necklaces and cuff links have a dignity about them that is enhanced by classical artworks including a canvas by Fontebasso. And as well as being conventionally beautiful, the parquet floor is made using the construction techniques of a yacht deck to cope with the city’s periodic floods.
Nardi is old school and proud of it; it does things the way they’ve been done since the 1920s. Walking into this suite of calm, elegant rooms, it is still possible to catch a whiff of what Venice was like when it was a haunt of the jet set, when the term was still used without irony, and when Nardi was the rendezvous of every glamorous royal and movie star: Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, Spanish monarchs and Lauren Bacall.
However, a special place in this exalted pantheon is reserved for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, legendary lovers… and shoppers. Knowing Taylor’s weakness for exquisite jewellery, Dominick Dunne once took a car from Cortina d’Ampezzo just to buy her a ring of angelskin coral, while Burton purchased a Moretto brooch (which, had the term not been banalised beyond usefulness I’d have prefixed with the adjective “iconic”). These are still made, and a pink sapphire Paola Moretto brooch costs €5,500.
Nardi is a repository of the unexpected. The charming Alberto Nardi, a gemologist, travels to Colombia, Burma and beyond bringing back stones for his artisans, who work in a small workshop behind the square or on the mainland. The stones are then turned into one-off pieces – sometimes traditional, sometimes contemporary – marrying gems with materials such as titanium. I was particularly taken with a bold necklace that mixes links of gold and amber (€8,500).
I once bought some vintage Nardi cuff links at auction and on a recent visit to Venice was keen to see what was in stock. The Venetian theme is strong, with carnival mask links set with a variety of stones (from €3,000). Having looked in the window, I asked if there were more, whereupon a tray was brought out from under the counter with an array of fastenings, including some very bold abstract links of yellow gold, set with a large lump of turquoise. They had plainly remained unsold since the 1970s – but Nardi finally got rid of them that afternoon. I honestly don’t know how Richard Burton missed them, but I’m glad he did.