THE princess wears Converse. With skinny jeans. And she doesn't so much as greet you with a regal air as hijack you like a long-lost friend who spirits you up a secret lift to her private penthouse lair.
"This is the way we come up when we don't want to see anybody," she whispers conspiratorially. "You know, if you're in a bad mood and you want to hide, and you don't mind smelling like fish. This is actually the kitchen lift. Ok, here we are." And we step into another world - no, make that a blast to the medieval past as your brain processes the concept of a modern-day Italian family who lives on the top floor of a 16th century castle that hasn't been renovated since 1850.
You don't need to be a snippy Venetian to be envious of Bianca Arrivabene Valenti Gonzago, who lives a modern fairy tale life in this majestic palazzo with a bird's eye view of the Grand Canal. She is a princess by name, if not profession - she is descended from Italian royalty, specifically the Savoia family, who united Italy in 1861. "It gets worse," she deadpans. "My mother is from the French royal family." But it's no big thing, she adds nonchalantly, since neither Italy nor France is a monarchy anymore. There are no royal duties nor stipends, so she works in auction house Christie's, where "my job includes making sure you don't sell your grandmother's precious heirlooms to Sotheby's".
She is a countess by marriage to Giberto Arrivabene - insurance broker-cum-glass artist, but also direct descendant and heir of the wealthy Greek merchants Papadopoli who bought this palazzo in 1850: now also known as the Aman Grand Canal Venice, the first European city property in the luxury Aman Group's stable.
Originally built in 1550, the Papadopoli family - who already owned nearly half of Venice - bought the palazzo in 1864 and became the 19th century equivalent of modern-day nouveau-riche Chinese who move into conservative neighbourhoods and build monstrosities. They hired the hottest architect and interior designer of their day - Girolamo Levi and Michelangelo Guggenheim (no relation to Peggy or the Renaissance artist) who promptly frescoed, stuccoed and chandeliered his way through the premises to make it the grandest house in Venice for the creme de la creme to party and snipe about later. An adjoining building was torn down - almost unheard of in those days and only the very rich could get away with it - and turned into a lush garden, which is now an elegant green lung for guests to enjoy. In the ultimate display of narcissism, the Papadopoli crest was everywhere - from doors to lamps - culminating in the marble busts of family members Angelo and Spirodini on either side of the discreet entrance that faces the canal.
While Giberto Arrivabene lived in the palazzo as a child, he and his family moved to Rome and it was only when he got married to Bianca 25 years ago that the newlyweds decided to set up home on the top floor of the Plaza Papadopoli. Since his inheritance did not include a generations-long warranty against wear-and-tear, maintenance of the six-storey building was a financial strain. Other than the top floor where Bianca and Giberto live and raised their five children, the other floors were mainly rented out to offices or used as event spaces for art exhibitions, luxury brand launches and even as a film location.
Until the day in 2007, when Adrian Zecha walked into their lives.
"Giberto got a call from his friend saying that Adrian Zecha would love to see the house as he was looking to do an Aman," says Bianca. "And Giberto says no, I'm not interested in selling, but then Adrian said he would rent it. But Giberto told him there was another problem - ‘me and my family are not leaving' - and Adrian said, ‘our guests would be happy to meet you'."
"What struck me most was how beautiful and classic the Palazzo was and that it is one of six exceptional buildings in Venice," says Mr Zecha in a separate interview. "And of course its location right on the Grand Canal, near the Rialto Bridge."
The challenge, he adds, "was ensuring the authenticity within the strict restoration guidelines because, as a protected building, it has its share of historical frescoes and other paintings which needed to be skillfully estored".
Indeed, when the Arrivabenes returned from Florence where they stayed during the renovation, "every single piece of stone, wood, fresco, everything - was renovated but yet it looks exactly the same," marvels Bianca, who admits to being "desperate" at the thought of handing over their home to veritable strangers.
The difference now, of course, is that 24 bedrooms have been fitted into the property in Aman's typical understated luxury. Old segues seamlessly into new with soothing white hues showcasing historic details like ceiling frescoes and fireplaces alongside plush beds and colour co-ordinated fruit bowls. In the five signature suites, the Tiepolo Suite stands out for its Oriental sitting room and a ceiling designed by Giovani Battista Tiepolo, said to be the greatest painter of 18th century Europe and whose family owned the palazzo before the Papadopolis.
In the public areas, every turn of the head brings you face to face with opulent grandeur. A giant wrought iron lantern in the reception hall that's a keepsake from a battleship in the war against the Ottoman Empire; leather wall-coverings in the richly-equipped library; elaborate frescoes in the dining room offering depictions of dancing goddesses along with international or Thai cuisine. And if you feel like a drink, you might be able to have it in the company of Bianca or Giberto, who still live on the top floor - the only unrenovated level which gives you an idea of how the palazzo looked before the refurbishment.
"Giberto says no, I'm not interested in selling, but then Adrian (Zecha) said he would rent it," says Bianca."But Giberto told him there was another problem - 'me and my family are not leaving' - and Adrian said, 'our guests would be happy to meet you'."
Apart from the dream deal which allows the Arrivabenes to retain ownership of the palazzo and live there while its anchor tenant returns it to its former glory at no cost to them, Giberto even negotiated a shop space on the ground floor to sell his delicate, hand blown glass art.
Could you ask for anything more? Not the princess, for sure. "It's amazing," she says. "I still pinch myself every morning."
Then again, with that kind of a view and Aman's brand of luxury, every guest would probably do