Last orders at Harry's Bar: banks call time on Venice's legendary Cipriani family


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The Independent Online

Their establishment is as much a part of the Venice myth as the canals, gondolas and the Rialto Bridge. But now last orders have come for the Cipriani family, who have run Harry's Bar in Venice for 81 years.

After three years' of mounting debts, bean counters are stepping to take over the legendary watering hole where Orson Welles, Truman Capote and Noel Coward, sipped – or necked – its famous Bellini and dry martini cocktails.

Even charging €20 (£16) a go for its cocktails has not been enough to save the bar from the grip of a seemingly endless recession. Judging from the customers' comments on travel websites, the stratospheric prices might even have been part of the problem.

The banks have insisted on sending in Gianluca D'Avanzo and Salvatore Cerchione from Blue Skye Investment, a Luxembourg company, to overhaul the bar's organisation and radically cut costs in return for wiping out debts of nearly £5m.

Arrigo Cipriani, the 80-year-old son of the bar's founder Giuseppe, said he had tried several times to negotiate with the bar's 75 staff members to alter working practices and cut wages.

The staff, who account for 55 per cent of the bar's costs, say they are needed in such numbers to guarantee the establishment's famously attentive service. Suggestion of pay cuts and voluntary redundancy were met with strike action.

Mr Cirpriani told Corriere Della Sera newspaper: "From 2008 to today we have seen a 20 to 30 per cent fall in our clientele. These days, many day-trippers come to Venice, but not quality tourists. We cannot deny that we miss the Americans who were a guaranteed clientele for the whole year, we are feeling that. And that is not compensated by the new wave of rich Russians or Chinese."

In wresting control of the bar from the Cipriani family, the financial crisis has managed what even fascism and the Second World War failed to do. In the 1930s and 40s, unscrupulous rival bars and restaurants in the lagoon city resorted to smear tactics to lure customers away.

There were rumours that the bar, situated in a narrow passage off St Mark's Square, by the edge of the Grand Canal, was a secret hangout for homosexuals and that conspiring Jews gathered there in defiance of the racist segregation laws.

But such rumours had little effect – and probably attracted much of its most louche and Bohemian clientele, including Somerset Maugham, Peggy Guggenheim and Charlie Chaplin.

Today's grim cost-cutting and management consultancy edicts are a long way away from 1949 when, Ernest Hemingway, one of its most famous patrons, first stepped into the bar and quickly adopted his own table in the Concordia room. He set about writing Over the River and Into the Trees there.

That didn't stop the Nobel laureate drinking industrial amounts of the bar's cocktails, however. "He was generous to a fault, and filled more pages of his cheque book than those of a medium-length novel," Harry's founder Giuseppe Cipriani once said.

Spin-off Cipriani bars, clubs and restaurants now operate in many other cities around the world. But Cipriani, Abu Dhabi, just doesn't have the same ring about it.

Called to the bar: the famous patrons

Many of the great and the good have graced the tables at Harry's Bar. Ernest Hemingway had his own table in the corner when he was a regular patron in 1949-1950 and made frequent reference to it in his book, Across the River and Into the Trees. Other famous patrons include Truman Capote, Orson Welles and Henry Fonda. According to the bar's website, the Cubist visionary Georges Braque once ambled in pleading poverty and offering a painting in exchange for food. Giusepple Cipriani, refused the painting but told Braque: "I don't care if you don't have any money today, eat your fill and pay me when you do."