Visitors who rarely get more than a glimpse of the grandeur that exists behind the closed doors of Italy's privately owned palaces, castles and museums have a new option.
Now they can peek inside the private treasure houses with the help of a deluxe travel consulting service based in Los Angeles and Milan.
Small groups can visit opulent private retreats such as a richly frescoed Renaissance villa, a medieval fortified manor house or a 17th-Century palace on an island in the middle of a lake in the Italian Alps.
The idea of giving visitors an eyeful of elegant homes and cultural attractions normally closed to the public is the brainchild of Belinda Laws Ruggieri.
Born in England, she came to Italy on vacation when she was 17, fell in love with the country and stayed on, married an Italian engineer and settled in Milan.
Seeing Private Sites
Wanting to share her enthusiasm for her adopted country, Ruggieri found herself entertaining a good many visitors from abroad. Gradually she realized that tourists never see some of Italy's most beautiful places because they are private and therefore not included in standard guidebooks and itineraries.
While it is simple enough to visit England's country estates, she said, she found no comparable opportunities in Italy.
So four years ago she began a service to "assist foreign visitors in discovering the infinite delights of Italy outside the well-trodden Florence/Venice/Rome route."
She calls her company Petasus, the name of the hats traditionally worn by medieval pilgrims. She chose the name because of its association with the hospitality that Italy traditionally has granted visitors, from the pilgrims on down to tourists today.
Ruggieri's firm specializes in arranging for small cultural and professional groups to visit places that are usually off limits to the public.
Recently, for example, she arranged for a group of top business executives to be entertained by a member of the Neopolitan aristocracy at his private dining club in Rome.
Of all the sites Petasus has available, the most popular are the private palaces, villas and castles where wealthy Italian families live, Ruggieri said.
"One of the things Americans most appreciate is being received in a private home, walking around a private garden or seeing a privately owned art collection," she said.
Private residences are usually open only to groups of 15 to 25, she said, but other special activities can be arranged for individual travelers.
Many of the historic homes that groups visit through Petasus belong to members of the Assn. of Italian Historic Houses, and visitors are asked to make donations to be used for the restoration and upkeep of these properties.
Petasus also arranges for private showings of places that are open to the public during selected hours, such as a 48-room baroque hunting lodge decorated with hand-embroidered silk wall hangings and period furniture.
L.A. Women Help
Ruggieri works in collaboration with two Los Angeles women, Marina Thompson and Wanda Ippolito, both born in Italy and who serve as her liaison with American tourists. All three women speak English and Italian.
Petasus is designed to appeal to sophisticated travelers who have seen the standard attractions and want to try something new, they said.
"For the more inquiring traveler, the quick, standard tour of Rome, Florence and Venice, at best, whets the appetite for more," Ruggieri says in her company's brochure.
Ruggieri and her associates work as consultants only, with hotel and airline reservations handled by the customer's travel agent.
Their fees are based on the services provided. For a group of 15 to 25, a $295 deposit is required for initial planning for a two-week trip; if the group goes ahead with the trip, Petasus' daily fees average $10 a person.
A complete itinerary can be prepared, or just a day or two of special activities.
Tours Shaped to Need
Itineraries are specifically tailored to the interests of the group or individual, including art, architecture, antiques, handicrafts, history, food, wine, music or gardens.
For music lovers, Petasus can arrange a visit to the privately owned Enrico Caruso Museum in Milan, or an opportunity to hear Stradivarius violins being played in the legendary instrument maker's birthplace, Cremona.
For art buffs, an elegant little reception can be planned to show a private art collection in its home setting.
For gourmets, Petasus can arrange a cooking demonstration by a well-known chef, or a luncheon at a Venice country home with the menu featuring fish specialties of the region.
And, for garden enthusiasts, Petasus will provide access to such places as a baroque hillside park and a Renaissance garden with subterranean grottoes.
Petasus in Los Angeles can be reached by calling Marina Thompson at (213) 479-6196 or Wanda Ippolito at (213) 658-8563.