The history of a hotel and a Swiss hotelier family
Visitors to the Eternal City can choose from more than 1,000 hotels, and one of these is the Hotel Victoria. This traditional hotel has been putting out the welcome mat for its guests for more than 100 years – and this remarkable history is mainly due to the patience, perseverance and quality awareness of one Swiss family.
In today's world it is hard to find large, grand hotels that are still family run and owned. Hotels with a rating of four stars or more with in excess of one hundred rooms are normally owned by global enterprises. This is also true of Rome – but in Rome there are still exceptions, although you can only count them on the fingers of one hand. One exception, one of these family-run, grand hotels in the city, is located directly next to the Aurelian Wall, a stone's throw away from the Villa Borghese. Two minutes walk away to the south west you will find the cosmopolitan Via Veneto, familiar to us all from Fellini's "La dolce vita".
When you enter the foyer of the Hotel Victoria, you will notice immediately that something is different – the walls. Throughout the foyer, the bar and restaurant, in all corridors and rooms, the walls of the entire hotel are covered by an impressive collection of paintings dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The manager of a hotel chain would never dream of making his premises a showcase for such works of art. This is not the case with Rolf H. Wirth, the owner of the hotel and the grandson of its founder Gottlieb Heinrich Wirth. Rolf H. Wirth is an art connoisseur and collector. He is both Roman and Swiss, grew up in Rome and is very deeply connected with the Lazio landscape. Guests are greeted discreetly with historical panoramic scenes of Rome and its environs. These relate stories, convey history, embed the viewer in the geographical context, and are ultimately part of the turbulent history of the hotel.
This history is closely linked with the Wirth family – a family of hoteliers with a long-standing tradition. Without this history the hotel that visitors experience today would not be conceivable. It could be said that the story begins with Gottlieb David Wirth (1800 - 1839), who was involved in the salt trade until he married the daughter of the landlord of the inn "Zum Hirschen" in Maulach, in Württemberg, Germany, and thereby joined the hospitality business. He was followed by his son Friedrich Wirth (1830 -1885), who was an inn proprietor and beer brewer, and who also worked as a toll collector at the border to Ansbach in Germany, which at the time was very fragmented. The cosmopolitanism of the Wirth family was born with this Friedrich Wirth, as he sent an almost unbelievable brood of eleven children out into the world to educate themselves and find their own way. It would be an exciting and interesting quest to try to trace the lives of all these children. However, in the context of the Hotel Victoria it will suffice to focus on the most successful son.
Gottlieb Heinrich Wirth (1858 - 1937) made the best of the freedom that his father had given him and the demands that he made of him, and followed a fairytale career as a hotelier. Life led him to the most renowned hotels in Switzerland and England, back to Germany and from there to Italy, and in 1879 for the first time to Rome. At the time he was only 21 years of age. The first professional focal point of his life was Lucerne and the Bürgenstock Hotel that belonged to the hotel pioneer Franz Josef Bucher, whose daughter Christine he married in 1887. Later Gottlieb Heinrich Wirth became the general director and shareholder of the Bucher-Durrer Association that built, sold and leased several hotels in Europe.
The southernmost hotel of the association was the "Semiramis" in Cairo, and the northernmost hotels were opened in Basle, Lucerne and Lugano. Gottlieb Heinrich Wirth then took the helm of the hotel group with the linchpins of Lucerne and Rome, where he first managed the "Minerva" and later the "Quirinale" hotels. Both are still running, but not in a family-oriented hotelier tradition. After difficulties with heirs and his co-shareholders in the Bucher-Durrer Group, Gottlieb Heinrich Wirth left the association and helped his five children to manage or buy their own hotels.
Rome and its Wirth hotels
In 1921 Gottlieb Heinrich Wirth with his son Oscar and his brother Ernst joined Franz (Francesco) Nistelweck, who was born in Munich, and rented the Eden Hotel in the Via Ludovisi that was founded in 1889. Wirth and Nistelweck subsequently bought the Eden, which was then managed by the young Oscar Wirth. The Eden is also still running, but has belonged to a global group for many years. Three years after buying the Eden, Gottlieb Heinrich Wirth acquired the hotel that is now run by the third generation of the Swiss hotelier family - the Hotel Victoria, built in 1899 as an appartement buildung, then converted to an Hotel by Wirth.
Let us briefly return to the Eden, that was managed by Oskar Wirth. From 1938 to 1944 this Oskar Wirth built a hotel above the Spanish Steps that replaced a previously rather insignificant guesthouse, the "Roma e New York". It was completed and named the "Hassler / Villa Medici" just in time to accommodate the staff of the US forces that had just occupied Rome. The Hotel Hassler is therefore the second hotel alongside the Victoria that is owned by the Wirth family. Today it is run by Oscar's son Roberto Wirth.
But let's go back to the Hotel Victoria. Gottlieb Heinrich Wirth bought it as a second mainstay for himself and his youngest children Henry Alberto and Lotti. Henry Alberto was only 27 years old when his father died in 1937. He had been appointed as the manager of the hotel three years previously. Although Henry Alberto Wirth had grown up in Italy, in spirit he was still Swiss. This Swiss spirit meant that alongside his everyday work as a hotelier he devoted time to various charitable organisations that promoted the interests of the city and the relations between both countries. For example, after World War II he was the president of the Dono Svizzero (the Swiss association for the reconstruction of Italy), founded the Swiss School in Rome together with his wife Elly, was a co-founder of the APRA (Roman hoteliers' association), acted as the Italian tourism representative in the BIT (Bureau International du Travail, in Geneva) and also as the representative of hoteliers in the Confindustria, the Italian employers' association.
The Hotel Victoria in World War II and what happened next
The protestant Swiss Wirths were all very open-minded, democratic and liberal. Henry Alberto and Elly Wirth were no exception when they concealed anti-fascists and Jews in their hotel that was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. This liberal attitude even led them to provide refuge to two young German lieutenants during the withdrawal of the Germans from Rome to save them from mob law.
After the War the Hotel Victoria was managed with the same world outlook. It therefore became the Roman home to Russian musicians seeking freedom from communism abroad. The composer, conductor and cellist Mstislaw Rostropovich was one of these. Henry Alberto Wirth learned his profession in the most renowned hotels in Europe, and therefore experienced hotels as centres of cultural activities and interaction between artists and society. Offering travelling musicians a venue to practice and perform and also cultivating relationships with them was a tradition that he wanted to continue. His mother, Alberta Waelly, the second wife of Gottlieb Heinrich Wirth and a hotelier's daughter from the Grand Hotel in Magglingen near Biel, had already brought him up in this way. For this reason he was the long-term president and sponsor of two of Rome's concert organisations, the Coro Polifonico Romano and the Oratorio del Gonfalone. The latter devoted itself to baroque music and staged the Roman debut of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Throughout their lives Henry Alberto Wirth and his wife supported and accommodated musicians whenever possible.
The list of just some of the musicians and guests of the Wirth family reads like the who's who of the musical world of the 20th century: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sergiu Celibidache, Emil Gilels, Walter W. Gieseking, Paul Hindemith, Leonid Kogan, David and Igor Oistrach, Svjatoslav Richter, Rudolf Serkin and Mstislav Rostropovich as well as contemporary living artists such as the Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich or Maestro Theo Loosli. When in Rome these musicians always practised on the grand piano in the private apartment of the Wirth family in the hotel – and still do so today. Today this apartment is frequently occupied by the current owners Rolf H. Wirth and Vera von Falkenstein-Wirth and their families.
A stone's throw from the Villa Borghese
The hotel was built in 1899 directly behind the Aurelian Wall that protects the hotel from the lively Corso d'Italia. The wonderful Via Veneto is only a few minutes walk away, and many guests choose to walk to the main shopping streets and sights in the historical centre of Rome instead of driving or using public transport. Throughout the entire year the park of the Villa Borghese on the other side of the Aurelian Wall is a source of fresh air for the Victoria. Hardly any traditional Roman songs lack some form of reference to the Ponentino, the fresh evening breeze that wafts through the windows and over the terrace of the hotel from the Villa Borghese. This park is an extensive area where people go jogging or take a stroll, perhaps to the Spanish Steps or the Piazza del Popolo. Due to its quiet location and the fresh air from the park, guests at the Victoria enjoy the luxury of being able to sleep with the window open. In addition to its position on one of the hills of Rome at the edge of the historic centre, the Victoria stands out from the numerous hotels of the city as both a first-class establishment with a long-standing tradition and also many other reasons. The "Belisario" restaurant serves traditional Italian cuisine and Roman specialities, newly interpreted with contemporary culinary art. The wine menu only features italian wines, many of them autochthonous varieties from various Italian wine-growing areas, often discovered by the boss himself and always in keeping with the "best buys" custom, i.e. offering high quality at reasonable prices. Tradition and contemporary styles blend harmoniously for the benefit of guests. In warm weather the restaurant guests are received on the largest garden terrace in Rome, on eye level with the impressive pine trees of the Villa Borghese. They can enjoy dining high above this city where the noise of the traffic fades to a faraway, melodic hum which is typical of this metropolis. One special feature of the hotel is that it is an impressive gallery that extends from the foyer up to the rooms on the fifth floor. 500 paintings from the 17th to the 19th century cover the walls with urban and rural scenes from Rome and the Lazio countryside. However, this was not always the case.
Hotel without a hotelier, banker without a bank
As he grew older, Henry Alberto Wirth only invested what was absolutely necessary into the hotel. The death of his wife Elly in 1984 marked a particular turning point, as she was the financial expert in the hotel. Henry Alberto Wirth remained a hotelier in the sense of a cosmopolitan host, but the absence of the lady of business left its mark. For this reason for many years the hotel stagnated at a standard that became increasingly distanced from the growing demands that a four-star hotel had to meet at the time. When Henry Alberto Wirth died in 2000, the hotel was left without a master. A sense of duty and tradition and also honour and entrepreneurial spirit then drove the eldest member of the family to take the helm and navigate the hotel into the future. Rolf H. Wirth had just finished his career as a banker, and with the support of his siblings and his brother-in-law Dr. Rainer von Falkenstein decided to step up as a representative of the fifth generation to continue the hotelier tradition of the Wirth family and restore the hotel to its former glory. The transition from being a Member of the Board of an international bank (Deutsche Bank Schweiz AG) to becoming a hotelier was not as difficult as one might think. The new boss had grown up in the hotel, and during leave from university while he was studying law had trained at the Hotel Management School Lucerne and other hotels. Therefore in 2000 all requirements were met to guide the Victoria into a secure future with professionality, a strong will to succeed, a past immersed in hosting in a hotel environment and a love of good food and drink.
However, this secure future depended on all-round renovation work that was to devour a great deal of money. Suddenly the former banker found himself in very difficult financial circumstances, grappling with the guile and wile of the banks to secure finances.
From the dark to the light
Guests enjoying the friendly, light rooms, reception and dining areas will find it difficult to imagine that until quite recently decades of neglect had to be scoured from their walls. The corridors were dark passages, sad-looking plants blocked out light and space, the only alternative to the summer heat in the rooms was the Roman heat from outdoors when the windows were opened at night. There was no such thing as air conditioning, and it is easy to imagine the kind of mattresses that guests had to sleep on.
Many would have thrown in the towel in the face of these almost overwhelming challenges – but it was probably the long tradition of the hotelier family that inspired and fired the banker. Supported by a handful of faithful staff he had the entire infrastructure of the Hotel Victoria reworked from top to bottom at high speed. Ducts for heating, cooling and ventilation were laid in the hotel's century-old walls. Throughout the hotel Rolf H. Wirth made sure that renovation work was executed in keeping with the original exterior and interior design of the hotel, also in the bathrooms. What makes this hotel owner particularly special is his personal commitment and degree of involvement. In many areas he saved the costs of an architect and tinkered around himself, using alcoves and awkward corners for wall cabinets and dressing tables. He also chose the interior fittings such as floor coverings, wallpaper and door handles through to the bedside tables and wall lamps. It was his idea not to straighten the corridors, and to rejuvenate the charm of days gone by with a Tuscan waxed wall plaster in a friendly, sunny yellow. When it came to buying new mattresses, the new hotel director, who suffers with back pain himself, did not shy costs and decided to buy the best. He knew that comments on the comfort of the beds are those that travel most quickly in the hotel industry, especially the negative ones.
Therefore he had to negotiate with the banks to loosen their purse strings every day, and battle to overcome the obstacles of the laisser-faire Roman attitude. It has remained a battle until today – a battle that Rolf H. Wirth has succeeded in winning on his own terms. For example he had additional decentralised pumps installed to boost the low pressure of the city's water supplies and also reactivated an ancient, deep water source. As a lover of fine wines, he had the partly-walled up wine cellars in the ancient walls restored. In contrast to popular belief, only few hotels in Rome have the luxury of an old wine cellar. Every year sees more improvements and added extras, and as Rolf H. Wirth watches every franc and euro with an eagle eye, much is accomplished with meticulous and detailed hard work.
Lucullus a guest at the Belisario
"Panza mia fatti capanna" say the Romans before tucking in to a good meal. "Dear stomach, please grow to the size of a hut", as this phrase translates, will also pass the lips of guests in the Belisario. Wirth the gourmet has ventured onto new paths when creating the menu at the hotel's own restaurant Belisario, breathing new life into traditional Italian and Roman cuisine. The Swiss hotelier also feels bound to tradition in this respect, but the clever twist to the dishes reveals his creativity and own individual style. When it comes to wine, Rolf H. Wirth is also guided by Italian tradition. The variety of vine used to make all the wines are mostly Italian, and he has critically tested each wine himself before giving it his personal seal of approval. His talent for sniffing out "best buys", the good but affordable wines, is just as impressive as his stamina in looking for autochthonous domestic wines. The wine cellar of the Victoria is on par with the best in the city, including its grappa selection, without, however, putting too much strain on the wallet.
But when it comes to food and drink, Rolf H. Wirth not only focuses on the how and what, but also on the where. In the summer months guests can enjoy a meal and a drink sitting in - or rather on - the Victoria at one of the most beautiful places in Rome. One Rolf H. Wirth's hobbies is botany and gardening. The Victoria has one of the largest restaurant roof terraces in Rome, where you can not only sit outside far away from the noise and exhaust fumes, but also among a wide and varied collection of plants, some of which may be familiar from our own gardens, some possibly only from pictures. These include roses and gardenia, bougainvillea and rosemary, palms and jasmine, azaleas, pomegranate and lemon trees and many more. It is hard to imagine more delicate sources of fragrance, more charming room dividers and more subtle eye-catchers than these. After hours spent in the heat and hectic of the city, it is a treat to relax a pleasant distance away but still consciously at its heart, far above all the hustle and bustle.
After spending a day in Rome or the Lazio countryside, many guests feel like they are coming home when they enter the hotel, and do not rush to the lift but stroll through the salons, stop off at the bar for a drink, maybe take the stairs to walk up one floor, and everywhere they go their eyes can feast on the Roman scenes depicted in the collection of paintings. Apart from the roof terrace that offers guests a chance to enjoy Rome from a completely different perspective, this collection of paintings definitely makes the Hotel Victoria a unique place to stay. You don't have to be an art connoisseur to be able to appreciate them. Perhaps you just have to master the art of enjoying the moment, and take the time to realise the value of each and every moment at one particular time and place. In this hotel the inspiration for enjoying these increasingly seldom moments of reflection is subtle – but cannot be ignored.
Peter Schmidt, journalist, Germany
Research of historical documents: Dr. Rainer von Falkenstein, author, Switzerland