Emanuela Santi is an event producer for Tuff Consult, which has created spectacular occasions for Amfar in Cannes and luxury brands throughout Hong Kong and China. When asked to take charge of her brother’s glamorous wedding in Tuscany she thought it would be a breeze, but she had reckoned without the idiosyncrasies of her beloved Italy.
[dropcap size=small]H[/dropcap]ong Kong is an event producer’s playground with suppliers in China making anything from a full-size jet plane to a catwalk carrousel; creating events here is easier because people understand the beauty of getting things done. The wedding of my brother Niccolò Santi (Managing Director of SV International Design in Hong Kong) and future sister in law Francesca Von Etzdorf entered its planning stage in mid-2012. Props had been sourced, a site visit had been executed and a planner had been commissioned to do the groundwork in Italy.
A dinner of two hundred people in a Tuscan garden seemed like a walk in the park but it became a race against time, the seasons and the capricious nature of my beloved Italy, which has a thoroughly Italian view of event production and rigorously practices il bel far niente (the beauty of doing nothing).
Everything began well enough, in Central, Hong Kong. One hundred and fifty-two boxes had been packed, sealed and carefully labeled. Chinese Ming vases, iron birdcages, candles, various lanterns, whicker baskets, custom made cushions and picnic tables had been made ready for travel. Destination: Tuscany, Italy.
When a family of creatives comes together to plan a wedding the word that comes to mind is pandemonium. When a family of Italian creatives comes together all you can do is pray. Hard.
The wedding’s venue was La Tenuta di Sticciano, an 18th Century villa nestled in the heart of Tuscany, a dozen or so kilometres south west of Florence amongst olive groves and vineyards and serenaded by cicadas, On arrival a boisterous lady handed us the keys and beamed “E vostra!” (It’s yours!!). For people on vacation this would sound like a dream come true but for an international jet set crowd with a wedding to plan it signaled the start of panic as the to-do list seemed to grow with every beam of sunshine that poured from the Tuscan sky.
Preparations commenced with a large delivery from the East. Boxes were unpacked and props were piled up in an ancient wine cellar. We began with a pair of crucial meetings at the florist and caterer. If either of these failed to deliver the wedding could end up being memorable for all the wrong reasons.
A little skeptical that my future sister-in-law and my mother had fired the previous florist, opting for a vivaio (an orchard) we set out through the rolling hills. Winding roads and vineyards melted into a perfect cobalt blue sky as we arrived at the source of our flowers to be greeted by a few gangly dogs and a rusty old gate with a fading sign that read, “Blooming Orchard”.
It was an orchard, but there were no blooms. Visions of a wedding with displays of dusty twigs and dried apples spun through my mind as my brother and I grew pale. Ever the optimist my mother entered and greeted Marco, the owner, like a long lost friend. Our incredible 92-year-old grandmother sat in the car shaking her head, incredulous that this could be our florist. Indeed there was not one plant alive and kicking in Marco’s non-blooming treescape and I could feel my ears start to ring with alarm bells as he explained that due to the heavy rain, nothing was in season. My stomach did a somersault as Marco reassured us that all would be favoloso!
I took a deep breath and we briefed Marco on the detailed floral creative and discussed the options for the church, opting for baby’s breath and lavender whilst a a palette of blue and white Hydrangeas, white roses and lemons would grace the yellow linen tabletops. Comparing this brief to ones I usually give I realised I felt a lot more comfortable speaking Chinglish to a Hong Konger than talking in Italian to Marco with his thick Florentine accent.
We left Marco and his gang of dogs and headed to our next appointment with Giuseppe, the master chef. He is a jovial rotund Tuscan chap and seemed to smile with every intake of breath. With a glass of wine in hand he beckoned us to take a seat in his kitchen. Guiseppe’s table was as bountiful as Marco’s orchard was barren. There followed a riot of carefully crafted bow shaped tortelli filled with melted burata, caramelized pistachios with a glaze of balsamic and tagliata di manzo with grilled vegetables picked from Guiseppe’s garden. And all this was washed down with a generous selection of Tuscany’s wines and prosseccos. We left lightheaded and feeling a bit better about the flowers. With a stomach full of Guiseppe’s offerings and with the sun still painting the landscape in gorgeous golden hues it was easier to be optimistic.
We headed to Rome for the Santi-von Etzdorf pre-wedding dinner at our beloved family spot, The Roma Polo Club. Sprawled generously amid its green polo fields, it’s a slice of the country nestled in the ancient city. My father has organized many occasions in the club’s white vine covered cottage and memories here are plentiful.
We arrived in Rome just in time to greet the radiant bride-to-be off the plane from Hong Kong; it was straight to the Roma flower markets for her. The market is quietly tucked away in the Triomphale neighborhood. We arrived to a scene of deserted devastation, the stalls strewn with petals that were evidence of heavy negotiations now complete. It dawned on me that it was lunch time. Merchants in Hong Kong’s flower district may work through the midday hours with a bowl of pork and rice at their elbow but for Romans a proper sit down lunch is sacrosanct. I had to plead and smile with one of the few merchants not already at a taverna to get him to open his fridges. As I made my copious purchases he continued to curse me under his breath. Lunchtime is sacred to Italians and being late at table is a mortal sin.
On the drive back the motorway and roundabouts were suddenly in full bloom with lavender. An idea popped into my head. It wasn’t that I didnt’t trust Marco the floral magician but why waste an opportunity? In a flash we had pulled over and began harvesting the fragrant hedges, whilst trucks thundered past churning the scent of lavender with the tang of diesel. A car pulled over to see if we had broken down and needed help, only to realise that mother, son and daughter were raiding the hard shoulder for wild florals; they took off in a cloud of dust and obscenities.
We spent the afternoon creating floral centrepieces and positioning lily pads and lotus in the swimming pool alongside some of the seven hundred candles flown over for the wedding. The dinner set up was simple yet chic. Ivy green linen and blooming peonies looked ravishing under the moonlight and all my fervent bargaining in the Triomphale finally seemed worth every sweaty second. The future bride and groom were at ease as they met some of the dozen Santis gathered. Cheeks were squeezed, hugs were plentiful and laughter roared through the hundred-year-old stables.
The next day at La Tenuta, mother and father of the bride were on olive oil duty, filling hundreds of hand blown olive oil bottles and customising these with guest’s names. It was already Thursday and guests had begun to filter in. Dinners in the region had not been adventurous, simply because we’d fallen in love with the unpretentious Osteria del Ignorante in Lucardo. For intimate places like this, go with the owner’s recommendations. For a vegetarian, this could be your worst nightmare with Fiorentina steaks bigger than a grown Chihuahua but we found a compromise; the truffle and lemon taglolini were mouth watering, as were the divine zucchini flowers stuffed with burrata and ripe tomatoes.
The day before the wedding was action packed. My mother’s flamboyant gaggle of best friends arrived from Paris in their cabriolet, subsequently disappearing for hours. We imagined them sipping Chianti classico, eating copious amounts of pecorino toscano and laughing into the sunset whilst we sweltered under the Tuscan sun. Much to our amusement they arrived back with half the Tuscan flora and fauna in their backseat. Eager to create installations, table centrepieces and trellises with their treasure trove they set to work.
Dusk settled in as guests arrived at La Tenuta, where dozens of custom-made picnic tables in navy blue and white striped cotton with matching cushions sprawled out on the lawn. Each table was complete with a basket of assorted cheeses, meats and delicacies from the area. Handpicked flowers were placed and lanterns lit as a quartet began to play. The mood was jovial yet relaxed as people from many countries exchanged greetings and conversation.
Back in Hong Kong, the Tuff office was abuzz with frenzy as the girls prepared for two large-scale events, one in Hong Kong and one in Shanghai. The wedding day began for me at the crack of dawn, as I selected the perfect yellow light bulb and ensured a family of golden zebras arrived safely in China. Trying not to confuse circus spectacular with a Tuscan wedding I decided to refrain from checking my emails for the next 24 hours, or at least until the nuptials were safely over. Marco the magician had begun prepping the church; cascades of baby’s-breath and lavender descended the steps and pews whilst the table pieces of hydrangeas, roses and lemons were being carefully arranged into china blue Ming vases, each a different shape and size.
As I looked down at my thorn-pricked fingers I realized my manicure had been a waste of time. The bride and groom were separated for the night before the wedding and even in the sprawling Tenuta complex it proved tricky to keep them apart. As we dressed the bride in her La Sposa custom made gown I felt a sharp pang of panic as I realised we had locked all the packets of rice and petals for the flower girls upstairs. This was a disaster, as it is obligatory in Italy to throw rice on the newlyweds. We do everything we can to break in so we can avoid the evil portent of a riceless wedding.
Back at the church the rice panic struck the congregation and they all began to scour their brains for a solution. Meanwhile the village was treated to the sight of Thomas, a fashionable Parisian man, knocking on doors in search of Arborio rice. He returned to the church a happy man, having secured the essential grains for a few euros. The groom had been unaware of the rice panic and stood confidently at the altar. And stood and stood and stood, fearing eventually that he might have a runaway bride.
Time may have passed slowly for Nic but time had a different quality for the bride’s party, speeding past as they made their final preparations. And then Francesca arrived, looking radiant by her proud father’s side, and only fighting with her attendants for a short while before being persuaded that her beloved water bottle had no place at the altar. The readings included one by my brother’s legendary godfather, Italy’s most decorated tennis player, Nicola Pietrangeli and tears were amply shed as the choir sang. It then only remained for my father to reveal the surprise he had planned as the priest read a telegram from Pope Francis, blessing the newlyweds. And really, who needs flowers at a wedding if you have a blessing from the Pope himself?
As husband and wife exited there was roaring applause, wedding bells and a large crowd of villagers, children and onlookers swelled by the village’s annual feudal festival for its patron saint. The timing couldn’t have been better as guests were suddenly swallowed up in a parade of court jesters, flag throwers and masked merchants. A few wedding guests applauded and remarked what a wonderful idea this had been, to involve the entire village in the wedding parade. I kept quiet as Francesca and Niccolò Santi waved, and stepped into their scarlet Alfa Romeo duetto. The car roared to life and they sped off into the sunset, Nic kissing Franceca with one eye on the road, as only an Italian could.
As bride and groom arrived for the celebratory cocktail there was a long line of people to kiss and cheeks to be squeezed. We were eventually invited to sit by none other than the best man and Asia’s E! news anchor, Dominic Lau who proved to be an infallible emcee. The father of the bride speech was delivered in perfect Italian, a proud father to a beautiful bride. I caught a glimpse of my brother as he hurriedly wrote on his napkin and a chill gripped me as I realised he had not prepared his speech.
The best men began to deliver a humorous account of their childhood adventures that was not for the faint-hearted and in itself would make a terrifc page turner. I began to worry as my brother hurridly arranged his napkin notes but he enchanted us all with a speech that was warm, thankful and a perfect account of a man’s wholehearted love. The twinkling lights and full moon shone above the wedding party, which erupted on to the dance floor, with even granny dancing to Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. I took a second to recall that last month I had been backstage with a bevy of top models as we opened the amfAR fashion show curated by Carine Roitfeld with this very track. The night was young and we welcomed the dawn with dancing, shaking the foundations of the ancient wine cellars.
Travelling to an unknown venue for any wedding is daunting; producing a wedding within ten days means you are under the gun from the start but the creative heads of these families needed neither wedding planner nor fancy florist – we fired them instead. Ultimately nobody could meet the expectations and details we were after. To source and create an event as important as a family wedding leaves a sense of achievement greater than any large scale event I have ever produced. A bond gels the families and cultures together.
Is it travelling away from ones humdrum routine to a novel place that creates an even greater sense of family union? Or is it coming together with people from around the world to build something unique and unforgettable for two people you love?
I know that Tenuta began as a neutral meeting ground. A little seed was planted under its great oak tree overlooking those famous rolling hills and subsequently became days of spledour and memories that will last a lifetime. Tentuta now has more history than it did yesterday, its corridors filled with the echos of our laughter and the patter of dancing feet in the moonlight. The venue is no longer merely a venue or a destination, it holds much more for all of us. A memory forever engrained in our hearts that gently reminds us that fairytales can come true.
The wedding of Francesca Von Etzdorf and Nicola Santi took place in the summer of 2013. The happy couple now live in Hong Kong where Nic continues to be Managing Director of SV International Design and Francesca is in charge of communications for Aman Resorts.
The Tenuta used to belong to an offshoot of the Medici family who used it a a hunting home in the long Italian summers. The long dusty road surrounded by grapevines gives way to the spectacular and rustic Tenuta, once though the gate and along the gravel the main villa stands proud with a beautiful turret overlooking the rolling hills of Tuscany. Smaller villas are peppered nearby, each with its own character and charm.
1) Begin with a very clear mood board and proposal of what you want to achieve. Break this down into your colour palette, textures, and materials. Then go into the specifics of production such as props, table tops, andles, floral, canopies and sourcing images for each. Section off each area at the wedding (if more than one) and source for each area by breaking down quantities of what you need.
2) Depending on your expectations from a wedding planner or producer, ask for a rendering of the space, this will permit you to visualise the overall look and feel of the venue and come to a common agreement on what your final look will be.
3) Never underestimate how many candles you can have at a wedding, the more the better. We had 700 candles shipped over, not one went to waste with guests and staff taking them home.
4) Sourcing your décor props from a local supplier you trust is always advisable but if this is impossible and shipping costs are too high, ensure your production house or planner sends you a photo recap of all the items you are purchasing
5) Select a flower palette that compliments your wedding venue. A country wedding should be clean and fresh with complimentary tones such as green, yellows, whites and pastels. For a city wedding, feel free to opt for a more adventurous palette.
6) Lighting is pivotal to any production be it a wedding or a gala dinner although the technicalities can be daunting. Ensure that you have sufficient ambient lighting and a well lit area for speeches and first dance – this is a key requirement.
7) Audio is just as important as lighting – ensure you have a trusty supplier that will equipt you with the correct sound system and a balanced surround sound.
8) The common thread: Ensure that there is a common thread that ties the wedding together be it your flowers, your table favours, your canapés; a sense of continuity is aesthetically stronger than a random collation of items.
9) Samples! Colour pantones can be very different on your computer screen compared to when they are printed. Ensure you work on a material board and collect all your samples for fabrics, backdrops, napkins, signage and more. This will help you visualise the materials and textures against each other.
10) Ensure you carry out a full table mock up with florals, centre pieces, candles, name card holders, napkin rings, menus and more to ensure nothing is left as a surprise on the day of the wedding. Enjoy this with a full food tasting to pre-select your dishes and their presentation.
Emanuela Santi can be found at tuffConsult.
More stories like this are available in Quintessentially Asia.