Aristocrat, TV personality, architect and writer Francesco de Mosto has built up a large fan base for his breezy BBC shows about Italy. In Cyprus recently to talk about his native Venice, he tells ZOE CHRISTODOULIDES he is game for a new challenge
Sometimes it’s awfully hard not to state the obvious. And it becomes even harder when you’re sitting right beside a man who you just know has left many a female heart fluttering. Francesco de Mosto exudes just the kind of unwitting charm that you’d expect of an Italian. Every word is uttered with resolute passion, hands animatedly flying high in the air as each syllable is zealously caressed. His wide smile is sincere, albeit accentuated with a hint of fiery cheekiness as the pronounced lines that form creases in the corner of his beady brown eyes tell tales of wild nights, endless ramblings, and copious amounts of dizzying vino. A floppy mop of thick silver hair framing a handsome face gives the 52 year-old an almost boyish air, but a navy polo shirt and sophisticated – yet somewhat worn – pair of tan leather loafers add a good few years to an otherwise strikingly youthful demeanour.
Some have pronounced him a total heart throb, others have raved about his intellect, while few cease to be impressed by his charisma. Not quite flamboyant but neither exceptionally demure, it’s hardly surprising that the remarkable energy he so bountifully exudes defies categorisation. And why wouldn’t it? This is the guy who has dashed around Italy as the face of BBC documentaries, has left crowds ogling at grand buildings that he has painstakingly designed, while having put his more practical skills to the test as an electrician. That’s not to forget the times he retreats away from the limelight, retiring in some little hideaway in nature to put pen to paper or just “think about life” as he puts it. And he’s a family guy too. Four kids and a wife to be precise, that make him feel like the “luckiest man in the world.”
But when he isn’t busying himself as jack of all trades, he’s more than happy to take a little breather. It’s 7pm and Francesco has just touched down in Cyprus. In one hand, a generous glass of red wine is now ready to be devoured, while in the other, a slow burning cigarette has almost had its day. “I stopped and then I started again,” he admits nonchalantly, glancing down at the flame. “That’s how it goes.” Donning an understated ‘smart casual’ style that one would often expect from your average Italian, it’s really the hint of the unexpected that makes Francesco so enviably cool.
Let’s get one thing straight, Francesco is by no means just your average Italian professional; Francesco is an aristocrat. An aristocrat who kicks back and calls it a day in a grand 16th century Venetian palace no less. A descendant of one of Italy’s oldest and most distinguished families, he likes nothing more than relaxing in the ‘palazzo’ with his environmental scientist wife (Jane Press), along with his teenage daughter, and three younger sons.
Not just any palace, this vast ancestral building has been made famous by Matt Damon’s piano scene in The Talented Mr Ripley. Francesco is the younger son of Count Ranieri da Mosto and Contessa Maria Grazia Vanni d’Archirafi, who come from a very old Sicilian noble family and Dukes of Archirafi.
But somehow, he seems to have mastered the art of being anything but what you might expect from your average noble descendant. “I finished school the year John Lennon died,” he recalls. That would make it 1980. “So I went to London to wash dishes and touch the last of rock.” To touch the “last of rock”? Washing dishes? Because John Lennon passed away? “Ehhh yes,” he clarifies with a nod and a slight grimace, obviously proud of his brush with ‘real life’ once he finally managed to gain his independence at the age of 18. If he wasn’t washing dishes, he would have wanted to hop on a sail boat and travel round Polynesia.
His tales of days gone by speak leaps and bounds of his upbringing as it becomes clear that the 18-year-old Francesco wanted to escape far from his family, away from rules and regulations, away from the ‘do’s’ and the ‘don’ts’. “It’s important not to show too much decadence in life, this is what I think,” he says sternly. “You can be a bit crazy but try to be honest yes? Many times I introduce myself as Francesco, that’s it.”
Francesco has arrived in Cyprus to give two talks on Venice, taking audiences on an engaging and entertaining journey through its history and the secrets and mysteries of its canals, palaces and homes. “There’s a particular thing about Venice. It’s not about your origin but to really feel like you belong, you know? Venice is a bit like a stage,” he enthuses. “You don’t go around and close yourself off in a car.” He wraps his arms around himself for a split second. “Not like this. You don’t act like this. Whether you’re someone who is supposed to be important or just a worker on the street, the great thing about being Venetian is being the same with everyone. You are always trying to form relationships with people.”
Stories manically unravel about Venice of the past, Venice of today, Venice that dreams are made of, Venice the labyrinth, and Venice that has defied the hands of time. Well, almost. “For me, I cannot say that Venice is beautiful it’s a way of living,” he points out. “How did it start? How did it evolve from nothing? The ideas, the ideas, the ideas are what I love.”
As for his eloquent English, it can be largely attributed to his wife, a woman he met “by chance like so many of the great things that happen.” The Anglophile is not only married to an English woman, but the Beatles fan has been jetting back and forth to the UK ever since that day in 1980 when he set off to get a taste of the real Britain after Lennon’s death.
Conversation once again drifts back to when Francesco was on a gap year, working as a dishwasher in Fleet Street by day and living it up at live gigs by night. Aristocratic background aside, how did he go from washing dishes to architecture and then world – or at least European – renown? The story goes a bit like this. “After the dishes I did the army and became a parachute officer. I learnt to climb and jump, it was like a holiday. Then I studied architecture and by chance I met a director and worked in cinema in Rome for two years. In my spare time I went sailing. Then I went to Paris to write screenplays. Then I got bored of that and became an architect.” He makes it all sound so easy.
As an architect, he kick-started his career as a technical consultant for public infrastructure works in the Venice lagoon. Go to the island of Pellestrina, in the south lagoon, and you’ll spot a square he has designed boasting a sundial where your shadow tells you the time. He has also worked closely with the late Aldo Rossi who won the competition to rebuild Venice’s famous La Fenice Theatre, completely destroyed by fire in 1996.
But it’s his BBC acclaim that many associate him with, as audiences well beyond the shores of Italy have been inspired by Francesco’s Venice, Francesco’s Italy: Top to Toe, Francesco’s Mediterranean Voyage and Shakespeare in Italy. That’s not to forget the accompanying bestselling books as well as Francesco’s Kitchen. Because like all good Italians, for him food and love are one and the same.
He began BBC collaboration in 2004, but how did it all come about? Turns out it was the Fenice theatre fire that sparked the whole thing off. “When La Fenice burned I was living nearby and happened to be having a dinner party on my balcony. I managed to film it burning and everyone was asking me for raw material,” he says. “By chance someone from the BBC who I was in contact with knew I was an architect and asked me if I wanted to do a series on Italy.” And that was that.
“It was like an adventure on the road,” he exclaims. Francesco’s Italy sees him explore the country in his Alfa Romeo Spider while his Mediterranean Voyage documents his travels from his home to Istanbul, visiting many cities along the way as he soaks up the culture of each place. He admits it wasn’t half bad for paid work.
Chatter ensues about this and that, life and work, but somehow, he obviously shies away from his upbringing. And I can’t help but wonder, just how important is his heritage to him? Surely it must make him feel a little bit special? The answer isn’t quite clear-cut. “You have to give a good example. In a certain way you have more duties,” he replies. Again, we drift back to his younger years, a time he seems to have spent feeling a bit of an outsider. “I’m very lucky. But maybe if I was born into another family I would have had more freedom. I was always trying to find my freedom. Sometimes you have to make a fast decision – to jump or not. I keep telling my children to meet as many different kinds of people as they can and to do everything with passion and soul.” And what does he hate most about the world? He shakes his head and buries it in his hands. “Power. How do people do things for power? How?” He looks up, furrowed brows giving way to a little smirk. “Freedom, freedom, freedom! That’s what I like best.”
A man who hates to have a plan, it’s the taste of the unknown that really excites him. “When I’m alone I like to walk around, stop here and there without a mission. Sometimes I find myself in a cemetery, sometimes in a bar. Even when I write a screenplay, I never decide on the end before-hand.” So he writes screenplays too? “Aha, aha,” he says in a hurry. He doesn’t seem to want to give up on living life to its extreme. “When you see a bus passing you by, just jump on it without knowing where it will take you. What do you have to lose? Take a risk.” And what’s next for him? “Ahhhh,” I don’t know he says with a chuckle. “You know, there is an Italian saying that ‘I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up’. I like to let the mind fly. One thing that could be fun is acting. You can take a holiday from yourself and become another person. I did just one day filming once and I loved it. Wow. Yes, I could act.”
A suave aristocrat, TV personality, architect, writer who is up for pretty much anything, who wouldn’t want to have Francesco on set? Little wonder the dashing Italian is such a hit with female viewers, despite his endearing modesty. So how does he really feel about being labelled a ‘heart throb’? “If they are happy, I am happy,” he giggles. “I never felt this ‘heart throb’ thing but I think it’s funny. I never watch what I do in my videos and I don’t like my own voice.” And somehow, the conversation once again takes us back to Venice. “Please just go there and lose yourself. Don’t feel obliged to do everything. It must be YOUR Venice. And as with every experience, it must be YOUR experience.” And with that, he lights another cigarette and swirls the wine in his glass and takes a long, hard gulp.