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MANRICO’S PARADISE

Editorial  

Having landed in Lisbon, we then proceeded south by car, arriving at our destination an hour later. Comporta, a tranquil coastal settlement on the Atlantic coast, remains visibly marked by agriculture, above all, rice cultivation. Secluded among dunes, sea and rice fields Manrico Iachia’s enchanting estate is located somewhat off the beaten track. On typing in the entry code (the model number of a Ferrari), the gates swung open to reveal an entirely unexpected world of thatched beach huts; these former dwellings of erstwhile fishermen and rice farmers some several decades past, are interspersed by an ensemble of detached buildings the facades of which comprise meshed reeds and palm-thatched gabled roofs. Typical of the region, these wonderful examples of traditional architecture have over the course of time retained their charm and evolved into what has now become a truly paradisiacal home.

True to form, the interior of the “Cabanas” retains its minimalist character, while the decor testifies to a heightened aesthetic sensibility and meticulous attention to detail. The hand-woven carpets are of Moroccan origin, while the wooden furnishings and textiles stem from Bali, Senegal and Peru – an outstanding and unique marriage of the rural and the cosmopolitan, the local and the international. This aesthetic sensibility, otherwise known as the “Comporta style”, or “Art de vivre”, was the inspiration of Manrico’s wife, Vera. Vera is a member of the Espírito Santo family, one of Portugal’s most prominent banking dynasties. Manrico and Vera purchased the property together some 35 years ago.

The area suffered severe economic decline during the revolutionary years. Thereafter, the 58 square miles of forests, rice fields and arable land of the Herdade da Comporta fell into private hands and was used largely for duck hunting. Manrico’s revelations tell the tale of how this site emerged from a former state of dereliction into the magical place it has become today. At the same time, this raises questions as to the significance of luxury and what it is capable of achieving in our day and age.

“I WANT TO BE PRESIDENT”
Manrico Iachia was born in Bologna in 1952. Leaving home at the tender age of seventeen and relocating to the Trieste region, he resolved to pursue his own ambitions. His inner drive to actively influence situations, to change things, along with an innate proclivity to “be on top”, had shown themselves at an early age. His prominent Bolognese family held original shares of Generali Insurance and thus maintained close ties with the company. As first-born son, Manrico assumed responsibility for his mother and younger brother following the premature death of his father at the age of 50. The connection to Generali Insurance together with the proximity of his eminent family, prompted young Manrico to relocate to Paris where he commenced with his career in the insurance sector. In the wake of his father’s passing, Manrico swiftly established contacts and business ties in the French capital. During this period, he made the acquaintance of the former mayor of a Parisian commune with whose law firm he was to initiate a long-term cooperation. This lawyer, later to become Minister of the Budget before assuming the position of Minister of the Interior and the Economy, and ultimately becoming President of the French Republic, was none other than Nicolas Sarkozy.

LIKE A FISH IN WATER – AT THE CONCOURS D’ÉLÉGANCE OR ON THE RACE TRACK
The next milestone in Manrico’s career took him to the British capital, where Generali had sent him to assist in revitalizing the London branch. Manrico successfully developed the network there and gained a foothold in cabinet circles around Margaret Thatcher. At that time, London’s streets were inundated with automobile classics – Bentleys, Jaguars, Astons, a spectacle that was to further stoke Manrico’s passion for world-class luxury cars. He acquired a second-hand blue Bentley, which he entered for the Bentley Owner Club’s Concours d’Élégance. While in Paris, he became the proud owner of a Ferrari 308, and in his early races he competed on legendary circuits with the Ferrari Club de France. When in the company of fellow passionate car-enthusiasts, Manrico was “like a fish in water.”  

AMERICA NEXT – WHAT A CRAZY LIFE!
Manrico was commissioned to head up the Washington DC-based Europ Assistance USA (a company offering worldwide medical assistance services), Generali being its main shareholder.

Manrico’s initial move was to relocate the head office in Washington to New York. His office was located on the 86th floor of the World Trade Center. Now 32 years of age, Manrico soon recognized the necessity of having at his side a highly accomplished and experienced chairman, and thus managed to persuade his friend Alessandro Codero di Montezemolo to get on board. Alessandro (second cousin to Luca di Montezemolo) and his wife, Catherine Bradle, were among the elite of New York and Southampton society. Doors were thus eased open and a sensational deal was struck with American Express. This marked the worldwide launch of medical services as part of the insurance on plastic cards. A helicopter bearing the logo “Europ Assistance” took to the air and saved lives across the globe. Three months later VISA came knocking …

Playing as hard as he would work, Manrico’s private life in New York was no less impressive. After business hours, he would be in the habit of returning to his apartment to rest a few hours until midnight; donning a dinner jacket, he would then head off into the city’s nightlife. His ploy proved highly effective: while well-heeled gentlemen would be wining and dining the beauties of the scene, Manrico would be recharging his batteries prior to making an appearance at Studio 54 around midnight; bright-eyed and bushy tailed, he would then relieve these meanwhile fatigued gentlemen and entertain the ladies. It was on one such fateful night that Manrico was to meet his future wife. Vera, who had been working for Andy Warhol for the past nine years, epitomized that very rare aesthetic synthesis of art and design. Two opposing worlds converged, and Manrico followed Vera into the fabulous world of the Warholian party scene. Trading tails for jeans, he was whisked up into the novel and inspiring world of art and music, all the while cultivating his passion for classic automobiles.

LUXURY IN THE WILDERNESS
Manrico and Vera resolved to marry three months later. They flew to Portugal, here Manrico hoped to receive the blessing of Vera’s mother. On this fateful weekend, however, the mother was hosting a lavish party for several distinguished families. Though entirely at ease among such distinguished Italian guests as the Agnellis, Pirellis and Brandolinis, Manrico was obliged to request a new appointment with his mother-in-law-to-be. A somewhat busy lady, she would have no appointment free until three days hence; thus, Vera and Manrico headed off to Comporta, the region of Vera’s youth. Although the landscape was overgrown and the small huts dilapidated, they were each of them enthralled by the natural light and luminosity of the sky. The white undulating sand dunes extended for miles; waves would erupt and break from a turquoise sea. Glancing around, they came across the ruins of two small thatched cabanas owned by an aged couple. Their hearts were set on buying these dwellings there and then; after paying the owners $500, they then made their way back to the home of Vera’s mother.

At the appointed hour, Vera’s mother, now seated at her desk equipped with diary and pen in hand, Manrico announced his intention to marry her daughter. The response was dire: “Not on my life”; at this point, Vera, who had been anxiously waiting in the wings, vehemently intervened and with overwhelming success. Six months later, the knot was tied at what was to be the wedding event of the year.

“WE’LL JUST FLY THE CESSNA AROUND THE WORLD TRADE CENTER!”
Once returned to New York, they continued to enjoy the hustle and excitement that was the hallmark of their lives. Accompanied by Vera, Manrico would navigate his Cessna along the Hudson River, an airborne outing which finally culminated in a “figure of eight” circumnavigation of the World Trade Center. “Those were the days,” Manrico recounts with wistful, glistening eyes. We were the both of us fully occupied, happy and at the height of our careers. While Andy Warhol’s sudden passing was a tragedy for Vera, it marked a turning point in their lives and subsequent decision to -return to Europe. Hence, once back in Paris, Manrico re-joined Generali while Vera began collaborating with renowned interior designer, Jacques Grange. Their activities were perfectly complimentary: in Paris each one pursued fascinating projects – Caroline of Monaco commissioned Jacques to design the interior of her yacht and with Vera as his assistant, while they meanwhile set about creating their very own paradise in Comporta. Turning their two, twenty-nine-year-old cabanas into their home involved bulldozing away the debris, laying sandy pathways, and installing thousands of metres of plumbing and electric cable. Photo shoots by Vogue and visits by Jacques Grange and Amyn Aga Khan followed the completion of the building work; their visitors would gush on beholding this “paradise of simplicity”. Manrico would later seek out properties for for others, such as Jacques Grange, Vera’s mother and Philip Stark.. Vera augmented her own resort by introducing additional cabanas, meanwhile perfecting her peerless style of interior design. Manrico was hard at work, devoting himself with no less élan to his beloved automobiles; he restored these classics to perfection with the aid of English mechanics, who he had also commissioned to install a garage in close proximity to his home. During this time, he also took part in rallies and motor shows.

MANRICO’S ARTEFACT “THE SILVER BENTLEY”
Manrico has been on the road with his legendary Bentley R Type Continental – licence plate ABC 12 – since 1990. Originally midnight blue, Manrico had the lacquer stripped and the light alloy body polished up to shining, radiant silver. His itinerary of motoring exploits with this Bentley, are inscribed on the passenger door:

  • Louis Vuitton Classic China Run 1998
  • 1000 Millas Argentina 1998
  • Louis Vuitton Bagatelle 2000
  • 50th Anniversary Silverstone Louis Vuitton 2002
  • Louis Vuitton Classic Boheme 2006

This very same Bentley was reported stolen in Argentina some 23 years ago, while being freighted by ship. Opening the doors only to behold an empty container came as a ghastly shock. After considerable commotion, umpteen enquiries and numerous telephone calls, an anonymous caller came forward one year later to explain where the vehicle was located. Thankfully, this superlative specimen is now safely restored to the ranks of Manrico’s collection in Comporta. Manrico commissioned the construction of a building adjacent to his estate especially designed for his passion; not only does it house examples of his classic cars, motorbikes and racing bikes, but also countless memorabilia, photos and artefacts, all of which bear remarkable testimony to his life.

HIGHPOINT AND WATERSHED
Following a seven-year period during which he would commute between France and Portugal, the opportunity arose to launch a branch of Europ Assistance in Portugal. In collaboration with Espírito Santo, this branch rapidly expanded and prepared the way for a breakthrough to the Brazilian market. This was promptly followed by the establishing of additional branches in Argentina and Chile, all of which Manrico launched and directed. A seat on the Board of Directors of the holding in Paris brought with it further responsibilities in the Asia region. As President and CEO of Portugal, South America and Asia, he toiled around the clock, circumnavigating his professional universe five times a year.

Having meanwhile fathered two daughters and a son, his home in Comporta had by now blossomed into an outstanding resort, all the while his fascination for collecting classic cars never for one moment waning.

His wife Vera became gravely ill; after her passing, Manrico, by now 65 years old, discontinued his professional career to care for his children. The pain he felt for Vera at the time, he remarks, and witnessing the pain suffered by his children, brought about a transformation. Today, Manrico lives between Comporta, Lisbon and Gstaad, where he is a self-confessed “business maniac” committed to the further development of the Gstaad Yacht Club. During our visit to Comporta, we were in the privileged position to immerse ourselves in Manrico’s world, to make the acquaintance of this exceptionally gifted businessman, gentleman and bon vivant, who, forever driven by his own remarkable standards and achievement, keeps the reins tight in his hands according to the motto estote parati!