‘John Hall profoundly believes experiencing Italy is essential in understanding life ’
of the Warburg Institute; Nicholas Hall, John’s son and ex-international Head of Old Masters at Christie’s; David Ekserdjian, curator of the Royal Academy’s Bronze exhibition; and Peter Phillips, choral conductor, musicologist and founder of the Tallis Scholars.
This may explain why the course is reassuringly expensive, at just shy of £10,000 for six weeks in Venice, preceded by a week in London. Two extra optional weeks in Florence and Rome are also offered – for a price. The price may be hefty but being a John Hall Alumnus is tantamount to life membership of the establishment élite.
The list of ‘John Hallers’ reads like a potted guide to Britain’s aristocracy – Armstrong-jones, Asquith, Bowes-lyon, Cawdor, Douglas-home, Fiennes, Fitzroy, Guinness, Hesketh, Moncreiffe, Pleydell-bouverie, Sainsbury, Somerset, Villiers. Yet the course has also contributed to the cultural education of creative business moguls like Peter Bennett-jones and Cath Kidston and many a high court judge or high-profile journalist too.
From early on, John began receiving requests from parents to join the course, inspired by the lecturers and also the extraordinary access that John has negotiated over the years. Students take sole possession of the magnificent church of San Marco for an evening and are treated to a memorable private display that involves sitting in the dark and slowly having the gold mosaics lit and revealed. Envious of their children, parents wanted John to replicate that feeling of being a Venice ‘insider’.
He started allowing parents to attend some lectures, but parents pushed for more. So, in 1974, he set up John Hall Italian Journeys, aimed at oldies and other grown-ups, offering ‘culture & conviviality in beautiful surroundings’.
John himself lives in Le Marche in central Italy with his wife, where they cultivate olives and wine. His love of his adopted country remains almost childlike in its intensity. He profoundly believes that experiencing Italy is an essential step towards understanding and enjoying life.
‘We’re not just about art history,’ he says of both his ventures, ‘We’re about the art of life itself.’
‘Charlie and I get on very well together,’ says John. ‘Unlike me, Charlie has the gift of the gab; so he happily takes over in Venice, making all the announcements and introducing lecturers, which I used to do and he gives a few lectures of his own now. Now I sit at my desk at the back of the lecture room, watching and listening. I still consider my presence of some value and I value keeping in touch with the students.’
John and Charlie know not to tamper too much with a formula that has stood the test of time. A few years ago, the course was shortened but, due to student demand, it was lengthened again.
‘We will not bow to the fashion for quick, lazy fixes,’ resolves John. ‘There’s far too much rushing around on other courses. We want our students to build a real, lasting relationship with Venice and nothing shorter or less academic will do for us. We know our standard is gold and we’re never going to compromise on quality. That way we hope to keep going another fifty years at least.’