VERONA - Balancing a silver tray with a champagne bottle on the palm of his hand, butler Maurizio Tagliavia waited amid the vineyards for the helicopter that brings guests to the boutique hotel in the 15th century Villa Del Quar.
The 56-year-old engineer and one-time Italian army parachutist had been unemployed since 2012, when he lost his job as sales director for a renewable energy firm. His break came in February, when he was selected for an intensive course to become a modern-day butler.
"Let's see if there's anything in this," Tagliavia recalls thinking. "I went online to see what a butler does and doesn't do."
Today, Tagliavia, a wiry man with receding hair and ready smile, is employed by Villa De Quar's owner as butler for the high-end guests who rent the master suite at the estate-turned-hotel on the outskirts of Verona.
Butlers, the discreet mainstays of high society in the 19th and early 20th centuries, are enjoying a renaissance. Steven Ferry, founder and chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers, estimates there could be nearly 40,000 people in butler roles in hotels and private estates around the world.
Ferry, a former butler and author of a manual on butlers and households managers, says the profession suffered after World War Two, because aristocratic families could no longer afford to keep large staffs. Their employees were pushed out into a world where they found more opportunities and better treatment.
But butlering began to re-emerge in the 1990s thanks in part to a rise in the number of people who became wealthy during the dot-com bubble in the United States, says Ferry. The last decade has seen growing demand from Russia, the Middle East and China, which is now the fastest-growing market.
While middle classes in the U.S. and Europe have suffered during the five years of economic crisis, the ultra-rich have fared far better during and since the recession.
From 101 Dalmatians to Batman, Hollywood has created memorable characters out of butlers. Their importance in high-society households is central to Downton Abbey, the hit TV show in which Jim Carter plays the nostalgic butler Charles Carson.
Recruiters say butlers, who sometimes manage staff of up to 200 people working on estates, yachts and private jets, can earn from $40,000 to $500,000 a year.
WHEN TO SERVE THE MONKEY
Former butlers say their profession requires skills that range from the ability to organize an event, to guaranteeing wifi connection anywhere in the world, to sewing a button on to a shirt or finding a table at a fully booked restaurant.
The key, says Ferry, is to keep a cool head. The former butler, now 61, recalls that one of his employers always liked to eat dinner with his monkey at the table. "There's the question of protocol: do you serve the monkey first or last?"
Amid growing demand, butler training courses have flourished. For recent training offered by the Italian Butlers Association, 70 people applied for 10 places. Candidates were selected through written applications and an interview.
One Saturday last month, the aspiring butlers met in Rome's Empire Palace Hotel. They were taught how to polish silver, set the table for brunch on a boat, and were lectured on the subtle art of escaping from a talkative guest. They were also taught the basics of wine tasting and serving. Among the questions on the next day's exam: where to place the snail fork in a table setting (on the right).
Nahila Bersezio, a 35-year-old former flight attendant for troubled Italian airline Alitalia, said she had applied for the course in the hope of landing a job as staff on a private jet. Edoardo Frezet, a 26-year-old philosophy graduate who is fluent in French, Italian and English, said he took the course in the hope that his experience as a sailing instructor will lead to a job on a private yacht.
As part of the course, each trainee butler was told to prepare a 'kit', a neat bag containing supplies for any emergency. Sara Provenzano, 34, who has worked in hotels for a decade, gathered a miniature stationery kit, first aid, sleeping drops, superglue, a torch, shoe polish, a vanity kit and a sewing kit with a selection of buttons. Her secret weapon was in a zipped leather booklet: phone numbers of the directors of all Rome's top hotels, in case a client has a special request.
Some scoff at the idea that butlering can be taught in a classroom.
"They're taking anybody, including somebody who might have been a lorry driver for 20 years who decides he want to be a butler," says John Pettman, a former butler who now recruits staff for families on the Forbes Billionaires List.
Pettman began working at Buckingham Palace at the age of 16, opening car doors for guests of the British Royal Family. He then became a footman at the British Embassy in Paris. "People feel they can put themselves in a black waistcoat and become a butler," says the 33-year-old, who insists that excellence in the profession only "comes with experience".
LIKE A PRIEST
Elisa dal Bosco, head of the Italian Butlers Association, says she knew Tagliavia, the engineer, was a true butler in the making when she observed him taking the course.
"Maurizio is perfect. He has beautiful experience working with people, he is cultured, and he knows what it means to make sacrifices," says dal Bosco.
After completing the course, Tagliavia, who is divorced and without children, was hired by Leopoldo Montresor, an architect and antiques collector who has transformed his family's Villa del Quar into a boutique five-star-hotel.
"It was hard to find butlers before, because the tradition was lost. But we are discovering it once again," said Montresor, clad in a pale suit as he walked around his estate one morning last month. "To tell you the truth, I have a governess at home, and she solves all of my problems. But I thought: why not have a butler to help our guests?"
Sheikhs, pop stars and industry moguls who book the villa's master suite are served personally by Tagliavia. Most recently, he was chauffeur and personal organiser for a Brazilian couple who held their wedding reception in the villa. He makes around 2,000 euros net a month.
Tagliavia, who speaks English, Italian, Spanish and some French, says he hopes eventually to find work abroad, preferably in a hotel. "Europe, China, anywhere," he said.
But butlering is not for everybody: "Discretion. Discretion is the crucial thing," he says.
"You must be invisible. You must absorb much information that never comes out again. Like a priest." (Editing by Alessandra Galloni, Giles Elgood and Anna Willard)