FLORENCE — The Palazzo Strozzi Foundation USA honored Leonard A. Lauder here Wednesday night during a dinner at the historic Palazzo Vecchio, where he received the Renaissance Man of the Year Award in the lavish, frescoed Salone dei Cinquecento, or “Hall of the 500,” a reference to the number of grand council members who once convened there.

This story first appeared in the April 25, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Chairman Emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. and its self-proclaimed “Teacher in Chief,” Lauder was recognized for his lifelong dedication to the arts, business, education and philanthropy. The Palazzo Strozzi Foundation USA is the American branch of an Italian institution, the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, and is dedicated to the promotion of humanistic Renaissance values. The organization is involved in a wide range of cultural and philanthropic endeavors, including sending groups of American high school students to study in Italy, through its High School Renaissance Award program.

Over coffee before the awards ceremony began, Lauder reflected on a wide variety of cultural issues and past experiences.

He noted that Florentines of the Renaissance — including various members of the ultrapowerful, controversial and storied Medici family — “had the idea of the active life: the idea that you make money, [and then] you give back.

People say the difference between the Americans and the Europeans is that the Americans have the tax breaks and the Europeans don’t. That is not so.…Everywhere throughout Europe except for Florence, all the great museums were founded by royalty. In the U.S. and in Florence, they were all founded by families,” Lauder said, citing the Carnegie, Frick, Mellon and Rockefeller clans, as well as J.P. Morgan, as major museum patrons. In 2013, Lauder, also staunch supporter of the art world, donated 78 Cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Asked whether European austerity policies, which have frequently involved hefty cuts to government funding of the arts, were short-sighted, Lauder said: “Those cuts are looked at today by the Europeans as being temporary cuts. But they’re really permanent.”

He added: “That is when you must start thinking of new ways to create a culture that celebrates the arts privately and doesn’t wait for government to step in.…The arts are a necessity of life that [this next generation] must personally support, and should not have to fully depend on the government,” which may prioritize funding for health care, for instance.

Arts aside, Lauder shared some thoughts on his decades of visiting Italy. In the Sixties, he focused intently on making the company founded by his parents, Estée and Joseph, more international, and he said Italy was the second or third foreign market the firm approached, around 1963. “One of the reasons we came to Italy was that the Italians…were quick to embrace newness, and they embraced us,” Lauder said.

His first trip to Italy, however, took place a decade prior, when Lauder was a 20-year-old student exploring Venice. “I remember we stayed in this little, little tiny guest house, and in order to take a bath you had to go into another bathroom and you’d put some coins in and get hot water. Maybe it was 25 cents a bath or something like that,” Lauder recalled, adding: “I have great memories.”

About Italians, Lauder said he admires “their style, their point of view and their sense of adornment” as well as “their sense of family.”

The Palazzo Strozzi Foundation’s approach to intercultural exchange is “fabulous,” said Lauder, because: “Don’t think you can understand any country by reading about it: You have to be there, you have to travel and visit.”

He continued: “The thousands of miles I’ve traveled, and how I’ve traveled, and where I’ve traveled, and what I’ve seen, has added up into a greater understanding of the world, and there is no way that market research can replace face-to-face visitations.”

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