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Hotel Rooms with a View

Simon Watson

Photo: Simon Watson

Take the egg at the new Four Seasons Hotel in Florence. The resident chef, Vito Mollica, met the man from whom it came, Paolo Parisi, on the farmer’s estate near Pisa. There, he feeds his 1,200 hens a concoction containing fresh goat’s milk—from his own goats—among other nourishing ingredients. This egg, which costs about $1 wholesale, is no ordinary egg. Or rather, it is everything an egg should be, and nothing an egg shouldn’t. It comes in a large white shell. The yolk is not bright orange but creamy yellow, and it has an almondy aftertaste. When it arrives in your room, soft-boiled, let’s say, on Ginori china—white with emerald-green and gold ornamentation—and the man ushering it in, along with little home-baked croissants or Bircher muesli, as the case may be, convincingly utters that therapeutic Italian word, Buongiorno!, you might not be so vulgar as to say this is heaven, but the day begins to look rather promising.

A fine hotel, a really fine hotel, can give you a rosy opinion of your life and of your role in it. Especially when everything that somehow comes into contact with you, from the sheets to the jam, has been so carefully considered. Even the lawn mower is worthy of an establishment that was once the Palazzo della Gherardesca: it goes about its business on magical autopilot, up and down the grassy expanses, robotically and noiselessly. Whenever it encounters gravel, an ancient magnolia, or a rare willow, it stops momentarily, bewildered, then swivels around and sets off in a different direction. The same fanatical care was taken in the choice of personnel (2,000 were interviewed, I was told, to fill a few hundred positions). The result is an assortment of charming, sensitive people, such as a concierge who can discern from a phone conversation just what sort of restaurant you’d enjoy. Marzio, Claudia, Vito, Patrizio, Alessandro, Elisa: you’ll want to learn their names; they’ll know yours.

I have firsthand knowledge of Renaissance villas in Florence, having been cloistered in one for three years, from ages 15 to 18, at a rather strict boarding school. Despite the frescoes, high ceilings, reliefs, and stuccos I was privileged to live with, the experience leads me to be rather grateful today for the Palazzo della Gherardesca’s superior heating; far, far, better beds; vast and luxurious bathrooms; and utterly delightful food. Unassuming luxury is the prevalent mood, from the service to the general style of the place (and unlike at boarding school, I can come and go as I please).

The reinvention of the Palazzo della Gherardesca as a Four Seasons hotel can be credited in part to the marchese Jacopo Mazzei, a Florentine nobleman fed up with the sort of tourism that divides the city between outsiders and insiders—the insiders retreating to the quieter neighborhoods, places where there is less to see and do, less to attract visitors. What a set of entrepreneurial Florentines would like visitors to appreciate now is their way of life, and not merely their treasures of art and architecture. The Four Seasons is one of a handful of hotels in a part of Florence the Florentines still consider relatively unspoiled, on the right bank of the Arno. Within walking distance is one of Florence’s finest Renaissance palazzi, the Palazzo Tornabuoni, currently undergoing renovation and also managed by Four Seasons, though not as a hotel but as a residence club.

Patrizio Cipollini, the general manager of the hotel, calls it “Italy’s first city resort, with a park, a spa, and a pool, and just a short walk from the center of town.” He intends not only to anticipate his guests’ wishes but also to “dazzle them.” (What a difference from my headmistress, who wanted only to terrify.)

Every room in the hotel is different, as in a private house, and every room has character—that’s good architecture. The Royal Suite, with its majolica floors and gallery of tall arched windows overlooking the Fountain Terrace, is one of many stunning spaces. Just who, exactly, is responsible for the design is a bit of an art-historical whodunit. A thick volume titled La Casa del Cancelliere weighs the problem. The architect of the courtyard, with its graceful arches and allegorical reliefs dating back to the late 1400’s, was said to have been Giuliano da Sangallo, who later collaborated with Raphael on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But he was Lorenzo de’ Medici’s favorite architect, so it seems unlikely that the owner of the house, Bartolomeo Scala, the son of a miller from the rural provinces who had risen to the ranks of chancellor at the Medici court, would have dared hire him. Besides, Sangallo would have been too young at the time. The book theorizes that Scala very likely designed his own house, availing himself of the city’s most gifted artisans and adhering to the architectural precepts of the great humanist and Renaissance man, Leon Battista Alberti, whom he admired. Accounting records pertaining to the construction of the house, which was a humble casa colonica, seem to support this idea, because an architect is never mentioned among the minutely documented expenditures.

It was, and is, a perfect spot—poised between the center of the city and the countryside: the botanical garden is nearby, as is the school of architecture and a handful of private gardens, such as that of the neighboring Kunsthistorisches Institut. But the 11-acre park of the Gherardesca is by far the largest private one in Florence. Scala wisely bought up small parcels of land to expand his domain, and it stayed in the family for two generations, until there were no male heirs left. Three daughters, all nuns, were given a lifelong income from the proceeds of the sale in 1585 to the new owner, Cardinal Alessandro de’ Medici, who soon afterward moved to Rome as Pope Leo XI. He lasted such a short time in this role—26 days, before succumbing to an untimely death—that he was dubbed the Lightning Pope. His sister Costanza, who was married to a Gherardesca, inherited the house in Florence. The family, continuing a practice the cardinal had begun, frescoed the history of their most notable ancestors onto the ceilings of the house, and a certain Count Guido Alberto della Gherardesca refashioned the garden in the 1800’s into its current romantic form, with avenues, a pond, and rare trees, including the first mandarin oranges in Italy. In 1885, the house was sold to Ismail Pasha, a former viceroy of Egypt, who quickly resold it to a railroad association when he was denied permission by the city of Florence to bring along his harem of 75 women.

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