Filippo Calandriello, the architect in charge of current renovations, is following a master plan by Studio Noferi and Magris & Partners, with interior design by Pierre-Yves Rochon. He told me that the most rewarding aspect of his job was witnessing the uncovering of frescoes in the piano nobile—the principal wing of the building—“every day bringing to light the beauty of the original as it once was.” Many, he said, had simply been painted over as a form of protection. The Superintendence for Artistic and Historical Patrimony of Florence, which watches over works of historical interest and makes sure they are not tampered with, has stringent rules, so the layout of the rooms could not be changed. If a door had to be inserted into a wall with a fresco on it, the fresco was lifted and applied to the door. Calandriello collaborated with local architects to make sure plans “respected the rules,” supervising three engineering studios and a team of landscape, interior, and lighting designers.
Across the street is the city’s botanical garden, where the azalea shrubs were in full bloom when I visited—pink, crimson, and white. It’s a thrilling neighborhood one can easily navigate on a bicycle, as Florentines do, with the San Lorenzo market for clothes and a startling array of fresh produce (I counted seven varieties of tomatoes and five types of artichokes). A huddle of addictive restaurants, from the formal to the vernacular, serve fish carpaccios and etherealized Tuscan fare. There is also a synagogue and a family-run kosher café called Ruth’s. Florentines like to buy trippa alla fiorentina (tripe in tomato sauce) from the street vendor around the corner from the celebrated Trattoria Cibrèo. Close by are some of Florence’s more esoteric sights—such as Fra Angelico’s wall frescoes in the monks’ cells at San Marco, and the city’s ethnological museum, filled with finds by adventurous mid-19th-century Italian anthropologists. Most of the display cases are still the original ones. The archaeology museum, centering on Medici and Hapsburg-Lorraine private collections, houses Egyptian treasures in Art Deco vitrines that line the walls of a hall whose center aisle is occupied by an impressive row of mummies.
We did not have any mummies at my boarding school—the villa’s only esoteric attraction was a spiderweb-encrusted subterranean tunnel that supposedly led straight to Piazza Pitti, a mile away, though we never did muster the nerve to try it. Like the Palazzo della Gherardesca, it also had a “Chinese” hall, with wallpaper depicting a fanciful notion of chinoiserie: parasols in delicate cherry shades, ladies with very white faces and chrysanthemums popping out from behind their shoulders. The bathrooms of my school villa were vast and festooned, but shared by groups of 20 girls. A luxurious bathroom is one in which you might dance around the tub, for instance, and never bump into any walls, given the expanse. There are several of those at the Four Seasons, laden with soaps and scents by the Florentine perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi, and with views that might make you late in the morning. If you are a Modernist, there is one perfect suite near the Conventino in a self-contained barn that once housed lemon trees in winter. If you want your privacy, you can stay at the Conventino itself, whose public spaces are somewhat more austere—it was originally a convent founded by a Flemish noblewoman—with an entrance onto Via Capponi that leads straight to Piazza Santissima Annunziata and Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents) and, in five minutes on foot, to the Duomo itself.
The food at the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze is serious and excellent. Vito Mollica, the chef at the hotel’s Il Palagio restaurant, has immersed himself in contemporary cooking techniques without giving up on traditional Italian preparations. “I studied with Herbert Berger,” Mollica says, referring to the chef at London’s Michelin-starred 1 Lombard Street. “But don’t get me wrong: I haven’t changed my philosophy of cooking. I still love the ‘terroir’ [local foods and dishes]; I have just refined my craft. Our job is to exalt ingredients.” Mollica, who is just 37, with a wife and two children, formerly headed up the restaurant at the Four Seasons in Prague. He has very black eyes, a neatly clipped beard, and a mustache. There is a monklike seriousness to this man. “The ingredient,” Mollica declares, “has to be issued an ID card. You have to know names and surnames: The pasta, for instance, is by Benedetto Cavalieri from the Salento area of Puglia. The olive oil is by Armando Manni from Mount Amiata—absolutely fantastic. The vinegar is by Cesare Giaccone. These are all passionate artisans.”
You can taste a pecorino cheese with a glass of Sassicaia or a canapé of wild salmon with a martini at the bar, which serves small light dishes like the very local pappa al pomodoro (bread-and-tomato soup), barley salad, and a lighter version of Florentine tripe than the one sold by the street vendors. At Il Palagio, Mollica serves homemade pastas such as ricotta-and-mint ravioli in a lamb sauce. (The lamb comes from Sardinia.)
For a change of pace from Mollica’s perfections, La Giostra, so named because the long, vaulted space once housed a carousel, is a perfectly straightforward restaurant on Borgo Pinti, a brief walk away, owned and run by Prince Dimitri and Soldano d’Asburgo Lorena. Everything’s good, from a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce to the boneless pigeon on a spit and the “infernal potatoes” it comes with. Back at the hotel, you will be met with a smile. Our headmistress usually scowled when we came through that impressive solid-wood portal, which was about a yard thick. At the Palazzo della Gherardesca, there’s no scowling, and you won’t have to wear a scratchy gray uniform and a starched pleated collar for the pleasure of waking up to a fresco over your head.
Gini Alhadeff is a T+L contributing editor.