After a meticulous seven-year restoration, the 15th-century Palazzo della Gherardesca opens its doors as the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, with remarkable frescoes, expansive gardens, and artisanal cooking.
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.
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.
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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.
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When to Go
The city has warm, pleasant weather in the spring and fall. Many stores and restaurants close in August, when Italians flee the city heat for the coast.
Where to Stay
Four Seasons Hotel Firenze
99 Borgo Pinti; 39-055/26261; doubles from $790.
Where to Eat
99 Borgo Pinti; 39-055/26261; dinner for two $250.
12/R Borgo Pinti; 39-055/241-341; dinner for two $140.
Osteria del Caffè Italiano
A café with delicious small plates, located on the ground floor of a palazzo in Santa Croce. 11/13R Via dell’Isola delle Stinche; 39-055/289-368; lunch for two $150.
Seafood restaurant with a canopied terrace. The branzino, baked in salt, is a must-try. 25-27R Viale Mazzini; 39-055/244-140; dinner for two $160.
The city’s best kosher option. Don’t miss the lox, couscous, and falafel. Via Luigi Carlo Farini; 39-055/248-0888; lunch for two $63.
A casual restaurant with refined Tuscan cooking. 122R Via de’ Macci; 39-055/234-1100; dinner for two $100.
What to See and Do
Archaeological Museum of Florence
Has held Medici collections of Etruscan, Roman, Greek, and Egyptian art since 1870. 38 Via della Colonna; 39-055/294-883; firenzemusei.it.
3 Via Micheli; 39-055/275-7402; msn.unifi.it.
Contains The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Masaccio’s early Renaissance masterpiece. Santa Maria del Carmine, Piazza del Carmine; 39-055/276-8224.
National Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology
Houses an impressive collection of African and Asian art. 12 Via del Proconsolo (near the Duomo); 39-055/239-6449; msn.unifi.it.
San Lorenzo Market
Piazza del Mercato Centrale; no phone.
San Marco Museum
Includes the famed monks’ cells with frescoes by Fra Angelico. 3 Piazza San Marco; 39-055/290-112; firenzemusei.it.
View the church’s frescoes by Perugino, Andrea del Sarto, and Jacopo da Pontormo. Piazza Santissima Annunziata; 39-055/266-181.
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