The Four Seasons Florence is a masterpiece of thoughtful, painstaking restoration, worthy of its magnificent surroundings, says Steve King
‘BY RESTORATION, there is no saying how much you have lost… Putting the question of restoration out of your mind, however, for a while, think where you are, and what you have got to look at.’ Such was John Ruskin’s advice to Grand Tourists in his jaunty travelogue Mornings in Florence.
Had the bearded sage lived for another 108 years, he might have said something similar about the new Four Seasons Florence, a masterpiece of restoration that compels you to think where you are and what you have got to look at.
This was the mamma of all fixer-uppers: a derelict Renaissance palazzo and a disused convent, facing each other across the largest private garden in the city. Former owners of the palazzo include Lorenzo the Magnificent’s chancellor, a pope, a viceroy of Egypt (who immediately sold up when he was told that he could not bring his harem with him) and the national railway company (responsible for some fetching bathroom decorations with cog and anvil motifs).
The two main buildings contain an exquisite riot of frescoes, bas-reliefs, stuccoes and silks from the past five centuries. Bringing these treasures back to their former glory became a seven-year, £60 million slog involving legions of restorers, more than 100 specialist suppliers and countless kilometres of red tape.
‘What a challenge it was!’ says Filippo Calandriello, the architect in charge of the project, who can afford to be cheerful now that the dust has settled since the hotel opened to gasps of delight at the end of 2008. Many of the palazzo’s loveliest features had simply been painted, plastered or panelled over. He remembers the first time he saw what is now the dining room in the Royal Suite (£13,000 a night, breakfast not included).
‘It was a very dark room with wood panels on the walls and a dirty white ceiling. Only two windows.’ Carefully removing layer after layer of paint on the boiserie, his team discovered traces of much older pigment — frescoes, it turned out, by Baldassarre ‘Il Volterrano’ Franceschini, whose handiwork also adorns nearby Santa Croce.
TODAY GUESTS CAN enjoy the cool sensation of 18th-century Capodimonte ceramic tiles under their feet while the warm gaze of Leo XI — the so-called Lightning Pope, who lasted less than a month in the job before he died — beams down upon them from the ceiling.
Uncovering old things was only the half of it. Keeping new things covered up was just as important, and often just as difficult. Ducts, pipes and cables caused the biggest headaches. ‘We had real troubles designing all the “pathways” — percorsi in Italian — to service the oldest part of the building with air conditioning, internet etc,’ says Calandriello.
‘Since nothing in that part of the building was touchable, we spent months and months discovering secret passages between the beams under the roof where we could put units for air conditioners or electrical switchboards.’
The cunning co-existence of frescoes and fibre-optic cables may not be everyone’s idea of what makes a fancy hotel great. But here it works, brilliantly. And it is tempting to think that Ruskin would have approved. Nothing has been lost.
The Four Seasons Florence, Borgo Pinti 99, Florence
00 39 055 26261