It is just in sight – the golden copula gleams as the sunlight catches it: from the gardens of Villa San Michele, a Belmond Hotel, you can just about spot Florence’s glorious Renaissance cathedral, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, shining in the distance.
Based on the outskirts of Florence, in the hills of Fiesole, the hotel has prime position overlooking the city. It, too, has its roots in the 15th century – the golden era for Florence, the jewel in the crown of Italy.
Once a Franciscan monastery – the porticoed façade was designed by an architect who was said to be schooled under Michelangelo, no less. Now, its once straightened aesthetic has been bought to life with a recent revamp by Luigi Fragola Architects which sees rich fabrics, soft furnishings and plenty of greenery, all while celebrating the heritage of the building.
The former chapel has been reimagined as a lofty entrance and lobby area. Its religious alcoves, still featuring original frescoes and stone fireplaces, are now the place where a thirsty guest can find a glass of bubbles waiting or a table of art books to peruse. On the main altar is an 18th century mirror sourced from Siena, while beautiful inlaid tables from Lombardy, dating back to the 18th century, double up as check-in desks.
As well as Michelangelo’s legacy – however tenuous some may say it is – the artistic and artisan heritage of Florence is inescapable here. The monastery remained the property of the Franciscans until 1808 when the monastic orders were dissolved by Napoleon and, in 1817, it returned to secular use. By this time, many of its most treasured possessions had been dispersed throughout Florence’s churches and art galleries. The triptych in the Academia attributed to Niccolò di Piero Gerini and another above the high altar in the church of Santa Trinità both originally stood in this hilltop sanctuary.
Beautifully-carved benches sit on original terracotta floors, vaulted ceilings give a spiritual feel to the warren-like run of rooms in the hotel’s main building and evocative, Old Masters are found, dotted around the walls. Antique furniture is mixed with modern Italian design so that it gives the warm feel that you’ve entered into a home of an eclectic collector.
Belmond – a long-time champion of the arts – continues the passion for artistic excellence with its new collaboration with internationally acclaimed art gallery – Galleria Continua, which has outposts all over the world. The partnership, named MITICO, celebrates four prominent artists, with their work featuring in four of Belmond Hotels’ landmark gardens across Italy.
At Villa San Michele, there are two pieces of work from Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich (on view from 17 May to 7 November 2022). ‘Window & Ladder’, found in a prime position in the gardens, pays homage to the hotel’s exceptional location and views over Florence.
The large-scale piece, depicting a ladder leading to a real window seemingly suspended in the sky, challenges and manipulates your concept of reality and embraces ideas of universal beauty through differing points of view. It is beautifully evocative, tempting you to ‘climb’ the ladder (in reality, this is only allowed in your mind!) to view the sky and cityscape through the open window.
‘The Cloud’, meanwhile, is located within the historical refectory of Villa San Michele, often used as a private dining space. The piece consists of multiple panes of glass, and sits below an ancient fresco – ‘The Last Supper’ by Nicodemo Ferrucci, completed in 1606 – a poignant placement bringing old and new art together. An ethereal ‘cloud’ is suspended within the glass structure and, when seen from various angles, the unique floating work of art appears as a three-dimensional structure, promoting the question – what is reality and what is illusion?
The bar is the perfect place to ponder this concept further. It is found adjacent to the refectory, carved out of what was once an internal courtyard – and is now made cosy with marble tables and occasional velvets chairs in hues of burnt orange and mustard.
At La Loggia, the main restaurant, you dine on Tuscan favourites with a choice of tasting menus. Through the 16th century arches of the former loggia, you can watch the lights in Florence shimmer in the distance, Brunelleschi’s Dome taking pride of place. Alongside the restaurant sits Ristorante San Michele, where executive chef Alessandro Cozzolino’s menu adds to the elegant ambiance – from the Florentine tomato salad with burrata to the Tuscan ravioli with Cetica potatoes, tomato sauce and mozzarella. All the dishes champion specialities from the Slow Food Foundation, including raw milk pecorino from Maremma, red onions from Certaldo and Sorana beans.
As well as a selection of 22 rooms in the main building, there are a further 23 rooms in the terraced gardens. These have simple, elegant designs, with doors overlooking the gardens, and little patio areas. Every time you fling open the doors, your room is scented by the lemon trees and lavender plants outside. Huge bathrooms bring the wow factor – with marble tubs, dressing areas and Aqua di Parma toiletries.
At first glance, the rooms may look simple – a nod perhaps to the ecclesiastical heritage here, but attention to detail is second-to-none. Bedlinens are of the finest quality, blooms of exuberant flowers are left in your room and textiles – such as botanical embroidered cushions – have been made by Florentine artisans. It’s the best in ‘quiet luxury’, which maybe even the monks would have approved off.