by Padraic Gilligan
Italian cities, in general, don’t carry their illustrious past as a burden that prevents them from getting on with 21st century living. The past is integrated into the present sometimes seamlessly, sometimes not but, either way, contemporary life simply carries on, regardless, amidst the ruins. The challenges that this throws up are accepted with a simple shrug of the shoulders. So en route to A. Vespucci Airport to catch your plane you gnaw at the inside of your mouth and say nothing while a delivery truck unloads a consignment blocking the entire road for 10 minutes in the process.
On the positive side, if you’re a Professional Meeting Planner then you’re left with some rather tasty options when it comes to selecting off property venues for business meetings and Gala dinners. This is the case in Florence where I recently participated on a site inspection for a Convention due to take place in April 2013.
The size and style of the group along with a suitably generous budget made Four Seasons Firenze the perfect choice for this programme. Occupying different period buildings either side of an extensive private parkland, this is one of the most stunning and unique luxury hotels in Europe compromising a palazzo with original frescos and a convent with an incredible chapel now re-purposed as a stunning meeting room. The 116 rooms and suites range from 40 – 90sqm while the presidential suite checks in at 235sqm – almost 3 times the size of an average Florentine apartment! On Sundays a lavish brunch is served at Il Palagio, the restaurant on the ground floor of Palazzo della Gherardesca. This veritable cornucopia includes an “open kitchen” where hot entrees are served by benign, cheerful, smiling chefs. Is this wasn’t a Four Seasons it would be a twisted Italian version of “Stepford Wives”!
Yet Four Seasons isn’t the only place of elegance and beauty in Florence. Michael Libotte, Managing Director of Ovation Italy, brought us to two urban palazzi where high end functions can be held in rarefied, dignified privacy. Palazzo Gerini is owned by the eponymous Marchesa now resident, for an unexplained reason, in Roma. Located 30m from the Accademia (which proudly hosts Michelangelo’s David and Prisoner series), this palazzo is rented out a few times a year for functions. Under the watchful but decidedly suspicious eye of the custode we moved through endless interconnecting rooms our “wows” gradually sounding hollow and trite as more marvels revealed themselves to us. With capacity for around 180 persons in the main ballroom this 400 year old treasure is authentic and real with no crass signage, roped off areas or particular restrictions around its use. Renzo from catering company Lo Scalco showed us impressive footage on his computer of a recent function where all guests dressed in mediaeval costume. And while historical pedants may cavil at these blatant anachronistic liberties, the guests themselves seemed indifferent to whether they were having a Renaissance or a Mediaeval ball!
Palazzo Corsini, if anything, may be even more impressive. A Baroque structure in a predominantly Renaissance city, this private venue is situated around the corner from the recently restored St Regis Hotel. It faces directly onto the Arno River affording stunning views from its first floor open terrace of the river, its bridges and the wonderful, typical Florentine skyline of the Oltrarno. With capacity over its many rooms for about 1500 the Salone del Trono or Throne Room is the jewel in a rather splendid crown extending to some 320 sqm. You enter Palazzo Corsini at the elegant courtyard and proceed up the magnificent staircase, flanked by neo-classical statuary and into the fresco bedecked Galleria Aurora where mullioned lateral windows provide a glimpse of the River and the Oltrarno. Moving on through the Appartamento Cardinale Neri you emerge onto the open terrace and enjoy a cold Prosecco while drinking in unique vistas up river to the Ponte Vecchio and across river to the Giardini Boboli and Piazzale Michelangelo. If you close your eyes and imagine you might just be Lucy Honeychurch from E.M. Foster’s Room with a View!
Having done the mandatory cultural visits to the Duomo, the Uffizi and the Accademia on previous recent visits to the city, I was determined this time to explore the slightly less prominent Palazzo Medici Riccardi. This is very much a “working building” playing host to a variety of permanent and temporary exhibitions as well as providing the administrative meetings rooms and offices of the Provincial Authority. Palazzo Medici Riccardi has fully embraced modern technology in its deployment of Star Trek like “point and activate” screens which allow you to explore the incredible frescos of the Cappella dei Magi in advance of your actual visit there. Panels from the Frescos of the tiny church are displayed on large, fully interactive screens. When you stand before the screens and point at specific sections these sections are magnified and explained in the language of your choice. You then climb the stairs and visit the tiny cappella where the original fresco adorns the walls. The Palazzo also featured huge, cutting edge contemporary paintings from Giuseppe Ciccia who was on hand to engage personally with visitors and a stunning exhibition of the work of Florentine painter Dino Caponi who died in 2000 at the age of 80. And here again I was face to face with that nexus of old and new, the ancient and the contemporary, side by side, sometimes easily, sometimes tensely but always creating a dynamic and an energy which is uniquely and quintessentially Italian.
Padraic Gilligan is Managing Director of Ovation Global DMC – www.ovationdmc.com
Thanks to Michael Libotte of Ovation Italy and to my great friend and fellow traveller Paul Eder who were part of this Florentine discovery!