A house by the sea in Sicily: it’s the real-estate aspiration of the ages. For thousands of years, from across Mare Nostrum they came to conquer – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans – and were conquered themselves, founding colonies and erecting temples all along its fetching coastline. In later centuries, artists and Grand Tourists fell just as hard for Sicily’s limpid bays and coves and for its singular history, layering dominion upon dominion in a splendid cultural collage. But no one did seaside living like the Sicilians themselves: witness the outskirts of Palermo, the capital – its suburbs now gone somewhat to seed, but in the 18th century a utopia of citrus groves and spectacular aristocratic estates tumbling down to the Tyrrhenian whose splendidly délabré villas still grace the landscape.
It was a century later that the upwardly mobile Florio family – owners of shipping concerns, fisheries and packaging plants (we owe the existence of canned tuna to their enterprising vision) and producers of the marsala wine by which most probably know their name – acquired a house on a promontory just north of Palermo’s port, in the shadow of Monte Pellegrino. Ignazio Florio Sr christened it Villa Florio, thereby helping solidify the family’s social bona fides; a few decades later his son, Ignazio Jr, decided to leverage its potential as a destination. In 1899, with his aristocratic wife Franca – a society beauty and salonnière whom Kaiser Wilhelm II called the “Star of Italy” – he enlisted the celebrated Palermitan architect Filippo Ernesto Basile to go about expanding the villa into a full-service luxury hotel.
For the next two decades, the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea (rechristened after the Florios’ daughter) made history. Palermo emerged as a Place To Be; the Florios were its People To Know. Conceived as a sort of sprawling dépendence for their illustrious friends, the hotel was instantly a dense who’s who of international royalty, industry and celebrity. Nicholas II of Russia, Edward VII and George V of Great Britain, Chulalongkorn of Siam and the Duc d’Orléans were among its early patrons. The first Baron Rothschild and John Pierpont Morgan rocked up on their yachts. Some visited the cathedral at Monreale or the Palazzo dei Normanni, with its 900-year-old mosaics; some made for the nearby Bagni della Regina grotto to swim and disport in privacy. But most were content to enjoy themselves on the premises of the hotel that was one of the epicentres of society in Europe.
Fortunes turned, as they do. The Villa Igiea went out of the Florios’ hands before the second world war; by the end of the 20th century it had been in slow decline for years. While the grandeur of the setting, and of Basile’s building, never really diminished, its cachet seemed consigned firmly to the past. And it’s probably fair to say that the city, which went into its own decline around the same time, has lacked a truly exceptional hotel more or less ever since.
Enter Rocco Forte, chairman of the eponymous hospitality group whose properties are some of Europe’s sleekest. Forte and his sister, deputy chair and design director Olga Polizzi, set their sights on the Villa Igiea after opening Verdura, their resort on Sicily’s south-west coast, a decade ago. It had enormous potential, but it wasn’t without complications. Beyond the hurdles of acquisition and renovation (the entire hotel is fairly heavily listed), there was the issue of the desirability of Palermo itself: there are those – your writer firmly among them – who adore the city and its dingy-round-the-edges resplendence, its shades of Buenos Aires and Marrakech amid the baroque froth and Norman austerity. But many British give it a miss entirely; they make instead for Taormina, or the chicer-every-year Val di Noto, below Syracuse. Palermo never stopped loving the Villa Igiea –would a reborn Villa Igiea love it back?
Several years and some €30m later, Forte is about to get his answer. The hotel reopens this month, after a tip- to-toe renovation overseen by Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen, co-owners/creative directors at London-based Nicholas Haslam, together with Polizzi. The famous blush- coloured façade; the castellations; the lozenge-shaped pool, flanked by its ancient temple “ruin” (a Florio folly); the garden planted with palms, hibiscus and cacti: all have been spruced and trimmed but remain largely as were.
Inside is where the meticulous preservation efforts meet with creative reinvention. “Basile is practically unknown in England,” says Polizzi. “His love of the medieval and of Liberty [Italian art nouveau]” – both styles evident across the Villa Igiea – “is a strange combination, but he is much prized in Palermo.” The double-height Sala Basile, with its frescoes by Ettore de Maria Bergler and huge flowery glass centre light, is typical of the architect. “It was luckily very well preserved, and we only had to gently restore it,” says Polizzi. The tail end of this work was happening when I arrived. Graduates of the local Belle Arti academy, tattooed and dreadlocked in paint-splattered overalls, stood on ladders, meticulously cleaning final sections of spectacular scenes: languid maids in translucent white and gold dresses; fields of irises and stalky poppies; peacocks fanning out abundant teal and sapphire tail feathers.
There’s a grand walnut-wood staircase, its ornately designed railing camouflaging an intertwined B and E (Basile was known for his clever covert signatures), and – serendipitously, notes Polizzi – several pieces of furniture that the architect designed for the hotel, which have been restored and reside throughout. The original concierge benches, wood monoliths with a very Grand Budapest air about them, were removed, cleaned and reinstalled. (Also very Grand Budapest: the huge tasselled room keys – not cards, not digital fobs; real keys – that hang in neat cubbies behind them.)
The renovation, which lasted two years – one of them during the pandemic shutdown – was daunting (“It should have been the most wonderful job, in beautiful Palermo, but at times it was a bit of a nightmare,” Polizzi admits). Every last detail had to be approved – occasionally via Zoom – by the local cultural oversight ministry. “Even the colour schemes,” says Vergeylen, a process made easier “by basing all of them on the Sala Basile murals, so no one could really say they weren’t legitimate”.
Entire floors of rooms were dismantled and remade, reducing the number from 120-plus to 100. The old bathrooms were sometimes minuscule; interconnecting suites weren’t the de rigueur configuration they are today. “We had to totally rethink the layouts for the modern comfort factor,” Vergeylen told me. “But also to bear in mind that when people who know the Villa Igiea come back” – and there is, he says, a small army of discerning people out there who are very attached to the hotel – “the response we want isn’t ‘Oh, it feels so different’; it’s ‘Oh, you’ve brought it back to life.’”
“The way to do that was to respect it having been conceived of as a kind of private residence,” adds Moschino. “After all, before it was a hotel it was Villa Florio. We’ve kept the small libraries and sitting rooms” – which could have been consolidated into bigger (and better revenue-generating) spaces. “Buildings have characters, they evolve; I don’t believe in scraping that away entirely.”
That said, Vergeylen notes that Forte was partial to reminding the design team that “Villa Igiea” is still preceded by the words “Grand Hotel”. Out, then, with any intimations of a beachy or remotely casual design scheme. “A perfect setting for a grand weekend in a grand house” was the goal, says Vergeylen. Even the smallest rooms (which, at about 35 sq m, aren’t small) have soaring ceilings, beds canopied in tapestry and walls clad in rich blue, gold and sage hessian, or else wallpapers produced by the Design Lab at San Patrignano, the rehabilitation community recently made famous by the Netflix documentary series SanPa: Sins of the Saviour. (A chronicle of its controversial founder, the series doesn’t delve into the extraordinary artisanal workshops that flourished here after his death in 1995 – patronised by, among others, Renzo Mongiardino, who bequeathed numerous archival designs to it, some of which Moschino and Vergeylen have deployed in the hotel).
Every last maiolica tile on the premises that wasn’t reclaimed was custom designed by Scianna Ceramiche, the oldest artisanal producer in Bagheria, east of Palermo. “You wouldn’t think of flying materials in from Mexico or Japan for this kind of job,” says Vergeylen. “It wanted sustainability in the truest sense of that word – supporting local enterprise and knowing the artisans you work with.”
This being a Rocco Forte hotel, wellness was always going to feature prominently; Forte’s daughter Irene, who sits on the board of the Global Wellness Summit (and masterminds all the hotels’ wellness programmes), weighed in on the spa and fitness rooms, which occupy their own long outbuilding at the bottom of the garden – all light wood, cheery green tilework and light passing through floor-to-ceiling windows. The skincare line, formulated three years ago with products grown at Verdura and sourced around the island (hibiscus, apricot and pistachio oil, orange flower) fits the bill already.
The hotel is currently in soft opening stage; design details are being snagged, the menus embellished and tweaked. But when the hotel is totally complete, it’s safe to say that there won’t be anything comparably fabulous in the Sicilian capital. As for Palermo itself: the success of Manifesta, the nomadic contemporary art biennial hosted here in 2018, along with the opening of Palazzo Butera, Massimo and Francesca Valsecchi’s private museum in the Kalsa quarter, seems to have kicked off a small renaissance. There’s a growing number of wine and cocktail bars, and of young chefs. There’s the very worthy Galleria d’Arte Moderna, in the Sant’Anna convent complex, and vibrant concerts and exhibitions in the almost absurdly pretty Santa Maria dello Spasimo, Kalsa’s unfinished, roofless 16th-century church.
And there is, predictably, competition on the horizon, including the ambitious renovation of the city’s other historical landmark, the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes, which has opened with a restaurant and roof bar manned by Italian star chef (and native Sicilian) Filippo La Mantia. Palermo might finally be well and truly on the up; there’s a compelling new house by the sea waiting, for those curious to find out for themselves.
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