“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” So wrote the great Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, who designed the facade of Villa San Michele, A Belmond Hotel, Florence. Step inside this famous palace and you’ll discover a world of living history.
Approaching Villa San Michele, you’re sure to feel this is the Tuscany that you’ve dreamed of. Two ancient sun-baked stone columns comprise our gate. The scent of olive groves perfume the air. After a short drive, shrouded in emerald green, you’ll reach our dazzling facade. You’ve undoubtedly seen pictures. Yet nothing can prepare you for seeing our property with your own eyes. This Renaissance former monastery radiates classical Italian charm. You’d expect nothing less given that the design is attributed to Michelangelo himself.
Though we owe a great deal to the Italian sculptor, our establishment is equally indebted to the Davanzati family. Having donated the land to a community of Franciscan monks in the 14th century, the family agreed to renovate and enlarge the property in 1600. Giovanni Davanzati’s papers include a contract—dated 23 January 1599—between the monastery’s reverend and Michele del Barba. Del Barba was to complete the masonry, based on designs by Santi di Tito. One of Italy’s leading painters, di Tito also completed work on the Vatican.
Over the next five years, several artists performed work across the property. The facade’s embellishments are the work of famed stone-cutter Romolo Ferrucci. As well as the Davanzati coat of arms and two lions’ heads, there is a Latin inscription, which reads: “To God and to St Michael. Niccolò de Davanzati had erected 1411. Giovanni de’ Davanzati enlarged 1600.”
The Church of Villa San Michele alla Doccia was declared a National Monument in 1896, but time and neglect caused the exterior to become badly corroded. We began restoration work in 1988. Rather than replace the worst damaged stones—and sacrifice the building’s authenticity—we washed the facade with distilled water and installed steel reinforcements in the weakest areas. A coat of varnish provides further protection against the elements. Villa San Michele’s entrance will continue to enchant for many years to come.
Stepping through our ancient wooden doors still feels walking into a Renaissance-era church. Chandeliers and high windows bathe the room in soft light. The aspe and high altar remain, adorned with pietra serena columns. Your gaze is immediately drawn to a beautiful painting of Christ. There are four holy water stoups, two of which are dated 1515—possibly the year of the church’s original completion.
In the Cenacolo Room, art aficionados can feast their eyes upon Nicodemo Ferrucci’s Last Supper fresco. It has graced the walls of the former refectory since 1642. But, it hasn’t always looked so spectacular. Over the centuries, smoke from the fireplace and steam from food had dulled the colours. When it was lovingly restored in 1999, a host of previously unseen details were revealed. As well as a white cat at the foot of the table and the oil lamp above Christ’s halo, Judas’ identity became clear. He is the only apostle without a halo. Take your time with this unique work.
There are plenty of other treasures to discover, too, like the partially preserved 15th-century fresco of the Ascension Of Our Lord. Donatello’s coat of arms for the Davanzati now hangs in the cloister. There is a painting by Santi di Tito, and a stone coffin bearing the insignia of Pope Eugene IV.
Perhaps our most famous guest was Napoleon Bonaparte, who for some time used the Michelangelo suite as his headquarters. However, his dissolution of monastic orders in 1808 led to some of our glorious works being taken away.
The loss of these treasures hasn’t diminished our strong connection with the past. At this historic hotel, the ancient stones speak a rich history. Keen-eyed visitors will find treasure in every corner, from fireplaces to frescoes. Come and unearth the treasures for yourself.
Here are four works, originally housed at Villa San Michele, that you can seek out in Florence:
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