Sicily's Most Legendary Non-public Villa Has Reopened As a Luxurious Hotel | Travel + Leisure

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On an April morning in 1907, a three-masted yacht, the Victoria and Albert, dropped anchor on the northern finish of the Bay of Palermo. Royal banners flapped within the wind whereas officers and cadets in good naval uniforms swarmed over polished decks. Rumors rapidly unfold by means of the streets of Palermo, and crowds started to collect on the quays, hoping for a glimpse of the passengers. As the tenders had been being lowered, folks craned their necks for a greater view of the burly gentleman in a homburg hat who was boarding one of many boats. Edward VII, the king of England, had come to name on the Florio household on the Villa Igiea.

At the start of the twentieth century, when the Sicilian capital was as trendy as Nice, the Villa Igiea’s visitor e book learn like a world Who’s Who. In a cosmopolitan whirl of balls and costume events, cocktail receptions and gala dinners, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Tsar Nicholas II, Queen Marie of Romania, Constantine I of Greece, and Vajiravudh, the king of Siam, all got here to remain. The Vanderbilts turned up of their yacht, as did Nathan Rothschild and J. P. Morgan. Opera singers, playboys, minor aristocrats, and that new phenomenon, film stars, all adopted.

Two pictures from Sicily, one displaying curtains billowing on condominium terraces, and one other reveals a bust and vases with greenery

From left: Curtains used to deflect daylight in Palermo; a bust of Igiea, the Roman goddess of well being, at Villa Igiea. | Credit: Federico Ciamei

But few of the women wafting of their huge bonnets among the many oleander on the backyard terraces, or the gents smoking cigars by the seawall, might see the shadows that had been encroaching on their well-known hosts. In these careless years, there was nonetheless an enigmatic, Gatsby-like aura round Ignazio and Franca Florio. They appeared easy, elegantly poised in a lifetime of privilege and wealth. Having inherited one of many nation’s best fortunes on the age of 23, Ignazio was, within the phrases of The New York Times, one of many service provider princes of Europe. The daughter of one in all Sicily‘s previous aristocratic households, Donna Franca was “tall, slender, supple, swaying,” within the description of poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. Palermitans dubbed her the Queen of Palermo.

The household was the Italian equal of the nice Nineteenth-century American industrial dynasties just like the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Gettys. In the 1780s, Paolo Florio arrived in Palermo from Calabria and opened a humble spice store. Four generations later, the Florios dominated the financial life not simply of Sicily, however of Italy, with pursuits in delivery, shipbuilding, railways, mining, metallurgy, fishing, ceramics, and wine. They had been stated to make use of 16,000 folks. They based a newspaper and a financial institution. They ran 90 ocean liners to all factors of the globe. When they purchased and redesigned a villa overlooking Palermo Bay, they created each a grand lodge for a glittering clientele and a Florio palace.

I had come to see the resurrection of this nice lodge, an icon of the Belle Époque, and to revisit Palermo, a metropolis I am keen on. But within the rooms and stylish eating halls, and out on these dreamy tiered gardens overlooking the bay, it was inconceivable to flee the presence of the Florios. I discovered myself tracing the best way these delirious days and nights amongst their well-known friends had been overtaken by heartbreak, and by the household’s eventual exile from the Villa Igiea.

Palermo is probably the most underrated metropolis in Italy. I’d moderately spend a day there than every week in Florence. It is chaotic, seductive, swaggering, unruly, and endlessly charming. It veers between bellowing backstreet neighborhoods and grand monuments of hovering magnificence. It is inconceivable to know Italy, Goethe stated, with out visiting Sicily. He referred to as it the “clue to everything.”

A millennium in the past, Sicily lay on the heart of the world. The island has Phoenician ruins, Carthaginian shipwrecks, Greek temples, Roman villas, Arab pleasure palaces, and Bourbon castles. When the Normans arrived, they seized upon the custom of Byzantine mosaics and made these shimmering surfaces all their very own. Up within the city of Monreale, the nave of the nice Norman cathedral swims with golden gentle, whereas down within the heart of Palermo the mosaics of the Capella Palatina are among the masterpieces of European artwork.

Two pictures from the island of Favignana, together with an ornamental bust on prime of a gate submit, and the view of the ocean from the Cas’almare lodge

From left: A basic Favignanan ornamental element; the view of the Mediterranean from Cas’almare, a guesthouse on Favignana’s northern coast. | Credit: Federico Ciamei

Like Milan and Florence and Venice, Palermo was a royal capital, and it boasts palaces the best way Manhattan boasts skyscrapers. Around each nook there’s one other colossal pile. Some have turn out to be crumbling tenements, barnacled with laundry; some have been reimagined as museums. But many are nonetheless inhabited by previous aristocratic households.

In the early many years of the Nineteenth century, the entrepreneurial Florios stepped into this vintage world, so exquisitely evoked in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard.” Like many profitable enterprise households, they married into an more and more impoverished aristocracy, swapping their wealth for social cachet. Ignazio’s father, Ignazio Sr., had married a Sicilian baroness. Ignazio himself proposed to Francesca Paola Jacona della Motta dei Baroni di San Giuliano, generally referred to as Donna Franca. Any objections from her father had nothing to do with the household’s humble origins. He was extra involved about Ignazio’s repute as a womanizer.

He was proper to fret. Soon after their wedding ceremony, Ignazio went on safari in North Africa with 50 porters. You would have thought one in all them might need eliminated the ladies’s underwear from his baggage, which was found by Donna Franca on his return. It was solely the primary of many indiscretions. In Giovanni Boldoni’s well-known portrait of Donna Franca, which as soon as hung within the Villa Igiea, she wears an extended string of pearls. It is alleged Ignazio gave her a pearl each time he wanted to ask for her forgiveness. Apparently there are 365 — one for daily of the yr.

An image was rising of this golden couple: Ignazio, wayward, spoiled, impulsive, simply tempted; Donna Franca, decided, clever, fixed, assured. When Ignazio invited the opera singer Lina Cavalieri, regularly described on the time as probably the most stunning lady on this planet, to sing on the Teatro Massimo, Donna Franca knew what was occurring. She employed a boisterous claque to whistle through the efficiency whereas she sat within the royal field, trying imperious. Cavalieri left the stage on the verge of tears and departed Palermo the next morning.

Two pictures from the island of Favignana, together with turquoise water at a seashore cove, and previous tuna cans in a former packing plant

From left: Cala Rossa, a preferred cove on the island of Favignana; the previous Florio tuna-packing plant, now a museum. | Credit: Federico Ciamei

Donna Franca’s stage was the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, its solid of admiring movie star friends a consoling viewers. Designed by the famed Palermo architect Ernesto Basile and opened in 1900, the villa is a masterpiece of Belle Époque modernism, a mode identified in Italy as Liberty — named for the London division retailer. After the Florios had been compelled to promote the property in 1929, it continued to function as a lodge by means of the twentieth century. But it was a ghost of its former self. Under a succession of homeowners, it grew more and more frayed across the edges. Finally chapter loomed, and in 2019 the lodge was purchased at public sale by Rocco Forte, the British hotelier with Italian roots, for $29 million.

The previous lodge has been lucky in its new suitor. Forte has a powerful portfolio of properties, together with Browns in London, the Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg, and the Hotel de Russie in Rome. The renovation was undertaken by designers from the London agency of Nicholas Haslam, Philip Vergeylen and Paolo Moschino, who labored in shut collaboration with designer Olga Polizzi, Forte’s sister. Their temporary was to not change the character of the lodge however to convey it again to life. While the bedrooms have been expanded and superbly reworked to satisfy fashionable expectations of a luxurious lodge, the main target within the grand public areas has been on restoration.

Two pictures from the bar at Villa Igiea in Sicily, one displaying a detailed up of a cocktail, and one other displaying a desk in a nook

From left: The Donna Franca cocktail, made with gin, champagne, fruit syrups, and cherry foam, on the Igiea Terrazza Bar; the bar occupies the lodge’s sandstone vaults. | Credit: Federico Ciamei

Students from the Academy of Fine Arts had been introduced in to refurbish the murals within the splendid Sala Basile, the place truthful maidens stroll amongst peacocks and big irises. The library, the place the morning newspapers await among the many sofas and writing desks, nonetheless looks like a salon of the early novecento. Down within the Terrazza Bar, with its elegant globe lamps and leather-based seats, you is likely to be stepping onto the set of a Fred Astaire movie. The terraced gardens, that are anchored by an rectangular pool and a folly of Greek columns, seem like an previous pal who has turned up in a splendid new go well with. To dine on the restaurant, Florio, as heat nightfall filters by means of the umbrella pines and necklaces of lights seem on the far facet of the bay and the ferries push out of the harbor heading for Naples and Genoa and Tunisia, is one in all life’s nice delights.

Yet the Villa Igiea isn’t just a grand constructing. It is a group of individuals, buzzing in a approach that it has not completed for nearly a century. I’ve hardly ever been in a lodge the place the workers had been so engaged. Everyone, from the concierge to the doormen, appeared delighted on the return of Palermo’s grande dame. The cooks saved coming out to greet friends, whereas the waiters, over the course of simply three days, turned my mates. I spent an hour within the library with the concierge speaking all issues Igiean, and the younger doorman turned out to be a Irishman drawn to Palermo by a love affair.

The resurrection of the Villa Igiea is well timed. Palermo is experiencing a renaissance, too. Art galleries, good cafés, and eating places that includes younger Sicilian cooks are opening in restored palaces. The colossal Palazzo Butera, which overlooks the harbor within the Kalsa quarter, has been became a cultural heart, library, and gallery. The Galleria d’Arte Moderna showcases modern work within the Sant’Anna convent. Meanwhile, one other lodge within the Liberty fashion has been refurbished — the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes — a stone’s throw from the Nineteenth-century Teatro Massimo, nonetheless one of many largest opera homes in Europe, the place Ignazio and Donna Flora as soon as presided at Palermo’s gala evenings.

But what of the Florios? How did they lose each their fortune and their dream palace?

I searched out two of the remaining descendants. Chico Paladino Florio is a cosmopolitan determine who owns properties in Madagascar and Brazil, in addition to one of many final Florio villas in Palermo. In Rome I met Nicola de Rivera Costaguti, a captivating aged gentleman who calls Donna Franca “granny” and who nonetheless appears to embody the manners and elegance of the Belle Époque.

Pair of pictures from Villa Igiea notice in Sicily, one displaying a lady on a balcony, and one other displaying a light-weight stuffed reception room inside

From left: Sicily’s Bay of Palermo, as seen from the Villa Igiea, now owned by Rocco Forte Hotels; unique frescoes by the Neapolitan artist Ettore De Maria Bergler within the Sala Basile, Villa Igiea’s important reception room. | Credit: Federico Ciamei

In the nice and cozy twilight on the terrace of the Villa Igiea, Chico defined how the collapse of the Florios’ industrial empire had many threads. For suspicious Sicilians, Italian unification was at all times a northern enterprise, and they’re fast to accuse politicians like Giovanni Giolitti, prime minister 5 occasions between 1892 and 1921, of eager to undermine Sicily and the ability of dynasties just like the Florios. State contracts had been withdrawn and given to northern enterprises. Arbitrary authorities rules appeared bent on crippling the Florio operations.

There had been additionally query marks over Ignazio’s industrial instincts. Having grown up with wealth, he loved a way of entitlement that was inimical to the type of buccaneer innovation that had made the household’s fortunes. He continued to spend lavishly as money owed spiraled.

But within the scented gardens of Rome’s Hotel de Russie, Nicola alluded to a extra private story. In the area of 13 months between 1902 and 1903, Ignazio and Donna Franca misplaced three of their 5 youngsters. One daughter, who was already affected by tuberculosis, died of meningitis, whereas one other lived only some hours after her start. Their solely son, Ignazio, on whom hopes for the household’s future rested, died of an unknown trigger on the age of 5.

A lady rides a motorbike alongside the water on the island of Favignana

Bike using by the ocean on Favignana. | Credit: Federico Ciamei

Heartbroken, the couple retreated to the island of Favignana, a part of the Egadi archipelago off the western coast of Sicily. It has a particular place within the household’s historical past. In 1876, Ignazio Sr. purchased the island and its profitable fishing rights and created a tuna packing plant, the place he launched the concept of canning tuna in olive oil. The phenomenal success of this enterprise was one of many key foundations of the household’s fortune. Every yr the Florios spent glad weeks on the island. In previous pictures, you’ll be able to see Ignazio, a small boy in an enormous hat, amongst household and mates, squinting towards the Mediterranean solar. I set off there from Palermo, following of their footsteps.

Favignana, although solely 5 miles from the coast of Sicily, feels midway to North Africa. It just isn’t fairly or cute or lush. It is a bony place of limestone and tufa, of windswept bushes and fields of tough grass dusted with wildflowers. There is a haunting edge-of-the-world magnificence there—one thing about huge skies and empty, elemental landscapes. I discovered this cubist jumble on the port. No automobiles are allowed on the island past these of the locals, who usually tend to navigate the slim meandering roads, that are lined with dry stone partitions, on bicycles and scooters. Along the coast folks swim from cabinets of rock in seas which are as clear as a desert sky.

Few foreigners have found Favignana, however well-traveled Italians adore it. They have introduced a sophistication to the island’s simplicity. A handful of trendy boutique lodges now perch on the ocean’s edge, locations harking back to Morocco or Greece, and within the little harbor city are eating places with menus that will impress in Turin.

I stayed at Cas’almare, a small white guesthouse. The rooms had been filled with shells and books. Watery reflections danced throughout the ceilings whereas the mistral winds rattled the shutters. In the mornings, earlier than breakfast, I swam from the rocks. Then I’d cycle across the island, unpacking picnic lunches on smooth-faced platforms of limestone cantilevered over azure bays. I climbed to Fort St. Catherine, constructed by the Normans a millennium in the past. One day I rented a ship and circumnavigated the island, dropping anchor to swim in empty coves amongst startled fish. Another day I took a ferry to Marettimo, the westernmost and least visited of the Egadi Islands, the place fishing boats had been parked among the many white homes like automobiles.

A person in entrance of a automotive adorned in honor of Santa Rosalia, on the streets of Palermo

A cart adorned in honor of Santa Rosalia, Palermo’s patron saint. | Credit: Federico Ciamei

Favignana is the type of place the place you reside merely. Which will need to have appealed to Ignazio and Donna Franca. All the frippery and pressures of their lives had been left behind in Palermo. But past that, these historic seas and islands provide some reassuring glimpse of the everlasting. Beneath tall skies, amongst Mediterranean winds, grief might have been simpler to bear.

It is alleged that the loss of life of his five-year-old son destroyed Ignazio on a private stage. His grief, together with extreme financial downturns, World War I, northern political conspiracies, and positively his personal negligence, prompted the top of the mighty Florio empire. It all unraveled with exceptional pace. By the age of 40, Ignazio had misplaced management of the fortune that it had taken generations to construct. It is a supply of some household satisfaction that the Florios by no means declared chapter, as a substitute assembly all their obligations by promoting the companies one after the other.

Still, there on Favignana, a century on, everybody remembers and admires the Florios. There is a bronze statue of Ignazio’s father within the city sq.. On a again highway, I ended to speak with a fisherman — his grandfather had labored on the cannery — who spoke so fondly of Ignazio and Donna Franca it was as if he had identified them personally. Ask anybody on the Villa Igiea — the concierge, the waiter, the maître d’. They all know the story of Ignazio and Donna Franca.

The Florio story isn’t just a couple of lodge. Their success remains to be a supply of Sicilian satisfaction, whereas their collapse nonetheless hurts. Just as a lot because the Greeks and the Arabs and the Normans, the Florios will at all times be a part of the island’s identification, a part of who Sicilians imagine themselves to be — flamboyant, enterprising, gallant, all filtered by means of a lens of romantic melancholy.

Tanned males standing at an orange-shaped juice bar on the island of Favignana

On orange-shaped juice bar on the island of Favignana. | Credit: Federico Ciamei

A Sojourn in Sicily

Where to Stay

Cas’almare: Located on the island of Favignana, off Sicily’s western coast, this five-room guesthouse with sweeping sea views is easy, spare, and comfy.

Villa Igiea: The grande dame of Palermo, this 78-room,22-suite lodge has an extended historical past. A current renovation has restored the Liberty fashion décor of the property’s heyday whereas incorporating modern accents.

How to Book

Andrea Grisdale ([email protected]; 39-0319-52059), a member of T+L’s A-List of the world’s greatest journey advisors, can work together with her group at IC Bellagio — together with Sicily specialist Marta Valsecchi — to assemble a go to to Palermo and the Egadi Islands. Highlights embody a guided tour of the capital’s antiquities and a biking journey on Favignana.

A model of this story first appeared within the May 2022 concern of Travel + Leisure underneath the headline A Sicilian Story.

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One Comment on “Sicily's Most Legendary Non-public Villa Has Reopened As a Luxurious Hotel | Travel + Leisure”

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