How it all begins
We begin our Renaissance odyssey where Europe’s most important art movement began — in Florence. In the early 14th century, a group of thinkers began questioning the widely accepted class system. Instead of accepting the idea of nobility, they favoured meritocracy, the idea that one could work hard and achieve wealth equal to the nobility. This paradigm shift swiftly ushered the Italian republics out of the Middle Ages and led to the burgeoning of self-made dynasties such as the Medici, the banking family who rose from the villages of Tuscany to become Europe’s most famous patron of the arts.
Today, the Tuscan capital is teeming with Renaissance reminders. Perhaps the the most important of these is the Uffizi Gallery, which, built in 1560, is the oldest art gallery in the world and houses the most important works of the great masters. Of course no trip here is complete without a visit to the Duomo of Florence whose iconic red dome was designed by lauded Renaissance architect Brunelleschi. Those interested in marvelling at Michelangelo’s David will relish a visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia.
The Italian master’s work also lives on in the hills of Fiesole. He is believed to have inspired the facade of Belmond’s Villa San Michele during the 15th century, when it was built as a monastery for the Franciscan order. Today, the 45-room hotel features a host of reminders from its past such as a Last Supper fresco, an original sink used for baptisms, and a patch of rocky road that ushered pilgrims from Rome to the town of Fiesole. Perhaps the most incredible among the suite (there are 25) offerings is the Michelangelo, which spans the entire facade of the monastery building and served as the church’s organ room and the Florence home base of Napoleon.
Guests interested in a private “villa within a villa” experience will feel right at home in the bi-level Limonaia suite, housed in the property’s orangerie and complete with its own stone plunge pool. But along with its history and acres of stunning gardens, what truly sets this hotel apart is its culinary prowess. One of the most loved restaurants in town, La Loggia, is located in the Monastery’s cloister and features stunning views of Florence. In typical Italian style, La Loggia is open for dinner until 1am. Foodies also will revel in the fact that the hotel is home to one of the country’s most esteemed cookery schools.
Right down the hill from Villa San Michele, Il Salviatino offers its own unique guest experience. This hillside property and its accompanying 12.5 acres of terraced gardens began as a modest farmhouse. In the early 15th century, it was purchased by the Bardis, who had gained reputation and influence as a banking family in Florence. Avid patrons of the arts, and intent on showing off their newfound wealth, the Bardis took the homely farmhouse with overgrown olive trees and vines and built the facade that we see today. Like its Renaissance sister, Il Salviatino features only 45 individually designed suites. The most breathtaking of these is the Affresco. Legend has it that when artisans were stripping away a superficial ceiling during one of the hotel’s many renovations, they discovered a stunning vaulted ceiling replete with original Renaissance frescoes. The excitement continues at ground level with an original antique Roman marble soaking tub. A heated hillside pool and restaurant with locally-sourced ingredients round out the offerings at this Florentine hotel.
Next on, Venice
Let’s move our sights on Venice, perhaps the most powerful of the Italian republics, although a little later to the Renaissance party than its more avant-garde Tuscan sister. At the crossroads between East and West, Venice was also in the 15th century, wedged between the fall of Constantinople, its greatest trading partner, and the rise of the great Islamic empires.
Design influences ranged from the embellishments of the gothic era to the more whimsical, decorative mosaics and wrought ironwork of Africa. Despite the economic decline of Constantinople and much like its fellow Italian republic, Venice thrived on the shoulders of wealthy families who were patrons to the great Renaissance masters. Don’t leave Venice without popping into the Gallerie dell’Accademia, which houses Da Vinci’s famed Vitruvian Man. What’s more, Venice is home to one of the most important pieces of Renaissance architecture, Andrea Palladio’s church of San Giorgio Maggiore, which was built in 1610.
Right across the lagoon from this architectural marvel is Hotel Danieli, a Luxury Collection Hotel, arguably Venice’s most iconic dig. Ever since its first building was constructed in the late 14th century to house the prominent Dandolo family (who, unlike their counterparts in Florence, were descendants of nobility), the Danieli has been the very epicentre of Venetian society. In the 16th century, the original palazzo was divided into three wings, each belonging to a different member of the family. The wings were in turn connected by a series of imposing, arched stairways in a central, open courtyard now capped with a skylight. This flight of stairs remains one of the most distinctive spaces in the hotel, along with its terrace restaurant that overlooks Palladio’s church on San Giorgio Maggiore and the low-rise Venetian skyline beyond.
Although its architectural style is more aligned with Gothic, rather than Renaissance principles (the Renaissance “fad” hadn’t quite hit the Lagoon yet when the original Palazzo was constructed), the Danieli is still a veritable museum of Venetian history.
Aside from the main salon, which features an elaborate coffered ceiling and an imposing sculpture-laden fireplace, the most impressive pieces can be found at the top-tier Doge Dandolo Royal Suite. Swathes of luxury fabrics and antique furniture are presided over by 18th- and 19th-century Murano chandeliers and oil portraits by 19th-century Venetian artist Antonio Ermolao Paoletti. In the bedroom a stuccoed ceiling features elaborate frescoes by prominet 18th-century artist Jacopo Guarana. Celebrity buffs will be delighted to learn that this adored hotel has hosted everyone from Charles Dickens to Truman Capote and, in recent years, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp during the filming of The Tourist.
Further afield, the San Clemente Palace Kempinski occupies an entire island in the Venetian lagoon. Originally a monastery dating as far back as the 12th century, the original structure was erected on the island as an homage to St Clement, the patron saint of seamen.
The island resort still houses the Renaissance church built in 1432, with telltale lenses and cornices. Additions and embellishments were further made during the late 1600s as the age of the great Renaissance weaned. Today the San Clemente Palace attracts Hollywood glitterati during the Venice International Film Festival and showcases important works of contemporary art during the Biennale.
The resort features sprawling gardens, an outdoor pool and a Merchant of Venice spa, where treatments are infused with the very herbs brought from around the world and sold by merchants of the island republic. All dining outlets at the resort offer an al fresco component, whether they overlook the gardens or the lagoon. Perhaps the most romantic among these is “sunset hill,” where a private table for two can be arranged to watch the fireball sink into the azure Adriatic.
It’s one thing to read about the Renaissance in stories, and quite another to get out there and experience for yourself how earth-shattering this great arts movement, who gave us masters like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Palladio, Titian and even Shakespeare, truly was. Buon Viaggio!