Just a short drive north of Florence, Fiesole is a leafy haven that has been a favorite getaway for artists, intellectuals and the city’s wealthy elite for centuries. Marcel Proust, Frank Lloyd Wright, Herman Hesse and Paul Klee are just a few of the notable personalities who spent time in Fiesole over the years and novels like E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron are set here.
The ancient Etruscan town is home to countless villas with manicured gardens and panoramic views of Florence, but one stands out in particular for its historical significance married with contemporary culture. The Belmond Villa San Michele, a 15th century Franciscan monastery juxtaposes the elegance of its idyllic setting with one of the most ubiquitous urban elements of the Tuscan capital: its street art.
Belmond, the luxury hospitality group that operates hotels, train journeys and river cruises around the world, is a leader in the tourism sector thanks to its spirit of constant reinvention. It’s a company that prides itself on providing innovative experiences to its guests and has developed a reputation for shining a spotlight on local traditions. It should come as no surprise, then, that Villa San Michele is a fertile ground that not only honors Florence’s Renaissance roots but showcases its contemporary artists as well.
As soon as you arrive to the property, you can’t help but notice two sights. The first, a striking façade and open-air loggia designed by Michelangelo. And the second, a smaller-scale reproduction of Michelangelo’s David – sporting a scuba mask.
Part contemporary artwork, part conversation piece, the statue’s unusual accessory is an ode to Blub, one of Florence’s most noteworthy contemporary street artists whose tagline is “L’Arte Sa Nuotare” (“Art Knows How To Swim”). A prolific artist with a signature aesthetic, his whimsical pieces can’t be missed throughout the city of Florence. Iconic figures like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Botticelli’s Venus are submerged in an ocean of blue tones and depicted with a scuba mask.
As you step into the monastery’s splendid medieval nave, you’ll find Blub’s paintings hanging in the niches, serving as modern altar pieces. The artist’s playful message is one of hope: even in times of high water, you can don a pair of swimming goggles and navigate new territories. “For me, [my work] is about overcoming the anxiety of not succeeding. I believe change should be embraced without fear and that we should be conscious of the resources and skills at our disposal,” he explains.
First launched in 2017, Belmond’s street art initiative was designed to breathe new energy into the hotel by showcasing the latest artistic trends in Florence. Right upon arrival, art accompanies guests throughout their stay, with site-specific installations on display in the reception area, sitting rooms, bars, gardens and more.
This year, guests can enjoy underwater paintings by Blub, organic sculptures by Sedicente Moradi and colorful flower designs by Nian. Iguarnieri‘s stylized paintings of Florence are also featured in the hotel’s Cloister Bar while Sandra Muss “portals, dream of flight” site-specific installations honor Leonardo da Vinci’s flying experiments. The Renaissance artist famously demonstrated his flying machine in 1506 in the Montececeri Park just behind the hotel.
In addition to its exhibitions within the property, the hotel organizes a street art tour in Florence where you can learn the stories of the city’s most recognizable contemporary artists. Go behind-the-scenes of artist’s studios and if you are lucky, you may even run into one of the founders of the Florentine street art movement: the French artist CLET is often at his studio in the Oltrarno neighborhood.
Villa San Michele has also recently introduced an art tour with a Fiat 1100 Musone, a vintage car from the 1930s. The vehicle, decorated by Rome-based street artist Lucamaleonte, features floral stencils and a state-of-the-art electric engine for sustainable mobility. You can arrange a ride to the nearby “Enzo Pazzagli Art Park” or a sunset tour of local landmarks followed by a refreshing aperitif. For those who want to try their hand at creating art themselves, the hotel also offers a fresco painting experience in a local bottega.
Belmond Villa San Michele
The Belmond Villa San Michele is located in Fiesole, a 15-20 minute drive from Florence, and can easily be reached by taxi or private transfer. The hotel also provides a courtesy shuttle bus service from the property to the center of Florence multiple times daily. Suites start at $650.