Italy in the late 1950s: a historic inn reinvents itself

A close look at…
Florence | Grand Hotel Minerva

In 1958, long before being acclaimed Italy’s mastermind of the so-called ‘organic architecture’, a young Carlo Scarpa received the commission by a local family of hoteliers to transform their venerable ‘Albergo della Minerva’ in Piazza Santa Maria Novella.
Assisted by his colleague and fellow architect Edoardo Detti, he designed an entirely new building, leaving only the historical front facade intact. The challenging project foreshadowed one of Scarpa’s main preoccupations in his later works: the integration of the Old and the New into a dramatic overall design concept.
Now called the ‘Grand Hotel Minerva’, the new hotel even featured a rooftop with swimming pool. When it reopened in 1961, its panoramic terrace was (and still is) the climactic exclamation point of a cutting-edge approach which gave way to the renaissance of one of Florence’s oldest hostelries, dating back to the 18th century.

The Appeal
Situated on Piazza Santa Maria Novella, the proximity to Florence’s transportation hub is convenient but not unromantic: after a thorough urban refurbishment, the imposing square with its two obelisks is, once again, one of the city’s most beautiful urban spaces. Probably one of Florence’s greatest pleasures, the discovery of its artistic abundance by foot, begins right at the hotel’s doorstep. Seen from the outside, the Minerva with its classical elevation blends into the cityscape but feels nowhere as ‘grand’ as its name suggests. But which building could possibly compete with the chromatic magnificence of the basilica’s facade right across the hotel’s front door?

Inside, the splendor of Florentine Renaissance is brushed off as Carlo Scarpa’s unique design principles reveal itself step by step: the lobby’s large metal-framed bay windows open onto a small Japanese-style interior courtyard, its exposed rear brick wall creating a sculptural focal point. Although the hotel’s last renovation in the mid-1990s has not really embraced the qualities of the building’s dramatic architectural reinvention, several of the main public spaces (including the bar, restaurant, main staircase and reading room) are a showcase of Scarpa’s unique patterns, choice of materials and furniture designs.

Naturally, the hotel’s main draw is its magnificent roof terrace and swimming pool with Florence’s breathtaking skyline as a backdrop – few places offer a more spectacular setting for a refreshment.

The Quarters
Although perfectly comfortable, the Minerva’s 102 guest rooms and suites are not a destination unto themselves. Reflecting a rather nondescript design which truly reverts back to 1990s esthetics, it is here where the unique appeal Scarpa’s original concept has survived the least. Save for the mezzanine of some duplex units and the ceiling of the old breakfast room (now a generous family suite), few are the remaining original touches bearing testimony to the hotel’s dramatic transformation decades earlier. The bathrooms are serviceable and feature the usual trimmings for a 4-star-superior hotel. A flight of rooms on the second floor makes up the ‘frescoed suite’ displaying historic classical 18th century décor which reconnects visually with the hotel’s surroundings.

The View
Rooms in front of the building overlook the expansive Piazza and offer excellent views; those on the upper floors would even satisfy Lucy Honeychurch as they command essentially the same panorama as the rooftop terrace. Some units feature lateral views onto the cloister and the basilica of Santa Maria Novella. This being said, as in many other city hotels, the bulk of guest rooms afford rather uninspiring courtyard views but are therefore quiet.

The Quality
The Grand Hotel Minerva is a very good hotel and an excellent base in Florence. It is an elegant, well-run and privately owned Italian hotel. Less opulent than some of its contenders in the city center proper or on Piazza Ognissanti (e.g. the Grand Hotel and Hotel Excelsior, now St. Regis and Westin respectively), it is certainly top of the line in its category even though its rooftop pool, a rare treat in urban Florence, seems to make up many of the accolades. Breakfast in the beautiful restaurant is delightful, well-organized and offers a large choice. The staff is courteous and efficient. The only minor note is the very spotty bar service on the rooftop terrace – a small readjustment here would turn an almost decadent spatial asset into a true indulgence.

The Name of the Game
In the artistic powerhouse of the Renaissance, a hidden treasure by one of the most influential architects of the 20th century.

Grand Hotel Minerva
Piazza Santa Maria Novella, 16
50123 Firenze


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