Palazzo Tornabuoni, Florence
Evolution is often invisible. Because of the dead-ends that are necessarily pursued in the quest for those next great steps forward, what feels like an advance could ultimately turn out to be just another dodo. A recent stay at the Palazzo Tornabuoni in Florence made me think that this particular innovation in the way the human race lives and travels might stick around longer than most.
In the heart of this compact city, opposite the proud square bulk of the Strozzi Museum, the Palazzo Tornabuoni is entered via a discreet doorway manned by a top-hatted porter. A proudly sweeping staircase rises up from a statue of Artemis. There is a sense of quiet as you step in from the street, a feeling of peace as you make your way upstairs into the wonderfully light lounge, a galleried room of absurdly comfortable armchairs, like the library of a particularly opulent London club.
It was the idea of the London club that came back to me during my stay at the Tornabuoni. White’s and Boodles were founded with the aim of giving the country gentleman a place in London every bit as grand as his country manor house. The Palazzo Tornabuoni is a twenty-first century mirror of this, providing its international members with a residence in Florence that has the convenience of a hotel but the comfort of a home. Even though it is managed by the Four Seasons Group, the Palazzo Tornabuoni is not an alternative to coming to Florence and staying in a hotel; it is a stylish and convenient alternative to buying a house in Florence, with none of the administrative headaches that so often come with owning property abroad.
Club Tornabuoni members have a stake in a palazzo that has played a major role in Florence’s history, but they also have what every tourist coming to this famously unknowable town wants: a ticket into the real Florence. It is why Tornabuoni guests don’t think of themselves as tourists; their membership gives them residence. Whether it’s the Palazzo’s attach_ service which plans scheduled or bespoke cultural events for the members, or the hi-spec kitchens where the members prepare meals for themselves (and often each other), Club Tornabuoni brings the real Florence to their door. This is the opposite of the fast-food tourism so prevalent in Italian cities. The Palazzo prides itself on being a good neighbour and you can see why the venture has been keenly welcomed by the usually rather frosty Florentines; Club Tornabuoni members are making a firm commitment to the city when they take out membership, no fly by nights on the evening bus to Venice here.
I wanted to test the Club’s attaché team, and sent through a fierce list of requests. I didn’t have long in Florence and wanted to pack my visit with as many highlights as possible. I wanted a scrupulously authentic restaurant: I was packed off to the Antica Ristoro di Cambi where I ate magnificent carpaccio, a delightfully light tortelloni and a local cake – schiacciata – that was rich and delicious. I then wanted to visit the fascinating show on Money and Beauty at the Strozzi. Not only did I go, I got a guided tour by the museum’s gloriously eccentric curator, James Bradburne. I then wanted to speak to someone at the Accademia about an artist who has always fascinated me: Flilpinno Lippi. The Palazzo’s attaché put me in touch with the world’s leading expert on Lippi.
The Palazzo Tornabuoni seems to me a major step forward in the way we think about our free time. It provides a short-cut in the often painful process of getting to know Florence, but it also feels like a major advance in how we travel. In a world whose citizens are increasingly international, membership of the Club Tornabuoni delivers not just a comfortable place to lay one’s head, it conveys an entire lifestyle to its members. Florence has always been at once a closed, provincial town, and a gloriously international city. A key to the Palazzo Tornabuoni opens the door to both.