When the Ferragamo family bought the Hotel Lungarno in Florence in 1995, it raised a few eyebrows. What could a family that was famous for making shoes possibly know about running a hotel?
Quite a lot, it turned out.
Thanks to the footwear empire founded by patriarch Salvatore Ferragamo – who made shoes for Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn – the family instincts were already finely tuned to the demands of the wealthy and well-travelled.
To renovate the rundown hotel, Salvatore's son Leonardo hired architect Michele Bonan, who transformed the shabby building – once affectionately described as the “grande dame of hotels” by Lungarno Collection chief executive Valeriano Antonioli – into a space that was chic, yet as comfortable as a family home.
When the hotel reopened, it caused quite a commotion. “It was the first time a fashion family renovated and was managing a hotel. It was very glamorous,” says Antonioli.
It also marked the start of what is now a family-run hotel empire called the Lungarno Collection. It consists of four hotels in Florence situated around the Ponte Vecchio, one in Rome that opened in 2006 and, most recently, one in Milan. With two properties under the Lungarno name, and four in the Portrait portfolio, each caters to a slightly different audience.
For example, the Portrait Rome is aimed at a younger Macbook crowd and Mark Zuckerberg gave his seal of approval in 2012 when he spent his honeymoon there.
With an eye to the city's fashion crowd, Portrait Milano was a decade in the making and the most ambitious project to date. “I found the building in 2013," says Antonioli. "The building is 500 years old, the second largest, and oldest seminary of the church in the world.”
In the middle of Milan's fashion district, the airy 16th-century seminary was brimming with potential, yet was owned by the church that consistently shut down all offers for its properties.
“During the past decades, every hotel brand has requested to restore a church building, and the church said no. And this is what they told me,” he says.
It took a further two years to be given the go-ahead – plus further delays because of the pandemic – but in December last year, the baroque doors on Corso Venezia 11 opened.
Calling on Bonan to once again work his magic, the result is 73 languid rooms, from a tidy studio apartment to a spacious three-bedroom royal suite, all overlooking the central square. The only open square in the fashion area of the city, it has recently been named a piazza by the Milanese mayor and is open to everyone. “We wanted it to be inclusive for everyone who lives, works and visits the neighbourhood," Antonioli says.
Now called the Piazza del Quadrilatero, the 2,923-square-metre space is edged with restaurants and bars, with more promised on the way.
With fashion and furniture events that dominate the Milanese calendar firmly in mind, Antonioli has ambitious plans for the piazza. It has already hosted an event during Salone di Mobile that had 15,000 visitors in a day. There was also the anticipated debut of new Ferragamo creative director Maximilian Davis, who during Milan Fashion Week in February, filled the square of the then-unfinished hotel with red sand in a nod to the scarlet shoes the founder made for Marilyn Monroe.
The new hotel has an underground car park that can accommodate 100 cars, plus a secret elevator to whisk owners straight to the hotel, which is ideal for those who value privacy.
Of course, anyone who has visited the Il Borro Tuscan Bistro Dubai will already be familiar with the Ferragamo notion of hospitality. An offshoot of the Il Borro in Tuscany that sits on the family estate, both follow the same farm-to-table approach, and both share a relaxed, unstuffy air with a focus on good food and discreet service.
The ethos across the group, Antonioli explains, is to fit the experience to each guest. The original Lungarno Hotel has been recently refreshed and remains a favourite with American visitors, which he puts down to the unique art collection that adorns the walls.
“The previous family put together this collection of 500 pieces, and these are in the bedrooms," Antonioli says. "As we have 66 bedrooms and 500 drawings, we have rooms with up to 10 original artworks on the walls.”
He gives another example of a couple who recently arrived at one of the Florentine properties to celebrate a 60th birthday. To mark the occasion, the guest contacted the hotel to ask if her husband could play the organ in a nearby church as it was his life’s dream. The hotel duly reached out to the Basilica San Miniato al Monte, where he was invited to play as a birthday treat.
“Because the organist recognised his talent, he told the organist of Duomo, and this gentleman played at San Miniato al Monte and the Duomo in two days," says Antonioli. "Voila! This is what the Portrait does, we match the city with the guest and make dreams come true.”
The hotel also has guests who are lured by the romantic ambience and end up proposing, or even getting married, on its grounds.
“We have had people check in at the Portrait, not knowing they will end up getting married there. It's one thing to go to Vegas and get married, it’s another to go on vacation to Portrait Firenze and end up getting married," says Antonioli.
For anyone thinking of popping the question, he suggests the Florentine properties overlooking the River Arno.
“If you want to declare love to someone, or renew your love, on an evening when the sun is setting and the bridge glows orange, it's unbelievable,” he says.
Having held impromptu weddings with staff as witnesses, he explains how nothing is impossible. “Everything is personal," he says. "We can run the New York City Marathon with you, or we can be the best man at your wedding.”