A Woman’s Touch: Celebrating the Women Behind the Rebirth of San Domenico Palace, Taormina, A Four Seasons Hotel
To mark International Women’s Day, San Domenico Palace, Taormina, A Four Seasons Hotel is putting the spotlight on two women who played a key role in its renovation: architect Valentina Pisani, who oversaw the design of both the interior and outdoor spaces, and Rosaria Catania Cucchiara, head of the historical restoration project. With their passion, determination and expertise, both women made a significant contribution to the rebirth of this historical property, a former convent dating back to the 14th century that first opened as a grand hotel in 1897 and reopened as a Four Seasons Hotel on July 1, 2021.
Architect Valentina Pisani is from Naples, where she followed her father’s footsteps into the family practice Studio Pisani Morace Architetti Associati. Pisani’s past projects include the renovation of ecclesiastical, historical buildings and museums in Rome and Naples; numerous private residences; hotels in Naples and on Capri; several restaurants; and yacht interiors.
As history buffs will know, Naples and Sicily once belonged to the same “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” under the reign of the Spanish Bourbons. There is a profound connection between the city of Naples and the island of Sicily, which can be felt also in the architecture. It is therefore no wonder that Pisani felt instantly drawn to working on the renovation of San Domenico Palace in Taormina. She comments: “Renovating a hotel with such a long legacy in hospitality and with such a stunning location - perched high above the sea and under the watchful eye of Mount Etna - has been a fascinating and thrilling journey.”
Pisani oversaw the design of all interiors of the Hotel, including guest rooms, the Bar & Chiostro featuring the Grand Cloister, Principe Cerami restaurant as well as the gym, the outdoor infinity pool and its poolside restaurant Anciovi. Her interiors respectfully blend with the historic features of the Hotel, bringing a contemporary elegance to the spaces. Her design is characterized by light colours and neutral tones, occasionally peppered by vivid colours, such as the coral red in the main hall, Sala della Grande Madia, and aqua green in the Princess Cecilie Suite. Smoked mirrors and bronze details enrich the spaces, as does the use of prestigious materials, such as marble from Patagonia for the rooms, marble from Breccia Carrara for the bathrooms, and Modica stone floors in the reception area combined with black marble from Port Laurent in Morocco. “The grandeur, history, uniqueness, and art-historic heritage of the Hotel overwhelmed me with deep emotion. I undertook the project with determination and respect – trying to project this ancient building, with its austere and sacred atmosphere, into the future of luxury hospitality,” concludes Pisani.
Rosaria Catania Cucchiara
With its history dating back to the 1400s, San Domenico Palace is a jewel of Sicilian art history.
One of the most important challenges in the Hotel’s renovation was the restoration of all the works of art, paintings, frescos and statues, as well as the period features of the Hotel, such as its columns, arcades and vaulted ceilings. All this had to be done under the superintendence of the local council, which fiercely protects Sicily’s artistic heritage. There was only one woman for the job: Rosaria Catania Cucchiara.
A native of Messina, Sicily, Catania Cucchiara studied in her hometown and at the Vatican, working on numerous prestigious restoration projects throughout Italy. For the San Domenico project, she headed up an all-female team of four art restoration specialists.
Catania Cucchiara and her team are driven by a passion to preserve Italy’s cultural and artistic heritage. “Unfortunately, here in Italy people are often unaware of the immense cultural heritage that surrounds them,” she observes. Renovating San Domenico Palace is an incredible source of pride. “It’s a magical place. A treasure trove of art and history,” Rosaria tells us. And why is it that a woman’s touch may be preferable to a man’s in the art of restoration? “In my experience, women tend to be more patient and careful, they look after objects with a sensitivity that is different to men. Perhaps it has something to do with the maternal instinct.” One of the greatest challenge the team faced was the work on the Hotel’s Ancient Cloister. Over the course of centuries, the columns of the cloister that dates back to the 14th century, had become encased in lime scale, probably due to the build-up of improperly drained rainwater. It took three months of chiselling and ultimately drilling to remove the lime scale and restore the ancient columns. But when it comes to her favourite work of art in Taormina, Catania Cucchiara has a surprising recommendation. “Watching the sunrise each morning from the terrace during the renovation was a very special treat. Nature ultimately does offer the most beautiful spectacle, and the view from the Hotel is like no other. “