April 20, 2018

Simone Micheli Revivifies Historic Structure on a Storied Tuscan Estate

Florence, Italy, is studded with fairy-tale sights: the 14th-century Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, and, on the lush grounds of an organic farm owned by Francesco Miari Fulcis, Maiano’s Tower, a neo-gothic pile so idyllic you can imagine Rapunzel unfurling her hair from the turret.

But as European spires go, Maiano’s Tower is a comparative new build. The stone structure was commissioned in the late 19th century by Sir John Temple Leader, a British industrialist’s heir with a flair for la dolce vita. In 1844, he scooped up a sprawling 741-acre property—practically its own hamlet—near the town of Fiesole, five miles north of Florence, and set about restoring its luster. He reforested the landscape, revamped the on-site villa (later a backdrop for the 1985 film, A Room with a View), and completed the tower, at the edge of an erstwhile quarry, in 1894.

The ground level contains a white-lacquered kitchen with original frescoes; LEDs wrap the base of the island. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.

But having fallen into a state of Grey Gardens–caliber disarray over the decades, the four-story tower was due for its own renaissance. Fulcis, whose family acquired the estate after Leader’s death and has been slowly converting it into something of a hospitality destination, hired Florence-based architect Simone Micheli to spin the spire’s story anew for the modern era, converting it into wellness-focused guest accommodations. (It’s currently available for VIP rentals and hotel charters.) “The structure was long uninhabited, secret, and hidden,” Micheli says. “It was, nonetheless, essential to the landscape,” which includes a warren of stonecutter’s trails, olive trees, and a leaf-decked pond.

Because such boldfaced names as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo reportedly wandered the property back in their day, Micheli faced certain historical obligations in remodeling Maiano’s Tower. The architect’s concept went public during Milan Design Week in 2015, when he presented a virtual-reality tour of the proposed scheme, which was completed last year. Micheli strove to keep the plaster walls, some bedecked with original frescoes, as intact as possible while upgrading the 700-square-foot interior to meet 21st-century design expectations. “The main challenge was to combine an ancient and prestigious past with a contemporary, high-tech, smart view of architecture,” Micheli says. “Mixing the two elements created a continuous line that crosses space and time.” In concrete terms, he utilized the more-than-century-old backdrop as a foil for artful acid-etched mirrors, clean-lined but cosseting furniture, and sculptural lighting resembling doodles sketched in midair. The result is an environment that feels like an antiquarian’s version of an Apple Store. “I wanted to heighten the quality of the place and its inner essence, creating a space in which to experience luxury,” he says.

Lacquered wood defines the bedroom furniture; mirrors are acid-etched. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.

Micheli’s architectural hallmarks—along with his philosophical, at times lofty, approach—are fully evident as you ascend the spiral staircase floor by floor. The ground-level kitchen is a nearly unadorned canvas of white-lacquered cabinetry and hidden appliances—all the better to make prepared food look as vibrant as possible. Custom suspension lamps in nickel draw the eye to the exposed steel-beam ceiling, a constant reminder of the tower’s history. In the living room one flight above, bespoke seating upholstered in eco-leather faces an existing carved-stone hearth, its opening entirely filled by a mirror television. In the third-floor sleeping suite, mirror fragments on the walls are intended to engender a feeling of time travel—reflecting yesteryear and the current moment at once. “The game of reflections abolishes borders between inside and out,” Micheli says. Meanwhile, another mirrored panel behind the bed slides open to reveal the hidden bathroom.

The spiral stone staircase is original to the 1894 structure. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.

The building’s fourth-floor wellness area is the sole interior that feels thoroughly modern, its resin floor and LED-lit glass-box steam shower creating an atmosphere that Da Vinci and his ilk could scarcely imagine. “I created a space that wraps the human into a soft and fascinating cloud of wellness,” Micheli says. But the grandest of his plans—to build a solarium on the top of the tower—was foiled by one major structural issue: The slab was not strong enough to support another level, “and we could not get permission from the government to add more reinforcement,” he explains, so the idea was abandoned. In its place, a zigzagging steel-and-glass stair leads to a roof deck with sweeping views of the Tuscan landscape.

The fourth-floor wellness suite, with resin floor, incorporates a lounge area and a walk-in hammam/steam shower lined in solid surface; the steel and glass stair leads to the roof. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.

Maiano’s Tower encapsulates the fervent dreams of Sir John Temple Leader and Francesco Miari Fulcis at once, seamlessly fusing the centuries. “My projects are out of the traditional timeline; they are suspended and isolated from the rest of the world,” says Micheli, who refers to the project as Big Dream in a Little Tower. You could call it that. Or you could call it a fairy tale incarnate, complete with a “happily ever after” ending.

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