As­mundo di Gisiria ho­tel in Cata­nia, Si­cily, hon­ours the re­gion’s rich lo­cal folk­lore and cul­ture through its bold, eclec­tic de­sign.


As­mundo di Gisiria ho­tel in Cata­nia, Si­cily, hon­ours the re­gion’s lo­cal folk­lore and cul­ture through its bold de­sign

There could only have been one open­ing date for the As­mundo di Gisira in Cata­nia, Si­cily, since the town’s pa­tron Saint Agatha of its flam­boy­ant fes­ti­val in Fe­bru­ary is a pro­tag­o­nist in the new ho­tel’s ar­chi­tec­tural story. Dur­ing what is one of Italy’s largest pro­ces­sions, around one mil­lion devo­tees watch Agatha’s relics be­ing car­ried through the town by some 5000 men, and at about 10am on the third day they travel be­neath the ho­tel’s ter­race at Pi­azza Mazz­ini. Le­gend tells that Agatha’s breasts were sev­ered with pin­cers af­ter she re­fused the ad­vances of a Ro­man pre­fect at around 250AD, so the fes­ti­val’s tra­di­tional Agatha Bun — round and iced with a cherry on top — was of course served at the ho­tel’s launch break­fast. Af­ter a seven-year build-up, the team be­hind the project, ar­chi­tects Valentina Gi­ampic­colo and Giuseppe Mi­naldi of Stu­dio Gum, were due their prover­bial cherry on the cake. Agatha’s is one of sev­eral Cata­nian sto­ries to be told in the in­te­rior of As­mundo, and the re­sult is sur­real, con­tem­po­rary and quite unique in this an­cient port city of Si­cily. Cata­nia’s pe­cu­liar lo­cal mythol­ogy is wor­thy of such a trib­ute; much of it came from its time as a Greek colony and un­der the as­sort­ment of em­pires that fol­lowed, and it’s best epit­o­mised by the city’s mas­cot, the huge Ro­man sculp­ture of a smil­ing ele­phant in its cen­tral square. The palazzo that houses As­mundo was built circa 1750 in Baroque, a preva­lent ar­chi­tec­tural style across Si­cily. Cata­nia has been buried by nearby Mount Etna’s lava nu­mer­ous times and the near to­tal re­build af­ter the earth­quake of 1693 was a re­fined in­ter­pre­ta­tion ››


‹‹ of the Baroque fash­ion­able on the main­land. The ho­tel takes up about 400 square me­tres of the build­ing, dis­trib­uted around a small cen­tral court­yard. It was bought as an aban­doned man­sion 10 years ago by en­tre­pre­neur Umberto Gulisano, and Gi­ampic­colo and Mi­naldi were hired four years into the restora­tion project when a change of tack was re­quired. Stu­dio Gum likes to take cues from a site’s lo­cale so it was some­thing of a no-brainer to pin Agatha, the ele­phant and an eclec­tic line-up of other lo­cal leg­ends onto the mood­board. “Our projects are of­ten led by a strong idea, a con­cept trans­lated into ar­chi­tec­ture,” ex­plains Gi­ampic­colo. “We like to in­volve de­sign­ers, crafts­men, artists, graphic de­sign­ers — so their sen­si­tiv­ity con­verge in a com­mon project.” There are six pri­vate suites and each tells its own Cata­nian le­gend. The room that rep­re­sents Saint Agatha is not for the faint-hearted guest, its walls cov­ered in blown-up images of a pro­ces­sion scene, the cen­tral canopy bed (or mar­tyr’s car­riage) veiled and sus­pended be­tween the red-car­peted flfloor and a dra­matic ceil­ing lu­mi­naire. The room that rep­re­sents Cata­nia’s ele­phant fea­tures a wall of ele­phant skin-like maioliche (tin-glazed ceramic tiles) by Si­cil­ian ceramic sculp­tor Alessan­dro Iudici and bed­sides in­spired by tusks. “The idea was to read in a con­tem­po­rary way the sto­ries with which we grew up,” says Gi­ampic­colo. “It’s a new in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the city for tourists to bet­ter un­der­stand the cul­ture and its most folk­loric as­pects.” The suc­cess of the ho­tel’s in­te­rior lies in its bal­ance of brave de­sign ges­tures with pared-back so­phis­ti­ca­tion be­fi­fit­ting, not fi­fight­ing the Baroque ar­chi­tec­ture. A four me­tre-high flflflamin­go peeps over the ho­tel’s kitchen, neatly boxed away be­hind an an­tiqued mir­ror to rep­re­sent the birds and wa­ter foun­tain at nearby Bellini gar­dens. Sculp­tural state­ments don’t over­bear un­der th­ese high ceil­ings and along­side a low- key edit of Mod and Mod­ern fur­ni­ture and fur­nish­ings that pay no heed to the Baroque in­te­rior style of neigh­bour­ing ho­tels. “We wanted to im­merse the guest in a real ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Gi­ampic­colo. “Even if it’s in­spired by ref­er­ences dis­tant in time, it is very real and con­tem­po­rary — a fun and in­ter­ac­tive jour­ney into a fas­ci­nat­ing past.” The restora­tion was labour-in­ten­sive: win­dow frames, carved tim­ber de­tails, stucco and fres­coed ceil­ings were in a state of dis­re­pair. No trace was found of the orig­i­nal floors so the ar­chi­tects chose her­ring­bone par­quetry oak in a matte black fin­ish across all floors ex­cept the cen­tral court­yard, where the re­mains of early 1900s con­crete have been reused. “We like to pre­serve and re-in­ter­pret traces of the past we be­lieve are use­ful to the ar­chi­tec­tural nar­ra­tive.” Rarely has a ho­tel’s nar­ra­tive been so boldly told, but then the whole town has a bold nar­ra­tive it’s not afraid to tell. There is a gi­ant ele­phant at its cen­tre, the ex­is­tence of which ev­ery­one has the courage to cel­e­brate.


this page from top: Agatha Buns ac­com­pa­nied by tra­di­tional sweets Olives of Saint Agatha made from royal pas­try. Stu­dio Gum’s Valentina Gi­ampic­colo and Giuseppe Mi­naldi be­fore a por­trait by Si­cil­ian artist ROS­SANA TAORMINA. An­other view of the cen­tral...

The cen­tral court at As­mundo di Gisira fea­tures re-used con­crete flfloor­ing from the early 1900s. Ceramic heads by Si­cil­ian ceramic sculp­tor ALESSAN­DRO IUDICI; FLOS sus­pen­sion lights. De­tails, last pages.

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