VOGUE Living Australia
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 ››
“OUR PROJECTS ARE OFTEN LED BY A STRONG IDEA, A CONCEPT TRANSLATED INTO ARCHITECTURE” — studio gum’s valentina giampiccolo
‹‹ 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.
“ASMUNDO DI GISIRA IS A FUN AND INTERACTIVE JOURNEY INTO A FASCINATING PAST” — valentina giampiccolo