Situated on the edge of the Ionian Sea, under the shadow of Mount Etna (or “A Muntagna” as the locals call it), Catania is Sicily’s second largest city, with a population of around 300,000. Mount Etna has, to a large extent, shaped both the history and the actual existence of Catania. On several occasions, volcanic eruptions destroyed the city, the most devastating of which happened in the 17th century, when in 1669 Catania was covered in lava, and then, just a few decades later, a massive earthquake devastated most of south-eastern Sicily and reduced much of Catania to rubble. However, the resilient townsfolk’s reaction to the latter catastrophe was incredible – using lava from Mount Etna to rebuild the entire old part of the town in grand Baroque style, complete with large open squares, wide avenues and numerous fine buildings.
Today Catania is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a city rich in history and legend. So, in transforming an 18th century former mansion into boutique hotel Asmundo di Gisira, Giuseppe Minaldi and Valentina Giampiccolo, co-founders of Italian firm Studio GUM, chose to not only embrace Catania’s past, but also reinforce it with an unconventional design sensibility that pays homage to the stories and symbols that have come to define the ancient Italian city. This “stimulates the curiosity of the visitors” says Giampiccolo, “pushing them to explore their surroundings and reflect upon and celebrate the city’s legacy.”
The myth of Billonia, a beautiful young girl who handed out flowers and happiness, serves as design inspiration, not only for a portrait in the entrance, but also in graphic wallcoverings throughout the hotel. By way of tribute to the pink birds that would linger in the fountain in Giardino Bellini park, a larger-than-life flamingo by Domenico Pellegrino peers into the reception area. This whimsicalness is carried through to the six guestrooms, each of which tells a different story.
In the Proserpina room, the goddess of grain and architecture is reinterpreted as a greenhouse made of iron and tissue, set under a beautifully frescoed ceiling. Whilst the Uzeta room recalls the valiant knight who defeated Saracen giants, represented by a large ceramic alligator and a headboard of overlapping leather pieces studded in armour-inspired brass. The hotel’s other four rooms continue in the same artistic and highly detailed vain, rendering Asmundo di Gisira more of a living art gallery rather than simply somewhere to lay one’s head. Perhaps being part of the masterpiece and surrounded by the history of the destination when we sleep is the way forward for a more immersive hospitality experience.