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Palazzo Tornabuoni

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© Courtesy of Francesco Bedini

Anyone looking for evidence that the fractional-ownership market has finally gotten chic can find it behind the heavy door of Palazzo Tornabuoni, an elaborate 15th-century palace on Florence’s most exclusive shopping street—Via Tornabuoni—just a short passeggiata from the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio. There, at the foot of an elegant pietra serena staircase, stands a larger-than-life marble statue of the goddess Diana, one that wouldn’t look out of place in the city’s Accademia gallery. And upstairs on the piano nobile, an airily elegant suite boasts vibrant 16th-century frescoes and an ornate ceiling. Elsewhere in the palazzo some of the original details have been lost, but the high ceilings and the elaborate plaster cornices still broadcast the easy self-assurance of the Florentine aristocracy.

The historic mansion feels like a smaller version of Pitti Palace, grand duke Cosimo I’s sumptuous family residence on the far side of the Arno. Except here at Tornabuoni the interiors are the work of Michele Bönan—the gifted modern-classic designer behind the Florentine townhouse hotel JK Place and its new island offshoot, JK Place Capri. Currently in the final stages of renovation, Palazzo Tornabuoni expects to welcome its first members for the New Year.

Although the ownership model is essentially based on the same concept, Palazzo Tornabuoni is keen to distance itself from the down-market connotations of the time-share phenomenon. Time-shares, after all, are not generally associated with Renaissance cardinals like Alessandro Ottaviano de’ Medici, who bought the palace in 1574, when he was appointed archbishop of Florence (he would later become the short-lived Pope Leo XI). And time-share clients certainly don’t expect to put their feet up in a living room where the world’s first opera, Dafne, was performed (it was commissioned from Jacopo Peri in 1594 by the palazzo’s subsequent owner, an energetic patron of the arts named Jacopo Corsi). History lingers everywhere. During conversion work, restorers discovered an entire room hidden between two partitions. With its 18th-century floral mosaic floor and a delicate white-stucco dome, this room is now part of the Michelozzo Residence—the palazzo’s preopening showpiece.

In line with many other high-end fractional-ownership properties, Palazzo Tornabuoni began by selling itself as a private residence club, or PRC—emphatically not a time-share. The first urban example of the genre in Italy and one of only a handful in Europe, it is owned jointly by Italian partner RDM—the real estate arm of the powerful Fingen Group—and U.S. developer Kitebrook Partners. In April 2008 it was announced that the palazzo (which has tweaked the PRC acronym to have it stand for palace residence club) would be managed by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

Tornabuoni’s developers are offering shares in its 36 luxury apartments to a maximum of 288 members. That’s eight shares per apartment, which would give owners a bit more than six weeks of annual use, assuming that all take full advantage of potential availability. But according to the palazzo’s senior sales executive, Jane Guarducci, this scenario is unlikely. She cites research suggesting that the kind of well-heeled professionals Tornabuoni targets generally spend less than one month a year in their second homes. And with what the developers are calling a “rotating priority” booking system, the powers behind the palazzo aim to guarantee every member equal access to peak-period vacations and accommodate last-minute requests as well.

Owners choose to buy into one of three categories of apartments. Shares in the relatively small studios (there are only four of these) are pegged at about $336,000, one-bedroom stakes sell for around $510,000, and it costs about $845,000 for a share in the category with the largest units, which gives access to both two- and three-bedroom apartments (more bedrooms does not necessarily equal a more luxurious accommodation). On top of this down payment there is an annual membership fee that ranges from $12,700 to $32,500, depending on the category, plus a housekeeping charge of $330 to $770 for each visit. Technically, of course, both time-shares and PRCs are shared-ownership deals. But PRCs differentiate themselves by throwing in a raft of hotel-style services, and they offer their members greater flexibility as to when they come and what units they can occupy. At Tornabuoni, in fact, members are absolutely encouraged to try out a range of apartments within their category. The analogy used by the Sherpa Report, an online guide to shared luxury properties, is that if a time-share is a Dodge Neon, a private residence club is a Mercedes SL500.

For the case of the palazzo, however, a Maserati Quattroporte might be a better metaphor. It’s the official club car and can pick members up from the airport in Florence or Pisa (if you have stacks of luggage, vehicles with more trunk room are available, but the palazzo provides ample space to store belongings between stays). Other palazzo services include a 24-hour in-house concierge with a bulging little black book of local contacts, plus automatic membership in Florence’s prestigious Circolo del Tennis, the Centro Ippico Toscano riding school, and four Tuscan golf clubs. Each member will have his or her own private 24-bottle wine cellar, and the Palazzo bar will provide an extensive list of vintages (Jacopo Mazzei, CEO of RDM Real Estate, is also the owner of Castello di Fonterutoli, one of Chianti’s oldest estates). In addition, members are promised privileged entrée to some of the city’s cultural draws: the chance to go up on the scaffolding of Santa Croce during its ongoing restoration, for example.

Perhaps the strongest selling point of Palazzo Tornabuoni, though—and what gives it an edge over similar urban PRCs such as Phillips Club, in New York, or 47 Park Street, in London—is the introductions it promises its members. Thanks to the holdings and connections of Fingen owners Corrado and Marcello Fratini and RDM CEO Mazzei, 17th-century hunting lodges, prestigious wineries (among them the hot new Tenuta Argentiera, on the Tuscan coast), and private art collections all fall within Tornabuoni’s sphere of influence.

According to the palazzo’s director, Michael Brod, the idea is to “curate our members’ approach.” Buying into Tornabuoni, says Brod, shouldn’t be seen as a mere financial proposition. “Our clients are investing in the Florentine way of life.”

And palazzo sales executive Guarducci talks enthusiastically about a circle of refined, like-minded residents who will return the palazzo to the “village within the city” role that it and similar palaces held during the Renaissance. But she sees no need for a strict, private golf club–style admissions policy with extensive screenings and references. “Our members are self-selecting,” Guarducci says. “All those who’ve bought in so far are interested in personal growth—whether it’s participating in a wine tasting or taking an Italian language course.”

There is another reason that it makes good sense to stress the “club” aspects of a project like Tornabuoni. Considered purely as investments, time-shares have not proved to be particularly great deals—and many potential U.S. clients were scared off by the 2006 bankruptcy of Tanner & Haley, one of the market leaders in the fractional-ownership sector. As for the investment potential of PRCs, “it’s too early to tell,” says Gregory Shove, CEO of Halogen Guides, a Web site that reports on PRCs, villa rentals, and the like. And so PRCs like Tornabuoni do well to stress personal enrichment over financial gain. “As with any real estate investment,” Shove explains, “the quality of the product plus the location can cause appreciation, but this is still a lifestyle decision, not an investment one.”

Robert Frank, Wall Street Journal columnist and author of Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich, concurs: “More than anything, today’s wealthy are looking for unique experiences—and owning a piece of history without having to deal with plumbers and city hall bureaucrats is a very attractive proposition.” But Frank warns that “the affluent also hate to share—and having spent a sum that could have secured a very nice beach house in the Hamptons, most are not going to take kindly to being told that the week they want to spend in Florence is already full.” A curious confirmation of Frank’s thesis is the fact that, according to Guarducci, “several clients are currently negotiating to buy eight shares,” ensuring occupancy whenever they want it.

One of the main draws of Tornabuoni is undoubtedly the chance to be part of a cultured, stylish, international group of residents. At the time of this writing, with around a quarter of the memberships sold, 12 nationalities were represented. And with its cigar room, book-lined lounge, garden courtyard, and kitchen for cooking classes, Tornabuoni has no lack of mingling space for its cosmopolitan clientele. But neither does it skimp on apartment size. The average two- or three-bedroom unit is a bit more than 2,300 square feet, and even the four small studios average at about 750 square feet. (By no means huge, but in high-density urban Italy, families of four live in less space).Michele Bönan’s design scheme is retro without being stuffy, contemporary without being fussily postmodern. So an ornate Murano chandelier plays against the boxy modernist geometries of a black wool rug, an updated twenties coffee table, and sober sandstone-hued divans. For added whimsy, Bönan throws playful splashes of color (like a rich plum armchair) into his default palette of warm earth tones.

Each apartment has a kitchen—the largest feature restaurant-quality Boffi units—and almost half have terraces or balconies. Four of these look out over the busy boutique-lined Via Tornabuoni and several more over quieter streets; a few even give out onto the courtyard.

But the ultimate cherry on top is the umbilical connection between Tornabuoni and another Fingen project, Florence’s new Four Seasons Hotel, which opened in June in the restored Palazzo della Gherardesca, a former Medici residence surrounded by the largest private garden in the city. On the eastern stretch of the viali—the wide 19th-century avenues that circle the centro storico—the hotel can be reached by taxi or club car.

So if the sauna, steam room, and gym in the palazzo aren’t enough, Tornabuoni members will also have full privileges at the Four Seasons’ spa and heated outdoor pool (complete with alfresco WiFi)— and they’re the only nonhotel guests who will be granted this right. Who says that deserving Renaissance men (and women) can’t take it easy every now and again? For more information, call 866-753-6667 or visit palazzotornabuoni.com.

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