Palazzo Tornabuoni stands in the centre of Florence, the ancient Italian city overflowing with culture and culinary delights. The 15th-century city palace – once home to Pope Leo XI and the Medici family – has been transformed by the architect Michele Bonan into an opulent para-dise for members of the first Private Residence Club in Italy. Membership gives immediate access to the heart of Tuscan life, including the art collections of old Florentine palazzos which are not open to the general public, and the wine estates of the Mazzei and Antinori families.

Florence is the cradle of the Renaissance and it owes its present architectural and artistic charms – the succession of lovely churches, palazzos that were once homes to the elite, and world-renowned museums – to that cultural revolution. The city is a veritable horn of plenty, some of which is accessible for the public, but much of which is not. The members of Palazzo Tornabuoni, Italy’s first Private Residence Club located in that Florentine palazzo, are not troubled by such restrictions: their membership guarantees them preferential access to the very heart of Tuscan culture. And they get the full Tuscan treatment: they are driven in Maserati Quattroporte to cultural treasures that ‘mere mortals’ never see. To qualify for that, they have purchased one of the apartments or studios in the palazzo developed by the real estate division of the Fingen Group and J. Byrne Murphy of Kitebrook Partners from Washington DC.

In the 18th century, tourists undertaking the Grand Tour had to go to great pains, acquiring impressive letters of introduction, to visit the private villas and palazzos, but today, with membership of Palazzo Tornabuoni, they have a guaranteed ‘open sesame’ to the treasures held in walled private bastions. Similarly, the Mazzei and Antinori families have opened up their wine estates for them, and hunting parties are organised out of 17th-century hunting boxes. The first cultural treasure is the actual club: Palazzo Tornabuoni is situ-ated in to historic centre of Florence, a stone’s throw from the Uffici, the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio, and immediately beside Palazzo Strozzi Museum.

It dates in its present form from the 15th century, when its owner, Giovanni Battista di Franceso Tornabuoni, a relative of the de Medicis, decided to convert a group of eight houses around a central courtyard into a compact palazzo. According to the renaissance writer, Vasari, Tornabuoni called in the architect Michelozzo to do the job. Although that is the only record, most historians do agree that, in view of the style and decorative elements, it must indeed have Michelozzo who designed the palazzo in its present form. He was not only an architect, but a sculptor too, an adherent of Brunelleschi, Ghilberti and Donatello. He was a very busy man and was involved in various pro-jects at that time, including the de Medici villas in Cafaggiolo and Careggi, as well as chapels in San Miniato al Monte and Annunciata. Around 1570 the Palazzo was acquired by Alessandro de’ Medici, the cardinal who later became Pope Leo XI. He used Palazzo Tornabuoni as his episcopal seat and had the large halls decorated in grand style – one with four frescoes painted by Agostino Ciampelli between 1590 and 1594.

Three of the large frescoes have withstood the passing of time and during the latest refurbishment were painstakingly restored by Elisabetta Marchesi. They are depictions inspired by biblical stories from the Book of Esther. The most striking fresco is that portraying the banquet of King Ahasuerus, with Alessandro de’ Medici himself as the protagonist, clad in a violet episcopal robe and flanked by members of his family.

Jacopo Corsi followed Alessandro de’ Medici as owner of the palazzo and he made it one of the foremost centres of music and poetry. Corsi was a great music-lover and invited leading composers and poets to his residence. They included Claudio Monteverdi, Torquato Tasso, Ottavio Rinuccini, Jacopo Peri and Giovanbattista Marino. In 1594 the opera ‘Daphne’ was performed in the Sala delle Muse, with music by Peri and libretto by Rinuccini. It was in fact the first opera performance ever.