There are seldom a few places in the world that hold the ability to transport you right into history. One such place is the San Domenico Palace, which is located on a hilltop overlooking the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna in Taormina. Sicily, Italy. The origins of the San Domenico Palace can be traced back to 1203 as a part of the Dominican religious Order under Saint Dominic.

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San Domenico Palace _©Peter Vitale

As one of the most important organizations in the history of Catholicism, Its role in propagating Christianity led to the formation of the Convent in 1374. The convent, initially a part of a church, became an essential part of Taormina’s religious history, receiving support from their principal patron, Baron Damiano Rosso d’Altavilla.

Rosso officially gifted the San Domenico Palace near Santa Agatha’s church to the convent. The Palace was the oldest house in Taormina, with a beautiful view of the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna. 

400 years later, in 1866, The state of Italy tried to acquire the convent and its assets under a new law designed to suppress religious establishments. Challenged by the only living member of the convent, the convent continued to live on. After the passing of the last member, the San Domenico Palace found itself at the hands of a new owner, Prince Cerami. 

It was Prince Cerami’s vision to convert this religious landmark into a hotel. In 1896, with the addition of another wing, Prince Cerami established Europe’s first grand hotels. The hotel garners much support and becomes a fashionable location for Europe’s elites. In World War II, it functioned as the headquarters for the German Army, during which it sustained a bombing that destroyed the convent’s church, which was later reconstructed. 

As of July 2021, the hotel was renovated and now functions under the management of the Four Seasons Hotel group, making it a historical, luxury destination for tourists in Sicily. 

The Architecture

Today, the hotel stands on the structures of the original convent. It consists of two main buildings: the ‘ancient convent’ converted into luxury rooms and the 15th-century original convent. It was built in the ‘Liberty Style’ of architecture. The classical structures of the convent, including classic decor, original frescos, and furnishings, are preserved and classily blended into modern living needs. 

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Lobby of the Hotel_©Peter Vitale

The historical nature of construction allows for a unique experience for each of its residents. The hotel defines a new luxury with its pale and neutral color palette. The hotel’s interiors pay attention to every small detail to provide a relaxing and elegant experience. 

The Contemporary aesthetic of the hotel pays respect to its past by retaining portraits of saints above each room, as chosen by the monks who once lived there. The design also retains touches of Sicilian tradition in the décor, such as filmed mirror glass, colored ceramic pieces, and antiques from the island, which are curated tastefully. Common materials used in the project are Modica stone and Port Laurent marble from Morocco, Canaletto walnut, Patagonia marble, bronzed brushed brass, and antique mirrored glass, mainly sourced locally from the island and its neighbors.  

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Outdoor Common space_©Peter Vitale

The ancient refractory has been repurposed as a museum curated by art consultant James Robertson with pieces from the 16th to 19th century.  The Convent serves as a public space for the hotel. 

The Designers

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Valentina Pisani_©Peter Vitale
Heritage Hotel San Domenico Palace, Taormina, a Four Seasons Hotel-Sheet5
Rosaria Catania Cucchiara_©Peter Vitale

The restoration and design of the San Domenico Palace under the Four Seasons management were undertaken by two women architects, Valentina Pisani and Rosaria Catania Cucchiara. 

Valentina Pisani, a resident of Naples, Italy, is a designer in her family practice- Studio Pisani Morace Architetti Associati. Her previous projects have revolved around renovating and designing ecclesiastical and historical buildings and museums in Rome and Naples, multiple private residences, hotels in Naples and on Capri, several restaurants, and yacht interiors. With her extensive experience in renovations, she said, “Renovating a hotel with such a long legacy in hospitality and with such a stunning location – perched high above the sea and under the watchful eye of Mount Etna – has been a fascinating and thrilling journey.” 

Valentina Pisani overlooked all the interior design of the project. Her experience with renovation shines in her skillful execution of marrying history with modernity. She was in charge of designing all the guest rooms, the Bar& Chiosto featuring the Cloister, the Michelin-star restaurant Principe Cerami, the gym, the outdoor infinity pool, and its adjoining restaurant Anciovi.  

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Infinity Pool_©Peter Vitale

Rosaria Catania Cucchiara is a native of Messina, Sicily, and has worked on numerous prestigious restoration projects in Italy. She headed an all-female team of four art restoration specialists for the San Domenico project. She believes that a woman’s touch may be preferable to a man’s in the art of restoration. 

During the course of renovating the San Domenico Palace, Catania Cucchiara added that renovating the lime-scaled columns in the cloister was the most challenging and took almost 3 months to complete. 

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Cloister Columns_©Peter Vitale

Cultural Relevance   

The San Domenico Palace has stood the test of time. From being one of the essential places to propagate Christianity to surviving the bombings of World War II and finally enriching people’s lives with the rich history of Taormina as a hotel, the hotel has carved a unique pedestal for itself atop Mount Etna.

Visitors to the San Dominican Palace have included a wide range of the world’s elites and dignitaries. In the 1900s, visitors to the hotel included King Edward VII of England, the second Baron Rothschild, Oscar Wilde, and DH Lawrence; in the 1950s, it welcomed the world’s most celebrated stars of theater and celluloid, including Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren. In 2017, it hosted world political leaders for the G7 summit. It was recently famously featured on the HBO series ‘White Lotus,’ which has momentously increased its popularity among the younger generations. 

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Aubrey Plaza in Season2 of White Lotus_©HBO

The San Domenico Palace, over the years, has redefined the word luxury; it is a perfect example of how one can retain the past and continue to be relevant and meaningful for generations to come. 

Online sources:

Explore the history of San Domenico Palace (no date) Four Seasons Press Room. Available at: (Accessed: 25 February 2024). 

Inside san domenico palace: The white lotus in Taormina (no date) Artemest. Available at: (Accessed: 25 February 2024). 

Seasons, F. (2022) A woman’s touch: Celebrating the women behind the rebirth of San Domenico Palace, Taormina, a four seasons hotel, Four Seasons Press Room. Available at: (Accessed: 25 February 2024). 

The white lotus: Secrets of super rich staying at Hotel where TV satire filmed (2022) The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 25 February 2024). 


Bhavana Priya B is an Architectural designer with a distinction in her masters from the University of Pennsylvania. She believes in the importance of design and architecture and its need to stay relevant in society. Her passion is to make Architectural knowledge more accessible and lead sustainable innovation in the field.