The Grand Hotel Villa Cora was originally known to the Florentines as
Villa Oppenheim, an elegant residence built at the end of the 1860s, during the period when Florence was the capital of Italy. The story goes that Baron Gustave Oppenheim built this sumptuous villa in honour of his young bride; over the years he and his consort organised numerous society events here, which were attended by the cream of the Florentine and international aristocracy. Villa Cora was designed by Pietro Comparini and Giuseppe Poggi, who was the architect commissioned to carry out the redevelopment of Florence at the time when it was capital, including the construction of Piazzale Michelangelo and the Viale dei Colli.
The Oppenheim family was a German dynasty of Jewish origin and had been a leading player in the banking and finance sector on the European markets since at least the 18th century. In partnership with the Banca Fenzi, it funded the project for the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which was opened in 1869.
Suspecting his wife of being unfaithful to him, Baron Oppenheim attempted to set fire to the Villa. Eugenia left her husband in the 1870s, and later remarried, this time to Count Giulio Prina Ricotti.
Following the scandals that tarnished the name of the Oppenheims, the residence was abandoned. It was subsequently purchased by the widow of
Napoleon III, the Empress Eugenié, and then in 1894 passed into the hands of Egidio Cora, from whom it took its present name. Egidio's son, Giuliano Cora, was an ambassador of Florence in the world and became a personal friend of the Emperor of Ethiopia, Hailè Selassie. Guests at the villa in this period included great artists, emperors, princes and pashas, including the Japanese emperor, whom the imperial suite is named after, and Enver Pasha, who
stayed in the villa at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The exterior of the building was designed by Comparini, and the interior decor by Edoardo Gioja, the engineer who had designed the Suez Canal.
The Moorish Salon: with an Arabian-style dome and a chimney of black marble inlaid with semi-precious stones.
The White Salon: with a fireplace sculpted in white Carrara marble bearing the coat of arms of Baron Oppenheim.
The Ceramics Hall: with ceramics set into the wooden panelling. This was originally the dining-room and banqueting hall.
The Cards Room: the games room.
The Hall of Mirrors: with gilded friezes in Louis Quinze style, for which Gioja drew inspiration from the Royal Apartments in Turin.
The frescoes and decorations in all the rooms were executed by famous artists of the time, including Pietrasanti and Samoggia, the sculptor Barzeghi and the engravers Norini and Barbetti.
These artists used the most precious materials available: Carrara marble, the yellow marble of Siena (which is no longer to be found), Murano glass, ebony and silks from the famous factory of the Fréres Braquenie
All this has been miraculously preserved, surviving the marriage and the
phantasmagorical lifestyle of the Oppenheims, who in the end left their Florentine home and put it up for sale.
But the rooms of the villa were soon restored to their splendour, even more lustrous than before, thanks to the new inhabitants: the former Empress of France, Eugenié, her son Louis Napoleon and Prince Murat.
The first reception that was held at Villa Oppenheim was so lavish that it was the talk of the town among the Florentine nobility.