Some first-time visitors to Florence have been known to suffer from Stendhal syndrome – often referred to as Florence Syndrome – which is named after the 19th-century French novelist. As a result of prolonged proximity to such "sublime beauty", he was overcome with an extreme case of nerves and palpitations.
You could be forgiven for having your own Stendhal moment at the Four Seasons. In a city where art reigns supreme, your introduction to the jewels of the Renaissance starts immediately in the dazzling glass barrel-vaulted courtyard. Look up and you can see the hotel's most treasured artwork, 12 bas-reliefs commissioned by Alessandro de Medici in 1555 and executed by the celebrated Flemish Mannerist, Jan van der Straet.
Before it acquired the Four Seasons emblem this summer, few visitors to Florence would have been aware of the 15th-century Renaissance Palazzo della Gherardesca. Such is the building's historic legacy, before it and the neighbouring 16th-century "Conventino" could open for business it took seven painstaking years to renovate the two buildings, at a reported cost of $100m (£68m).
The result is unique: half museum, half hotel, with the building's interiors reflecting over five centuries of history. Previous residents have included a Pope, an order of nuns, Italy's first railway company, Florentine nobles and a Viceroy of Egypt (who sold up when his harem was forbidden to move in).
Four Seasons is sometimes accused of sacrificing too much local colour in the name of its unrivalled consistency, but the right chord has been struck here. There is also enough hustle and bustle to counteract any sense of museum-like austerity. You can live like a modern-day Medici by sipping an aperitivo among the verdant tranquillity of the largest private garden in Florence, or loll by the pool listening to the church bells peeling out across the rooftops.
The spa uses products from the world's oldest pharmacy, Florence's Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Someone here also had the good sense to employ Vito Mollica in the kitchen. An ardent supporter of the Slow Food movement, he applies just the right amount of talent to his superior raw materials (so much so that I was almost willing to forgive the cheesy keyboard player who was wheeled out at dinner times).
Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, Borgo Pinti 99, Florence, Tuscany, Italy (00 39 055 2626 1; fourseasons.com). This quiet corner of the "centro storico" feels like it still belongs to the Florentines. Close enough to walk to all the major sites in 15 minutes, but far enough away to feel like you are escaping the tourist hordes.
Time from international airport: Florence's Amerigo Vespucci airport is a 20-minute drive away, although Pisa, which is served by more airlines from the UK, is around an hour by train to Santa Maria Novella station.
All of the 116 rooms, dotted between the Palazzo and the Conventino (the rooms of which are due to open in early 2009) are different. The décor was overseen by French architect and designer Pierre-Yves Rochon and an Empire style prevails. If the credit crunch means nothing to you, the real highlights are the 11 speciality suites. One of these, the Della Gherardesca occupies part of the palazzo's first floor, and boasts a frescoed gallery, plus an original 18th-century Capodimonte ceramic floor. Bathrooms are decorated in marble and have separate baths and showers.
Freebies: toiletries have been specially blended by Italian perfumier Lorenzo Villoresi.
Keeping in touch: satellite TV and direct-dial telephones in rooms; fax machines and DVD players on request.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Double rooms start at €327, rising to €13,750 for the Della Gherardesca suite.
I'm not paying that: continue the ecclesiastical theme at the nearby former convent Morandi alla Crocetta (00 39 055 234 4747; hotelmorandi.it), where doubles with breakfast start at €177.