Simone Micheli Goes Paleo with Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa in Italy

PROJECT NAME Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa
LOCATION Matera, Italy
FIRM Simone Micheli Architectural Hero

Tuscan born and raised, Simone Micheli had ventured down to the Basilicata region, at the arch of Italy’s boot. “I was somewhat familiar with Matera,” he begins, referring to the hill town known as the city of sassi, or rocks. Here, grottoes were inhabited by humans from the Stone Age through, surprisingly, the 1950s. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, it is currently a European Capital of Culture for 2019.

Much of the Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa, a Simone Micheli Architectural Hero project in Matera, Italy, is carved out of calcareous tufa stone. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.

His true introduction to Matera would occur thanks to a fellow architect who practices and develops real estate there. “I entered into close contact with it after I met my dear friend and colleague Cosimo dell’Aqua,” Micheli elaborates. A year later, the two would embark on a project with dell’Aqua as developer-catalyst and architect and Simone Micheli Architectural Hero as interiors firm. The result, the Aquatio Cave Luxury Hotel & Spa, is a property as unique as its setting.

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“This city, which had become decrepit and creepy, is now a place of undisputed beauty,” Micheli continues, calling it a must-visit “for anyone wanting to rediscover the ancient splendor,” much more than just subterranean history. “Interspersed with the underground mazes and labyrinthine caves are elegant aboveground buildings, forming one stunning landscape.” Thoroughly integrated into the sassi zone, carved out of the porous stone known as tufa, the five-star Aquatio is an intimate affair comprising guest accommodations and dining, plus all the facilities associated with a world-class spa. (Hence the hotel name. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman statesman and writer, used the word aquatio to mean a source of water.)

Micheli holds eminent bona fides in terms of visioning the Aquatio commission. With 40 international spas and wellness centers to his credit, he explains that their shared language expresses a desire to “reconstitute the sensuality lost to the frenzy of everyday life.” But before he could execute that vision, it was up to dell’Aqua to complete a complex architectural intervention involving streets, buildings, caves, and cisterns connected to the all-important water, namely the small wells found, cleaned, and brought back to life. Years of neglect mandated massive scrubbing everywhere else, too.

The hotel occupies converted cave dwellings on six levels. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.

In the end, here’s how Aquatio plays out. The hotel encompasses six different levels, not as a single block but as an assemblage of historic structures arrayed below a ridge. The Italian term is albergo diffuso. Reception, the restaurant and breakfast area, and a meeting room to accommodate 40 can all be found on the lowest level. Mean­while, the 35 guest rooms and suites ascend the rocky face of the hill. “Everything is hidden inside the womb of the earth,” Micheli notes poetically.

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Beneath the carved-out vaulted ceilings, some of them clad in limestone, most of the flooring is the existing stone, cleaned and polished. That changes to a newly made substance in the guest rooms and suites. Called coccio­pesto, it is a terrazzolike com­-
posite consisting of tiles that have been broken into small pieces and mixed with mortar, then packed down.

There’s no mistaking Micheli’s furnishings, some custom and some his own production pieces—they might look particularly familiar to anyone who visited his Hotel Regeneration installation during last year’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan. Sparsely deployed at the Aquatio, they stand as the epitome of elegance: gently curvaceous, totally white, and seemingly afloat in their stone surroundings. “White recalls the lime with which the inhabitants of Matera used to sanitize their cave dwellings,” he notes.

Simone Micheli de­signed the chairs in the reception lounge. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.

In guest quarters, a round built-in mirror is a key element. “It multiplies the perspective of the human gaze,” Micheli says. Concealed in the floor, LED sources glow. No light glares from above.

And that spa, aah, that spa. It wends its way through multiple caves, the oldest dating to the 9th century, to cover 5,400 square feet. At Aquatio’s deepest point is the spa’s heated fresh-water infinity pool, a swimmer’s delight. Overlooking this otherworldly environment, from the entrance, stands a glossy white swooping sculpture, Micheli’s version of a totem.

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After swimming laps comes the relaxing reward. Opt for a massage, a Turkish bath with color-changing LEDs beneath the benches—something of a Micheli signature—or just zoning out on a curvy white chaise longue. As for the maestro himself, constantly on the go with a full slate of projects, he’s too busy for any of the above. Spa time is somewhere in the future. 

Keep scrolling for more images of the project > 

Another chair by Micheli faces a suite’s built-in mirror, encircled by LEDs. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.
Guest rooms and suites have direct access from the street as well as from internal courtyards. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.
Custom chaise longues in molded polyurethane recline in the spa. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.
Its Turkish bath has color-changing LEDs be­neath the benches. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.
The infinity pool occupies an entire cave. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.
Micheli’s sculpture in resin-coated polystyrene stands in front of the spa’s infinity pool. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.
Custom ottomans, their removable covers a thermoplastic fabric, gather in a nearby courtyard. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.
A suite’s custom bed has a headboard in lacquered MDF. Photography by Jürgen Eheim.

It's time to relax! Read about 16 other soothing spas and saunas from around the world.

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