Friends from Connecticut, who looked like characters out of a Ralph Lauren ad, entered the tiny, sweltering lobby of the Hotel-Pensione Quisisana e Pontevecchio and approached the signora hesitantly.
Would it be possible, they asked, to have "a room with a view?"
Giovanna Marasco, 77, the fourth woman in her line to run this simple, cozy hostelry on the banks of the Arno River, put down her pen and peered coolly at the two young Americans from behind the registration desk.
The couple got the message and retreated to the room they'd already been assigned.
Marasco shook her head slowly and rolled her eyes. Ever since director James Ivory selected the Quisisana e Pontevecchio for the early interior scenes of his 1986 Oscar-nominated film of E. M. Forster's romantic novel, "A Room with a View," the little hotel has been besieged by requests for rooms with a view.
Other Hotels Along River
The Quisisana e Pontevecchio is not the only small hotel in Florence that Ivory could have cast as Forster's fictional Pensione Bertolini, where young love ignites despite Victorian convention.
Half a dozen establishments along the Arno offer a view and an ambiance similar to those described in the novel and seen in the film.
But the Quisisana got the part, and as word got out--neither the Quisisana management nor Florence tourism officials have kept the choice a secret--reservations have poured in.
"It has been a mixed blessing, certainly," Marasco said of the film and its attendant publicity.
We sat in the Quisisana's parlor, which, as in the film, is eclectically furnished in the Victorian mode with well-stuffed chairs (and their obligatory antimacassars), sturdy mahogany tables and Oriental rugs spread over an intricately patterned tiled floor. A great stone fireplace takes up much of one wall.
"Naturally, we like to have many, many guests," Marasco said. "And, of course, we like everyone to have the accommodations they prefer. But we are a small hotel and few rooms (10 of 37) have a view of the river.
"Since the film, we hear of nothing else. If there is no room with a view, we have complaints. If there is such a room available, we have complaints, too, because those rooms can be noisy from the traffic and loud voices at night."
She glanced over her shoulder to see if Pete and Georgia might still be around.
Marasco is a round woman with dark, intelligent eyes and, despite the occasional frustrations brought on by her hotel's celebrity, a warm, ready wit that often spills over into outright jollity.
She is moved to great, rumbling laughter, for example, in describing what might be called the "honeymoon strategy."
"We have many young couples, usually Americans, who arrive here with their reservations and, finding we have only back rooms for them, suddenly remember they are on their honeymoons. 'Please, please, can't you do something?' "
Marasco brings her palms to her cheeks in mock desperation. "What am I to do? Throw other honeymooners out of their rooms? So many honeymooners in America!"
Decades of Guests
The signora emphasizes proudly that the Quisisana, which has been serving guests at its location between the Uffizi museum and the Ponte Vecchio for nearly 60 years (and for 20 years before that at its first site a couple of blocks away), has always been a popular stopping place. The film has only made it more so.
"From when my great-grandmother opened the original Pensione Quisisana until now we have never wanted for guests," Marasco said.
"We have had stay with us everyone, from the family of the Russian czars to touring university students, to English noble families whose children and children's children come back here again and again."
The Quisisana takes up the top three floors of a stolid, stone Renaissance building--the ground floor houses private apartments--whose entrance is on the traffic-clogged Lungarno (literally, the street that runs along the Arno).
One reaches the hotel via a tiny wood-paneled and mirrored elevator. The loggia on the top floor was incorporated into the building from an Etruscan palace long ago.
There is a common entrance to the loggia from a main hall, so every guest, room with a view or not, can enjoy a splendid vista of the Vasari corridor leading from the Uffizi gallery to the Ponte Vecchio on the right, and of the jewel-like Church of San Miniato across the river and up a hill overlooking the city on the left.
The hotel moved to its current location and added Pontevecchio to its name in 1929, when Marasco's mother was in charge.
The elder Marasco will be 101 this year, but, her daughter said with a smile, she "does not get around so much as before" because of a broken leg she sustained last year.
Marasco relies on her brother, Dante Nutini, and a staff of about a dozen to help with the operation of the hotel.
Although the Quisisana no longer has full meal service (continental breakfast only), the dining room, with some rearrangement of furniture, is not much different than the room depicted in the film's early scenes.
Marasco said that although Ivory, his cast and crew were shooting at the Quisisana for a month, there was little disruption of the hotel's routine. "There were minor inconveniences, but our regular guests were not neglected," she said. Some of Ivory's crew, but none of the actors, took rooms at the Quisisana.
When I spoke with her last fall, Marasco had not yet seen "A Room with a View," although she was eager to do so.
Because of some remarkable quirk of scheduling, the film played practically everywhere else in the world before opening in Florence.
And although she had not read Forster's novel, she knew enough about the story to understand the grumbling over rooms with a view endured by the signora who ran Forster's Pensione Bertolini.
Carping about your room assignment at the Quisisana is a little like jockeying for position in Paradise.
There is no such thing, really, as a room without a view in the hotel. I know. I spent my first two nights here in a narrow but comfortable back room whose screenless, green-shuttered window gave out onto a sea of amber-tiled rooftops set under an endless azure sky.
sh Room Used in Film Room 7, the room next to mine, is the one Ivory used in the film's opening scene, where beautiful young Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) and her spinster chaperon, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), find themselves less agreeably accommodated than they had expected to be.
"The rooms the signora promised us in her letter would have looked over the Arno," Lucy says to Charlotte in the novel. "The signora had no business to do it at all."
In the novel and the film, of course, Lucy and Charlotte get their view of the Arno--and Forster's story gets its wonderfully romantic impetus--thanks to an offer to trade rooms gallantly put forward by the Emersons, father and son, at the dinner table that night.
"Women like looking at a view," Emerson Sr. tells Charlotte and Lucy. "Men don't."
Night in Room 33
Not so. Because of a sudden cancellation at the Quisisana on my last night, I was offered a room with a view and I took it. In fact, I'm proud to say I slept in Lucy Honeychurch's bed, because Room 33, where I stayed that night, is the other Quisisana room Ivory used in his film.
The room was large and airy and furnished with admirable antiques. French doors opened onto the loggia where a few of the Quisisana's guests sipped tall, cold drinks at candle-lit tables and swatted ineffectually at this river city's nearly ubiquitous mosquitoes.
Down along the Lungarno, motorbikes and cars not much bigger than motorbikes sputtered and backfired, though it was very nearly midnight.
Pete and Georgia, whose room was next to mine, were right; the view is a noisy one. But its visual rewards vastly outweigh its boisterous drawbacks.
I walked out onto the terrace and watched the lights flickering across the river in buildings that already were old when Columbus sailed.
A warm breeze tickled the leaves of fragrant, flowering plants trailing from terra-cotta pots set on the balustrade. Below, the Arno shimmered languidly in the light of a full harvest moon.
Oh, a view, I thought. How delightful a view is. . . .
The Quisisana e Pontevecchio is at 4 Lungarno Archibusieri, 50122 Florence, Italy. Telephone (from the United States): 011-39-55-216-692. Single room, $65 U.S. per night; double room, $90 per night. All rooms have private baths and telephones. A continental breakfast is included in the rate.