Why Did the Order of the Holy Sepulchre Choose Four Seasons to Manage Historic Landmark in Rome?
New partnership that raised concern in some Catholic spheres is intended to promote a social hostelry that will benefit the Holy Land and give more visibility to the order.
The iconic Palazzo della Rovere in Rome is about to reopen its doors to pilgrims and tourists, five years after the departure of the former managing company of the place, the Columbus Hotel, in 2018. The Order of the Holy Sepulchre (OESSH), owner of the palace — which is also its headquarters — has just entrusted its management to the international hotel group Fort Partners-Four Seasons.
The order’s decision was anticipated in the Italian press last May, when three candidates were still in the running to take over the premises. The agreement, signed by both parts March 10, received the approval of the Holy See.
This project had caused concern in some Catholic spheres, as the Four Seasons group is often associated with the controversial figure of its majority shareholder, the American billionaire Bill Gates, who is known for his public stances contrary to the teachings of the Church, especially about abortion and contraception.
In an exclusive interview with the Register following the signing of the deal, the order’s governor, Ambassador Leonardo Visconti di Modrone, said this decision is a result of long deliberation and was considered the best option to support the Church’s activities in the Holy Land, in keeping with the order’s mission for centuries.
Located a few miles from the colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica, this Renaissance building was donated by Pope Pius XII to the OESSH in 1949. The presence of many works of art in the palace, including the frescoes of Pinturicchio on the main floor, makes it a high place of Roman religious and historic heritage, very popular with art lovers and the Italian elite. Several scenes from Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning movie The Great Beauty were shot on location.
The final candidate for managing the Palazzo della Rovere was selected by the order after a nearly-two-year process initiated with a notice published in the Holy See newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in November 2020.
OESSH officials reported to the Register that a special international committee was set up by the order to select the best applications from among the 50 or so competing candidates.
The experts on the commission chaired by the order’s vice governor, Swiss banker Jean-Pierre Marie de Glutz-Ruchti, included the president of the Vatican City State Tribunal, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, and the former president of the American Trade Association, Joseph Spinnato.
“The commission worked for a year on the various proposals received and finally selected, after a thorough examination, the best proposals,” di Modrone told the Register, adding that the group Fort Partners-Four Seasons already had the advantage of the best offer at that stage.
The partnership between the OESSH and the international group was also approved by the Holy See’s authorities, after careful investigation.
The Italian diplomat rejected the allegations made in the Italian press in May 2022 that this project was not compatible with the Holy See’s ethics and rules. According to him, some misleading information was possibly spread by people interested in hampering the negotiation process with the hotel group.
“The precondition for the negotiations with Four Seasons was of [an] ethical nature and stipulated that the new hotel should not be excessively luxurious,” said di Modrone, adding that the idea was to create a unique hotel experience, combining high-quality standards matching the prestige of the palace with opportunities to promote charitable initiatives for the benefit of Christians in the Holy Land.
These standards exclude, among other things, the holding of events whose content is contrary to Church teachings. The order also requested that people from the Holy Land be employed by the hotel or involved in training courses.
“We are also discussing the possibility of giving employment to disabled or socially disadvantaged people and selling products from the Holy Land,” the order’s governor continued.
When asked about the decision-making power that Bill Gates, as a major player in the Four Seasons group, might have over the future of the palace, the governor emphasized that the OESSH remains the sole owner of the premises and that the manager can in no way override the strict rules established contractually.
“Mr. Gates is a man who made a fortune with Microsoft, which everyone uses, including his ideological opponents,” he said. “People need to understand that the hotel business must obey economic rules; we could not avoid selecting the best offer, as eventually, the damage [for not doing so] would be caused to the order, and thereby to the Holy Land.”
The question of the preservation and enhancement of the palace also appears to have been weighed in the choice of the candidate to take over the premises, subject to the preservation rules set by the Italian Ministry of Culture.
As the owner of the premises, the order has a duty to ensure the maintenance of its artistic heritage, including the high financial costs that this entails.
At the same time, the budgetary policy of the order is to allocate almost all of the donations received from its activities around the world to aid the Holy Land.
According to di Modrone, the new manager pledged to cover all maintenance and restoration work in the premises, unlike the other companies in the running.
“We are planning, in coordination with the hotel, to open a small museum on site, with magnificent medieval and Roman pieces found during the excavations in the courtyard of the building,” he said. “Most of the objects found are related to the pilgrimages from all over the world, particularly on the occasion of jubilees.”
Promoting the Order
Behind this partnership is also the opportunity that this international chain represents for the promotion and strengthening of the order’s mission.
The mission of the order, which dates back to the Crusades and is made up of 30,000 knights and dames worldwide, is to support the religious, spiritual, charitable and social works and rights of the Catholic Church and Christians in the Holy Land, particularly of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Visconti di Modrone said that the order’s publications will be made available to guests at all Four Seasons hotels worldwide and that an annual fundraising event would be held in New York for the benefit of the Holy Land.
“What is interesting for us is to spread deeper knowledge of charitable activities of the order in the Holy Land and at the same time to draw from the hotel an income that can cover the running expenses of the OESSH,” di Modrone concluded. “Thus, we can guarantee that all the contributions we receive will continue to be entirely dedicated to our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, which would represent a rare example in the world of charitable foundations.”