Nearly 70 Years Later, Le Sirenuse is Still the Most Desirable Hotel in Positano
Owner Antonio Sersale treats his family's famed Italian resort like a living organism, layering in new contemporary artworks into the space each year and curating every detail to the utmost perfection.
Since its auspicious debut in 1951, when four Neapolitan brothers turned a cliffside summer home into a glamorous seaside resort, Le Sirenuse has served as an idyll for sybaritic pleasures on the Amalfi Coast. Beginning in 1992, Antonio Sersale has been its impresario, carrying on the legacy of his father and uncles, preserving the property’s je ne sais quoi while carefully overseeing its evolution. During his tenure, Sersale has transformed a parking lot into Franco’s Bar, launched a contemporary art program that introduces a new piece to the hotel each year, and even opened a satellite restaurant at Miami’s Four Seasons Surf Club. Surface sat down with Sersale to discuss this year’s artwork, modern travel trends, and the secret to Le Sirenuse’s magic.
You’ve collaborated with artists Karl Holmqvist, Martin Creed, Stanley Whitney, Alex Israel, and now Matt Connors. What has the addition of contemporary art done for the dynamic at Le Sirenuse?
It has integrated really well—I can’t think of the hotel before. A lot of them are not noticed by the guests because you have to be a connoisseur—otherwise they just walk past it, which is exactly the ambition of the artists. Unless it’s by someone who understands what they are. I had this very funny thing with graffiti artist Karl Holmqvist. He was doing a mural at the main bar, and in the middle of it all he writes, “Ugly people should not procreate.” I had a nervous breakdown. This is three days before the inauguration. He [ended up] crossing it out and writing, “Haha,” above. It’s totally crazy. But everyone is so obsessed with the view they don’t really notice.
I’ve always enjoyed the interplay between contemporary art and older heritage spaces. Is that something you think about?
I see it like layering, a conversation that lasts through time. I’m continuing a collection that was begun by my father and his brothers, so it’s a rapport with art that gets interpreted in different ways by different generations. Hotels are living organisms.
Tell us about this year’s work by the painter Matt Connors.
So he’s done this very interesting thing of putting these colored panels [together.] Each face is a different color and you can just see this reflection. It’s all done with formica, which is made in Italy because the Italians are top formica makers. But it was done by this wood maker who’s based in New York, a woman he’s been working with for years who is the only person he’ll work with. She takes months to do it and she works practically exclusively for him.
Will you ever run out of space?
No, because I think each artist finds a space they are happy to work within—a frame. It can be a larger one, it can be a smaller one, it just changes. Each one interprets it in their own manner.
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How has travel changed since you took the reins at Le Sirenuse? How do you maintain the hotel’s timeless qualities while adapting to contemporary tastes?
Mass tourism and elite tourism used to be separate before. There were places where the masses went, places where the elite went. Now it’s all mixed. It has changed the periphery, the outlook of places like Positano that could’ve been considered quite elite places [in the past] but have now become like every other place. But what I think is important is to create an oasis within a place and to curate every single detail to the utmost perfection, so that everything that someone comes in contact with is unique and [created] by artisans, not machine-made. And that is what I try to do at Le Sirenuse: The glass comes from Carlo Moretti, the plates were made by hand in Milan, all the furniture is done by an artisan upholsterer in Rome, and on it goes.
Is Positano retaining its character in the age of mass tourism or is it a different place than it used to be?
The structure of the place hasn’t because it’s still owned by the locals. What’s changing is the growth of bed-and-breakfasts and Airbnbs, so there’s a lot more people. It’s also getting to be a very young place, which it never used to be. We opened Franco’s Bar, which is very trendy. It doesn’t serve food, so none of the older people or families with children come because they want to go and eat.
Is that a good or bad thing?
It’s fantastic. With younger people, there’s a new kind of energy. The moment you have a few young, beautiful people around, it gives the place a completely different atmosphere.
Do you think the overall travel experience is getting better or worse?
Well, the problem is that I think transportation is getting complicated, so going from A to B is getting more chaotic. So while before, let’s say in a holiday, you could do three stops, I would now think to make it not as stressful, I would do two stops. People seem quite [uneasy] when they arrive. We’re trying to create an even more in-depth experience, [like taking guests] to visit to a manufacturer. It’s also about navigating the hours. If you’re in Capri, for example, you have to know what you’re doing because if you try to go to the Blue Grotto at 12 o’clock when all the tour buses from the cruise ships are visiting—it’s a nightmare. But if you go at six o’clock for an aperitif, it’s fantastic.