Search for hotels, destinations, articles
Design Hotels


Cristina Paini
The Visionary and Her “Sisters”

01 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Words Ken BaronImages Danilo Scarpati

Twenty years ago, Cristina Paini would have been considered a groundbreaking pioneer in the almost-all-male world of hospitality.

Today, as the visionary behind Palazzo Velabro and the CEO/owner of LHM Hotel Management Company, she is a leading light in the ongoing movement to establish women as driving forces in the business. “When I was coming up, hospitality was very much a man’s world. And when it comes to management these days, it still is!” says Paini from her office in Milan as her loyal dog Otello sleeps by her feet. “But it’s important that this is changing, not just from the perspective of parity, but to benefit the guest. A female perspective at the top means that one can experience a sense of totality that might otherwise be missing. I want my guests to be stimulated and comforted. ‘Caring’ is a word I like a lot. And I think that can be more of a feminine instinct than a masculine one.”

05 MBO Palazzo Velabro
03 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Cristina Paini and her “sisters”, architect Alessia Garibaldi and art sharer Maria Vittoria Baravelli

“Because you are part of a city, you can change that city for the better, if you want to. It takes time. But you can do it.”

Cristina Paini

You speak often about sisterhood and of empowering women. Did that play a big role in Palazzo Velabro?

Yes, but it was very organic. When I came to Rome, I didn’t really know anyone there. So I wanted to surround myself with people who shared similar experiences and ideals, but who also brought their own unique creative vision to our friendship—and then to the hotel, itself. Alessia Garibaldi, the architect who conceived the hotel’s interior design, is someone who I became acquainted with at a hospitality event in Milan; Maria Vittoria Baravelli is a curator who I met at a contemporary art event, also in Milan; and Giulia di Properzio is a jewelry designer who I met after coming to Rome. We each complement each other and support each other.

How are their perspectives reflected at the hotel?

What I love about Alessia is her very personal approach to interiors. Much more than just furniture, every object has life and a soul for her and brings value to a space, to every corner of the building. So it’s something that I can feel as well as see. And if I am offering something to someone, I have to absolutely love it. Maria, meanwhile, has brought a curator’s eye to the hotel, creating a space that’s filled with more than 100 books—poetry, novels, photography, and the like—all connected to the hotel’s location and reflecting its spirit. The result is a peaceful place where you also feel stimulated to learn, though not compelled to. Like me, Maria doesn’t want people to think that a space is too elite. As for Giulia, I immediately loved the style and taste of her jewelry boutique. Her patience and gentleness as a person and her warm and cozy ideas about life speak to me. She is really great, but at the same time curious and open to others. She has been mentioned in the Louis Vuitton Rome Guide—twice. So it’s not just me!

04 MBO Palazzo Velabro

A shared passion: Paini and curator Baravelli muse over old photographs to capture the story of Palazzo Velabro’s historic location

“I want to push things toward the ‘now’ and the ‘next’.”

Cristina Paini

05 MBO Palazzo Velabro (1)

Form meets artistry: The work of jeweler Giulia di Properzio mirrors her personal style and grace

06 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Paini and di Properzio forged an instant—and lasting—connection

It sounds like both a friendship and a work relationship with these women.

The group works because of the closeness we feel and the confidence we have in each other. So, yes, that is part of the empowering sisterhood that you asked about. But I should add, the hotel is not just women. There are some men, too! The GM is a man. But for me and this group of women, the bond is about more than just work. It’s about fun, too, which has made creating and realizing this hotel such a wonderful experience for me. It has become much more than a project. In fact, because it took a while to renovate the hotel, Giulia and I wound up taking vacations together. We have become very close friends.

Does having a Milanese perspective shape the Rome experience that you provide for your guests?

Rome has so many antiquities—it is what it’s famous for—but there’s also a lot of new stuff people should be made aware of. I want to push things toward the “now” and the “next”. That’s why we have opted to showcase contemporary artists in the hotel like Edoardo Piermattei, who has created a fresco in the hotel’s entrance that is an explosion of colors inspired by the movement of the clouds. But because the work is in full harmony with the dynamism of Roman baroque ceilings, it becomes very specific to the site. The hotel’s designer, Alessia Garibaldi, is passionate about contemporary art, so she envisioned the project as a space open to artists, which is why we are also working on close collaborations with the Beaux Arts Academy.

08 MBO Palazzo Velabro

The oldest stone bridge in Rome: Ponte Rotto, formerly Ponte Emilio, is less than 10 minutes from hotel.

09 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Inspiration and interpretation: Piermattei, Paini, and Garibaldi

09 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Excerpts of Edoardo Piermattei’s fresco for the hotel entrance

So, for you, art helps shine a contemporary light on the Rome experience.

Absolutely! It’s why the hotel also has an exhibition area. There and in the corridors, the suites, and elsewhere, you will see everything from paintings, sculptures, and photography to literature and films by young Roman and non-Roman artists, all confronting themselves under the guidance of different art curators.

Films? Is there also cinema in the hotel?

Yes, but let me explain why. Usually, one is on a tight deadline to finish a project. And I would have liked to finish Palazzo Velabro sooner than we did, believe me. But there were delays, which became kind of a blessing. When you are in a rush, you think, “I don’t like this or that 100 percent, but ok let’s just finish.” Here, we had time, so we could really think through the spaces. Thus, the hotel’s small movie theater, which I love because it really captures the Italian spirit. We show films by Rossellini, Sergio Leone, Fellini, Paolo Sorrentino, … films made in Rome. There is a longstanding tradition of cinema in Rome that continues to develop; in fact, a lot of film production took place and still takes place in the area surrounding the hotel. So a space that pays homage to Italian cinema is just perfect. Of course, if guests want to use the space as their own personal movie theater, that’s possible too.

11 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Fresh and timeless: The soul and scent of Rome is in the air

11 MBO Palazzo Velabro

A local favorite: Da Enzo Trattoria is always worth the wait

12 MBO Palazzo Velabro (2)

You said once that you want to give guests a grand tour experience of Rome. What is included in that?

Maybe I should rephrase that. I want to give guests an authentic Rome experience. I want them to see the city differently. Of course, some experiences are musts. For example, San Luigi dei Francesi, which is a church not far from Piazza Navona. It always overwhelms me how easy it is to enter and admire a great work by Caravaggio, a true milestone in art history. Or the Basílica de Santa Cecilia in Trastevere—it’s breathtaking and always worth another visit. But there are also the restaurants that make the city great, many off the beaten path. I love Da Enzo al 29, a simple, tucked-away eatery with sidewalk tables and typical Roman cuisine. Yes, the lines are long, but waiting is part of the experience. Or Rocco Ristorante, which is a place where artists and emerging film directors meet. Or Zia Restaurant, with its young chef who has already earned 1 Michelin star. I also like to steer guests to things that only locals do, like the granita crushed ice drink that you can get in the summer not far from the hotel. It’s made manually the way it used to be done in Rome in the 1950s and 1960s. So it’s a taste of the old and the original. I want you to leave Rome not as a tourist but as a resident.

Is this “resident experience” the reason why the hotel also has apartments?

Yes, exactly. In Rome, there is a huge development now in the luxury sector. But I don’t necessarily interpret luxury the way others might. We are not after bold or lavish looks, but rather something more sophisticated. Our rooms and apartments are very big, averaging around 50 square meters in size. That kind of space is a real luxury in Rome. And we have beautiful panoramas of the most ancient part of the city, where Rome was born; you can see the Arch of Janus, Roman Forum...the luxury then is the peace that you find in your space, and the quality and magnetism of that peace. You breathe differently because you are not contained in a small space. The view doesn’t squeeze you in. Also, there are no surrounding buildings. You can see the river, which is a living signature of Rome.

14 MBO Palazzo Velabro
15 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Local folks and flavor

“I want you to leave Rome not as a tourist but as a resident.”

Cristina Paini

16 MBO Palazzo Velabro

The Arch of Janus by night

17 MBO Palazzo Velabro

San Giorgio al Velabro: Divine inspiration close to the hotel

You went to New York for post-graduate work at Columbia University. How did your time in there affect you?

It was the best learning experience ever. In Italy, we are more theoretical; it’s where I studied Latin, Greek, philosophy, and history, which are fundamental for developing your thoughts. But when I was in America, I studied economics. So I leaped ahead 3,000 years from before Christ to contemporary times! What I liked most from those days was the idea that the sky is the limit. You sense that you can do whatever you want. You have to be committed. You have to make sacrifices, but you can reach for whatever it is you desire, that’s was my sensation. I was studying with people who had all different kinds of backgrounds—the public sector, multinationals, the military, even the FBI! The experience made me realize just how focused we are on our own world. New York was a beautiful experience; that city still is part of my soul.

Who is influencing you the most these days?

Right now, my dog Otello is influencing me. He’s a boxer. I’ve had him five years. He is the emperor of the house. He rules. I obey!

Any final thoughts?

Just this: I had a professor at Columbia who once asked our class, “What do you stand for?” For me, a hotel answers a lot of those questions. There is the business side of things, of course, but there are the people you manage and the messages and experiences that you impart to your guests. And there is also your relationship with the local community. When I approached the industry 20 years ago, hospitality was largely about economics. But gradually I have come to understand that there is another aspect to it, an even more important one: Because you are part of a human environment, you are part of a city, you can change that city for the better, if you want to. It takes time. But you can do it.

18A MBO Palazzo Velabro
18B MBO Palazzo Velabro
18 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Absorbing Rome: Paini and her “sisters”

“I want to give guests an authentic Rome experience. I want them to see the city differently.”

Cristina Paini

20 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Inside Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art

21 MBO Palazzo Velabro

Featured Hotels

Featured Hotels

Next article