Category Archives: Florence Libraries

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Mud Angels, Then and Now

Two days after the devastating Florence Flood, November 4, 1966, the twenty-foot torrent that swept through the city was gone, but the piazzas, streets, churches homes, and businesses were buried in mud, naphthalene heating oil, mountains of waste, household goods, wrecked cars and even farm animals that had been swept down the valley. There was no potable water or electricity. Food was in short supply because most of the stores, including the massive Mercato Centrale had been flooded.

Level of the flood water (photo:playingintheworldgame.wordpress.com)
Level of the flood water (photo:playingintheworldgame.wordpress.com)

The federal government was slow to act, but first the Florentines pulled together in solidarity, neighbor helping neighbor, and then as news of the enormity of the disaster spread, volunteers arrived from the neighboring hill towns. The stream of helpers soon became another kind of flood with thousands of people coming from every region of Italy, western Europe and America, pulled by the catastrophic loss of the historic and artistic patrimony of Florence, but also to support the Florentines in their time of greatest need.

Those that came were mostly young, in their teens, twenties and thirties. They filled the hostels and pensiones and even slept in rows of sleeping bags at the train station. With an extraordinary spirit of sacrifice this youthful multi-lingual army shoveled away tons of mud, wiped sticky oil off of marble statues, rescued sodden books, and distributed food and water. Thousands of young people dedicated their time to recover from the mud paintings, books, frescoes, carvings, statues and other works of art.

Mud Angels at rest in 1966
Mud Angels at rest in 1966

They went without warm showers, heated rooms, clean clothes and hot food. Because of their dedication and solidarity they were named “Gli Angeli del Fango” (The Angels of the Mud). The name was apt also because mud was a constant companion at work, while asleep and at meals.

As Robert Clark wrote in his book Dark Water:

“You could call them volunteers, except they hadn’t volunteered or been recruited: they’d simply appeared as though from thin air and set to work.

“It was always cold and always damp where they worked, and often where they ate and slept. There was, of course, a surfeit of Chianti dispensed from immense demijohns just as there was limitless talk and laughter. People fell in love: with art; with one another; with themselves, because how often did you get to be a hero, much less an angel.”

Edward Kennedy in Florence after the 1966 flood
Edward Kennedy in Florence after the 1966 flood

Senator Edward M. Kennedy said in 1966:

“I remember that I was in Geneva at a conference on refugees and I wanted to see what had occurred, so I flew in to Florence for the day. I got to the library about 5 PM and I looked down into the flooded area. There was no electricity and massive candles had been set up to provide the necessary light to rescue the books.

“It was terribly cold and yet I saw students up to their waists in water. They had formed a line to pass along the books so that they could be retrieved from the water and then handed on to a safer area to have preservatives put on them. Everywhere I looked in the great main reading room, there were hundreds and hundreds of young people who had all gathered to help.

“It was as if they knew that this flooding of the library was putting their soul at risk. I found it incredibly inspiring to see this younger generation  all united in this vital effort. It reminded me of the young people in the United States who responded with the same determination as they became involved in the civil rights movement.

“I was still shivering as I boarded the plane that took me back to Geneva, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the impressive solemnity of that scene – of all those students, oblivious to the biting cold and the muddy water, quietly concentrating on saving books in the flickering candlelight. I will never forget it.”

Angelli del Fango in Genoa (photo: http://italia-24news.it)
Angeli del Fango in Genoa in 2014 (photo: http://italia-24news.it)

“[It] was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony that belonged to the whole world,” said Mario Primicerio, former mayor of Florence on the 30th anniversary of the Florence Flood.

Cleaning up in Genoa (photo: unionesarda.it)
Cleaning up in Genoa (photo: unionesarda.it)

The fall of 2014 has been one of the wettest on record throughout northern Italy. The Arno is rising, but the cities that have seen the worst floods are Genoa and Massa Carrara. Genoa now in the eye of the storm is where a new generation of Mud Angels is coming to the aid of the port city.

Mud Angels in Massa Carrara (photo: lanazione.it)
Mud Angels in Massa Carrara (photo: lanazione.it)

Each day more Mud Angels are joining the struggle in the Liguria region. Most are high school and university students living in Genoa, but they are also from Eastern Europe and Africa and Italy.

Unlike the word-of-mouth organization of the Angeli del Fango of 1966, the modern angels are using social media, Facebook and Twitter, to put out the word about where the needs are greatest. As the rain moves east the Mud Angels will be helping  in the hamlets and towns along the Po Valley. The spirit of world’s youth is answering the call of people in distress and once again they are saving great works of artistic and historical significance.

Dove Vai? – The Laurentian Library by Michelangelo, Library # 6

The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) in the cloister of the Church of San Lorenzo is not a library where the visitor to Florence can hang out in comfy chairs, but it is one of the most important libraries in Florence –  well worth a visit. The Laurentian was designed by Michelangelo and houses one of the largest neo-classical collections in the world. It is used today by scholars.

Stairway in the Vestibule of the Laurentian Library
Stairway in the Vestibule of the Laurentian Library

Designed by Michelangelo

The Laurentian Library was commissioned in 1523 by Giulio d’Medici, who became Pope Clement VII. Michelangelo came under intense pressure to work quickly; the correspondence between him and Pope Clement is said to be one of the most fascinating records of a creative dialogue between a 16th century patron and an architect.Construction began in 1525, but when Michelangelo left Florence in 1534, only the walls of the reading room were complete. Architects Tribolo and Ammannati continued the project, based on plans and verbal instructions from Michelangelo. The library opened in 1571 and is one of Michelangelo’s most important architectural achievements.

Reading Room
Reading Room

The vestibule, a large box-shaped entry (19.50 meters long, 20.30 meters wide, and 14.6 meters high), was built above existing monastic quarters with its entrance on the upper level of the cloisters. Originally, Michelangelo had planned for a skylight to allow more light into the Library’s entrance hall, but the Pope believed that it would cause the roof to leak, so a high band of windows was incorporated into the west wall. Solely for decorative purposes, blank tapering windows, framed in gray pietra serena, circumscribe the white interior of the vestibule, separated by paired columns set into the wall.

There may have been a carved wooden ceiling (matching that in the Reading Room) planned for the entry hall, but today the area is covered in a canvass painted to look like intricately carved wood.

Stairway designed by Michelangelo
Stairway designed by Michelangelo

The Stairway

The lower half of the vestibule is virtually filled with an out-sized staircase that announces the importance of the Library. This is the singular most popular part of the Library for most visitors – one of the most famous stairways in the world.

The planned design of the stairs changed dramatically over time. Originally in the first design (1524), two flights of stairs were placed against the side walls and formed a bridge in front of the reading room door. A year later the stairway was moved to the middle of the vestibule. Tribolo attempted to carry out this plan in 1550, but nothing was built. Ammannati then took on the challenge of interpreting Michelangelo’s ideas to the best of his ability using a small clay model, scanty material, and Michelangelo’s instructions. Reportedly, Michelangelo envisioned the stairs to be made of a dark wood, but the final construction incorporated fine-grained sandstone, pietra serena, quarried in Fiesole, near where Michelangelo lived as a small child.

Detail on Michelangelo's Stairway
Detail on Michelangelo's Stairway

The staircase leads up to the Reading Room and takes up half of the floor of the vestibule. The treads of the center flights are convex and vary in width, while the outer flights are straight. The three lowest steps of the central flight are wider and higher than the others, almost like concentric oval slabs. As the stairway descends, it divides into three flights. “The dynamic sculpture of the staircase appears to pour forth from the upper level like lava and compress the floor space of the vestibule.” (Fazio, et al. in Buildings Across Time)

Design for the Entry Door

Michelangelo created this sketch for the door between the vestibule and the Reading Room. One side of the original sketch shows the side of the door visible from inside the library, while the vestibule side is shown on the back of the page.

Sketch of Doorway into Library
Sketch of Doorway into Library

The door needed a blank panel above the opening for a dedicatory inscription on the vestibule side and this is shown in all the sketches. In the finished design, more space had to be found as Clement wanted a Latin inscription of between 100 and 140 letters (Twitter – inspired by Michelangelo and the Pope?).

The Reading Room

The long narrow Reading Room runs the full length of one side of San Lorenzo’s square cloister. There are two blocks of bench seats separated by a center aisle with the backs of each serving as desks for the benches behind them. At one time, large illuminated manuscripts were chained to the desks to discourage theft. The Reading Room is well lit by the stained-glass windows that run along the both walls. The newly restored windows display the crest of the Medici. The wide central aisle between the desks is made of large creamy white and burnished red terra cotta tiles in geometric designs.

Desk and Bench Combination
Desk and Bench Combination

Mid-way down the Reading Room, the desks on the right side are separated by a short walkway that ends at the entrance of a square, vaulted domed room, now used for conferences and meetings.

The Collection

The Laurentian Library houses one of the most important and prestigious collection of antique books in Italy. The humanistic interests of Cosimo de’ Medici (Cosimo the Elder) in the early 15th century led him to collect manuscripts from all over Europe, as well from Greece and the Middle East. His friendship with Niccolò Niccoli, with whom he shared a passion for collecting ancient manuscripts of the works of classical authors, resulted, in 1437, in the inheritance of most of Niccoli’s library.

Cosimo’s son Piero added more volumes and his grandson Lorenzo (the Magnificent) completed the collection with the acquisition of hundreds of Greek texts.

The library, although kept largely intact, weathered the trials and tribulations of the Medici family. In 1494, following the sentence of exile imposed on Lorenzo’s son Piero (the Unfortunate), and thus, the banishment from Florence of the whole of the Medici family; the library was confiscated by the city government and absorbed into the library of the San Marco monastery. In 1508, the collection was recovered by Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici (the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who later became Pope Leo X) who transferred it to Rome. His successor Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano) brought the collection back to Florence in 1523 and immediately commissioned Michelangelo to design a library to house it.

Exhibit of health/diet books
Exhibit of health/diet books

Exhibits

Usually, there is a curated exhibit of historic books from the Laurentian Library on display in space adjacent to the Reading Room. The current show is Díaita. Le regole della salute nei manoscritti della Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (historical books about diet and the rules of health). Past exhibits have included monsters and fantastical creatures found in illuminated manuscripts and the historical “shapes” of  books, including papyrus and scrolls.

Laurentian Library

Address: Piazza S. Lorenzo, 9

Telephone: +39 055210760

Hours:  Monday through Saturday: 9.30am – 1.30pm

Closed: Sunday

Entrance: 3 euro

Current Exhibit:  February 13 to June 26, 2010

Web Site: www.bml.firenze.sbn.it

Dove Vai? – Piazza del Capitolo, Library #5

Through a small ally the grand Piazza del Duomo, about half way along the south side of the cathedral, there  is a little square, Piazza del Capitolo, at one time known as Corte dei Visdomini for the noble family whose tower still stands near by. The Capitolo was (and is today) the Chapter of the Florence Duomo and has governed the actions of the priests, canons, provosts and other dignitaries of the cathedral and its predecessor church, Santa Reparata, since the before the 8th century.  Some say the Chapter goes back to Bishop Saint Zanobius in the 5th century.

Facade of San Piero Ciel D'oro - Inside the Capitolo Library
Façade of San Piero Ciel D'oro - Inside the Capitolo Library

In the tiny square there was an ancient parish church called San Piero Ciel D’oro, dating from the 8th century – long before the cathedral was conceived. After the building of the Duomo, the parish church was turned into a place of study. It was by decree of Pope Nicholas V (15th century) that Archbishop Saint Antonius Pierozzi created one of the first “public” libraries in Florence and placed it under the control of the Cathedral Chapter.

Illuminated manuscript from the 14th century
Illuminated manuscript from the 14th century

“This house of wisdom” as it is called in a Latin inscription over the doorway was used for meetings of the Cathedral Chapter and served as the Chapter’s archive. Documents show that the Chapter was very active in city government and in the powerful artistic and business guilds that virtually controlled Florence throughout the Renaissance.

Over 300 years old - archival books wait on open shelves
Over 300 years old - archival books wait on open shelves

The hegemony exercised by the Florentine upper classes on canonical appointments is clear in the frequent recurrence of noble family names such as Medici, Strozzi, Corsini and Albizi. Giovanni de’Medici (later Pope Leo X), was a member of the Cathedral Chapter.

A plaque in Latin, higher on the façade, recalls the visit to the Cathedral Chapter of Pope Pius VII, on June 1st 1815, on his way to Genoa to negotiate peace in Italy.

Today, the library contains 5, 500 books printed after 1500 and 85 manuscripts from earlier centuries. Most of the original books and documents have since been relocated. The library books first went to the Opera del Duomo and then, in 1778, the collection of many of the early manuscripts were transferred to the Laurentian Library and the printed volumes (post 1500) went to the Magliabechiana Library (now the National Library).

Dramatic sky fresco arches over the library reading room
Dramatic sky fresco arches over the library reading room

The library is used for research on religious and historical subjects. Letters of request and reference must be presented to use the facility.

Eye of Providence at the center of the ceiling fresco
Eye of Providence at the center of the ceiling fresco

But for the lucky few who are granted access, they will sit under a frescoed sky, watched by the all-seeing Eye of Providence.

Dove Vai? – Galileo First Editions at Biblioteca Biomedica, Library #4

The Year of Astronomy was celebrated in 2009 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s invention of the telescope. It was also a special opportunity to see the Florence Biomedical Library and its collection of first edition books published by the scientist, including the volume that brought him before the Inquisition.

Exhibition of Galileo First Editions at Florence's Biomendical Library
Exhibition of Galileo First Editions at Florence's Biomedical Library

The Biblioteca Biomedica is located in the Careggi Hospital complex. Galileo’s books came to the library from the collection stored at the ancient (built in 1288, but still in use) Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, located near the Duomo. It was a bit disconcerting to realize that over a million dollars worth of books and manuscripts were on such casual (though securely locked) display.

Galileo writes the handbook for his calculating compass
Galileo writes the handbook for his calculating compass

The oldest book I saw was the Operazioni del compasso. Written in Galileo’s workshop in Padua and printed in Bologna in 1609. Only 60 copies were printed. (One was just sold at auction for over $500,000.) Galileo may have issued the Operazioni del compasso in order to establish his sole priority as the inventor of the “geometrical and military compass,” a calculating and observation device that he had begun manufacturing in 1597. It was a mathematical device – a sort of calculating ruler based on the principle of proportional magnitudes – that brought speed and accuracy to computations about armaments and their trajectories. Galileo’s compass remained unsurpassed until the advent of the slide rule in the mid-nineteenth century. His pamphlet is the first published work on an analogue calculator. The success and popularity of Galileo’s instrument naturally made it attractive to imitators, and Galileo deliberately omitted any illustration of the compass in his treatise as a deterrent to unauthorized copying.

Discoursing with the Pisans over water displacement and other things
Discoursing with the Pisans over water displacement and other ideas

Galileo’s important (and unendingly titled) treatise on hydrostatics, Discorso al serenissimo Don Cosimo Il Gran Duca di Toscana intorno alle cose, che stanno in su l’acqua, o che in quella si muovono (“Discourse to the Serene Don Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Concerning the Natation of Bodies Upon, Submersion in, the Water”). Written in 1612, the “Discourse” constituted Galileo’s first direct attack on Aristotelian science. Written in the context of an ongoing dispute on the nature of buoyancy between Galileo and a group of pro-Aristotelian Pisan professors, the Discourse on Bodies in Water represented an attempt by Galileo to transfer the dispute from a narrowly focused to a more general and systematic approach. In it Galileo refuted the Aristotelian view that a solid body’s ability to float is a function of its shape, demonstrating instead the truth of the Archimedean principle that flotation depends on the relative densities of the floating body and the fluid.

Galileo in dialogue with Copernicus and Ptolemy
Galileo in dialogue with Copernicus and Ptolemy

DIALOGO”, now known as the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo), written by Galileo in 1632, compared the Copernican system with the traditional Ptolemaic system. In the Copernican system the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun, while in the Ptolemaic system everything in the Universe circles around the Earth. The first edition at the Biomedical Library has a beautiful woodcut frontispiece of Galileo, Copernicus and Ptolomy discussing the universe. This was the book that, in part, led to Galileo’s Inquisition trial and subsequent excommunication by the Pope.

Galileo’s formal use of the term and title Dialogo allowed him to explore his Copernican theories fully within the rubric of the “equal and impartial discussion” required by Pope Urban VIII, thus getting around the initial scrutiny of the Inquisition, which, in fact, granted it a formal license to be printed, believing it to be a book discussing tides, not knowing that the subtitle would reference “two chief world systems”. (The name by which the work is now known is extracted from the subtitle.) The book was dedicated to Galileo’s patron, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and was a bestseller.  The fact that so many copies went into circulation throughout Europe was its salvation because within a year Galileo was convicted of “grave suspicion of heresy”, and the Dialogo was then placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books, from which it was not removed until 1835.

Biblioteca Biomedica

Viale Morgagni, 85 · 50124 Florence
Tel. 055.4598055, Fax 055.4221649

Director: Dr. Laura Vannucci

Dove Vai? – The British Institute’s Comfy Reading Room, Library #3

The most Anglo American-styled library in Florence, the Harold Acton Library, is owned and operated by the British Institute of Florence. Contained on 2 ½ book-lined floors, the library allows full access to the stacks and provides knowledgeable assistance to the collection and extensive archives. The full catalogue is computerized and is available on-line. The Acton library contains the largest collection of English-language books in Italy.

Books line the main lecture room
Books line the main conference room used for the Wednesday evening lectures

There is a reading room, furnished with ancient over-stuffed couches and chairs, where both English and Italian newspapers and a variety of literary, economic, news and travel magazines completely cover the coffee table. Computers are available to use for a fee, but it is rumored that free wi-fi may be offered in the future.

Views of the Arno and Florentine palazzos
Views of the Arno and Florentine palazzos

The British Institute of Florence, established in 1917, granted a Royal Charter in 1923, was the first of the post-colonial British cultural institutes to operate overseas. The Institute’s objectives are “to promote understanding between the citizens of Italy and the countries of the British Commonwealth through the maintenance in Florence of a library illustrating Italian and British culture and the promotion of the study of both the English and Italian language and the cultures of both countries.”

The library, with its panoramic views of the Arno River, was born from dozens of small donated collections and has matured into the present compilation of over 50,000 volumes published between the 16th and 21st centuries. About 500 new titles are added each year.

The collection has a strong emphasis in history of art, English and Italian literature and language, history, travel, the Grand Tour (mostly undertaken by Brits and Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries), and music. The library has a couple of thousand literary novels by both American and British authors, mostly from the first half of the 20th century, enough to keep an expat busy catching up on a must-read list of the likes of Wharton, Austen, Henry James and Virginia Woolf.

A mix of the old and the new.
A mix of the old and the new.

The library was named after Harold Acton. Harold’s father, Arthur Acton, well-bred, but poor, was from Shropshire. His mother, Hortense Lenore Mitchell, was a banking heiress from Chicago. When Hortense married Arthur in 1903 they moved into the Villa La Pietra on the via Bolognese in Florence – a short time later she bought it for him.

Harold Mario Mitchell Acton was born at La Pietra in 1904, and grew up in the cultured and cosmopolitan Anglo-Florentine society before the First World War. He was sent to Eton and then to Christ Church, Oxford, where his contemporaries included Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, and Brian Howard.

Harold was an active member of the British Institute. He joined the governing board in 1950 and made available his apartments in the Palazzo Lanfredini (in the Oltrarno neighborhood downstream from the Santa Trinita Bridge) for the library in 1966.

When, in 1994, Harold died, he left his portion of the Palazzo Lanfredini to the British Institute and the Villa La Pietra and its surrounding properties to New York University.

The Harold Acton Library can be visited free of charge and offers a free well-attended lecture series on most Wednesday evenings.  To check out books and use the internet, a variety of fees apply. See the website.

Address:  Lungarno Guiccardini 9

Hours:  10am to 6:30pm, Monday through Friday

Dove Vai? – Tourists are welcome at the Oblate, Library #2

Americans and Brits usually find visiting libraries in Italy both frustrating and dissatisfying. The stacks are not open, so no browsing. You usually have to deal with a surly civil servant who will tell you that you do not have the right paperwork, but even if you did have lending privileges, it will take at least two weeks to obtain the books you are requesting and then you won’t be able to remove them from the premises and there is no place to sit down.

A short walk from the Duomo
A short walk from the Duomo

In May 2007, the Oblate Library (Biblioteca delle Oblate) opened. It is the most user-friendly library in Florence for tourists and foreign students. (Another option is the Bristish Institute Library – better for expats, graduate students and seniors.)

Cloistered calm inside the Oblate Library
Cloistered calm inside the Oblate Library

The Oblate Library is a long block from the Duomo and occupies the newly restored space of a huge 13th century convent of nuns – the “oblate”. Oblate derives from the Latin for “colei che si è offerta” or “she who offered herself”.  The semi-cloistered nuns served as nurses, cleaners and cooks at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital from the time of Dante (the hospital was built by Beatrice’s father) through the 1400s when Leonardo da Vinci was examining corpses in the tunnels that ran below the convent and for over 400 years more – until 1936 – when a new convent was created near the much larger and more modern Careggi Hospital.

Magazines and newspapers outside the children's space
Magazines and newspapers outside the children's space

The convent building was sold to the City of Florence. It first became the new home of the Museum of Prehistory as well as the central city government library that was moved from the Palazzo Vecchio.  Then it was closed for years for a full restoration, which preserved the late-Medieval, early-Renaissance bones of the building while opening the warren-like space up for two libraries – one for studying and the other for lending books, DVDs and CDs.  There is also a reading room where daily newspapers and monthly magazines are available in Italian, English, French and German.

Enjoy a cappuccino at the Oblate
Enjoy a cappuccino at the Oblate

Computers and free WiFi are also available. Children run wild in the spacious colorful biblioteca per bambini. Parents can escape to the adjoining café with a view of the cathedral’s dome. On the second floor the museum of prehistoric artifacts has reopened and can be visited for a fee.

Views from the top floor of La Biblioteca delle Oblate
Views from the top floor of La Biblioteca delle Oblate

La Biblioteca delle Oblate is worth a visit just for the panorama from the top floor or the sense of quiet offered in the walled cloister, but the friendly openness will bring you back to use the reading room, to listen to music in the outside loggia (where the nuns used to hang the hospital’s linen to dry), and maybe, even to peruse the book shelves holding a small selection of English fiction available for checkout for a month at a time.

The website of the Oblate Library is not available in English.

Address:  Via dell’Oriuolo 26  Florence

Hours: Mon. (2pm to 7pm), Tues. (9am to 10pm), Wed. to Sat. (9am to 7pm), closed Sunday.

Dove Vai? – Accademia della Crusca at Villa di Castello, Library #1

In the 16th century Medicean Villa of Castello, is one of the most important of Florence’s many libraries, the Crusca Academy (Accademia della Crusca).  The Villa of Castello, located on the northern edge of the city, with its magnificent gardens (open to the public), passed from the Medici dukes to the Lorraine dukes to the King of Italy, who gave it to the State in 1919. The villa was chosen as the permanent home of the Crusca Academy in 1966.

Lunette of Villa of Castello and its gardens by Giusto of Utens (1599)
Lunette of Villa of Castello and its gardens by Giusto Utens (1599)

The location is fitting because the origins of the Accademia della Crusca can be traced back to the mid-16th century when a group of educated philosophers, writers and linguists, disliking the rigidity of the revered Accademia Fiorentina decided to form a new academy. Calling themselves the “brigata dei crusconi” (brigade of coarse bran), they organized cruscate – amusing meetings with trivial speeches and conversation – but which also included debates and readings of cultural value, focused on works written, not in Latin, but in Italian, especially in the Florentine vernacular.

Sheaf of wheat - another symbol of Crusca
Sheaf of wheat - another symbol of Crusca

Soon, the academy adopted the name Crusca (bran), establishing the use of the symbols related to flour and to the process of separating the flour (the good language) from the bran (the bad language), following a language model that was based on the supremacy of the Florentine “vulgar” or everyday tongue. The goal of the lexicographers was to propose language cleaned of the impurities of its usage.

They went further with the theme by deciding that all the objects and furniture of the Accademia should have names relating to grain, bran, and bread, including the personal coats of arms of the Academicians, the “pale” or wooden shovels, which were painted with a symbolic image, together with the nickname of each Academician and his chosen motto.

Contento is the nickname of one of the members of Crusca
Contento is the nickname of one of the members of Crusca

In 1590, the “frullone” or sifter, the vessel used to separate the flour from the bran, was chosen as the symbol of the Academy, as well as the motto -“il più bel fior ne coglie” (“she gathers the fairest flower”) – taken from a verse by Petrarch.

The traditional furnishings of the Accademia della Crusca included:

1) the gerle (panniers) – ceremonial academic chairs made of an upside down breadbasket with a bread shovel skewered through it to form the backrest (the addition of the shovel is attributed to Leopoldo de’ Medici);

2) the sacchi (sacks) – lockers shaped as sacks, which each had a door and shelves inside to preserve the “farina” or flour – the statutes, regulations and other writings approved by the academic censors; and

3) the pale (shovels) – decorative painted wood paddles, each bear the academic name of its owner, the motto (a line of verse originating from the 14th century many composed by Petrarch, chosen to encapsulate the spirit of the enterprise chosen by the Academician), and an image. The iconography of the shovels has been an object of study precisely because of the metaphoric meaning of the subjects, always linked to the agricultural, domestic or culinary subjects.

Pale adorn the walls with gerle chairs below
'Pale' adorn the walls with 'gerle' chairs below

In the 20th century, the Accademia dedicated its energies to research activities, editorial duties and to giving advice about the Italian language, opening new paths in the fields of grammar, lexicography and philology.

Today, the Accademia della Crusca is the most important center of scientific research dedicated to the study and promotion of Italian language. Its main goal is to share historical knowledge of the Italian language and its ongoing evolution in the contemporary world, in Italian society (especially in the schools), and abroad.

A pale showing the distilling of grain
A 'pala' showing the process of distillation

The Academy pursues its own editorial activity, and allows public access to a specialist library and the archives; it also maintains international contacts with similar institutions, organizes meetings, seminars and conventions on the Italian language; and it has an active role in the field of European linguistic policy. The Crusca Academy offers a linguistic advice service to the public and preserves a rich collection of artistic portraits, painting, frescos, and objects, such as the famous pale.

The Accademia della Crusca is located in Florence, at the Villa of Castello, Via di Castello, 46. Its website, accademiadellacrusca.it, contains all relevant information in English as well as in Italian. For information about entry into the gardens, see the website of the State museums.