Fifteen or more years ago I came to live in Florence. One of the historical tales of a city that has thousands of years of interesting stories was the Great Flood of 1966, known to Florentines as L’Alluvione a Firenze. I read every book I could about the flood, watched videos, searched online and viewed images by famous photographers. One of my favorite books was a collection of art by children who experienced water rushing through their city. This is one of the images.
A forty year old artist and American teacher, Joe Blaustein, found himself in Florence on November 4, 1966 when the Arno overflowed the levees submerging the city and with his camera in tow decided to document in real time what was happening. He accomplished this but the slides remained closed in a box in his home for a long time. After many years those photos were donated to the Archive of the Municipality of Florence, were restored and are now displayed in this exhibit. Their peculiarity is that they are among very few color images that were taken then. See some of them here.
I learned about the 1966 Flood when I was eleven and saw the November 18, 1966 issue of Life Magazine with David Lees’ photographs. (See one of his images here.)
The next time I read about the flood was in a novel, The Sixteen Pleasuresby Robert Hellenga about a Mud Angel, one of the book restorers who came to Florence to volunteer to save the libraries.
In any discussion of the hundreds of hidden towers in Florence, I always want to talk about my favorite tower, Torre della Castagna. It’s my favorite because over the centuries it is the one that hasn’t been changed to hide the original purpose of a tower: to defend those inside.
Towers of Defense: General Information
All of the other towers in the city have been altered to add windows and doors, but back when the towers were built Florence was a lawless town, controlled by families and clans that got their way by force.
A tower was built to protect a family, clan or political body and at different moments in time the now-named Torre della Castagna performed all of these functions.
I can’t find the exact date of its construction, but it must have been sometime between 900AD and 1000AD. It was first known as Torre Baccadiferrro and protected the Baccadiferro family. It was probably much taller than its present 90 feet (about 29 meters).
To look at it now (in Piazza San Martino, on the corner of Via Dante Alighieri), it is easy to imagine how dark and cold it was inside. Of course, there were no windows – to prevent burning arrows and other projectiles from entering. Light and air got in through small square holes (now cemented closed to prevent pigeons from entering). These holes were probably covered with tapestries in the winter and left open in the summer. There are no other openings on the north side of the tower.
On the west side of the square tower, the observant tourist will notice what look like three tall windows high on the wall over the front, and only, door to the tower. The very observant tourist will also see the protruding “stones” at the bottom of each of these “windows” and guess correctly that the windows are doors and that the stones are the ends of oak beams, now cut short, but once hooked this tower to another.
Imagine what it was like to live in a tower. It is tall and narrow and there is little space on each floor. Stairs climbed up one wall of each room. There was no privacy. It was dark, except for the light of lamps and candles. The kitchen and servants’ quarters were probably at the top so that if the kitchen burned up the rest of the tower wouldn’t go with it.
Back to the oak beams. To expand the Baccadiferro family’s space this tower would be attached high in the air to other towers – those of family and friends. In times of relative peace, the doors would be open, a layer of planks would be laid along the beams, and people could walk from tower to tower. (Not only was this a safety measure, but imagine the state of the Florentine dirt streets in a time of no sewer or garbage collection.)
History of Torre della Castagna
Sometime around 1038, the Torre Baccadiferro was given by the Holy Roman Emperor Corrado II to the Benedictine monks of the adjacent Badia Fiorentina in order to help with the monastery’s defenses.
In 1282 the tower became the meeting place of the Priori delle Arti of Florence. The Priori delle Arti was the governing body of the Florentine Republic. Its members came from all of the major guilds (Le Arti), such as those of the woolmakers and merchants, the bankers, the magistrates and notaries, and the silk weavers.
The Priors were elected for two-month terms, during which time they were not allowed to leave the tower unless in the company of another member, ensuring that all contact with outsiders was monitored to reduce the risk of threats or bribery. A quote from Dino Compagni’s Chronicles adorns the north wall of the tower: they then took the decision “to shut themselves away within the Castagna Tower in order to put an end to the threats fom the powerful.”
During this “interesting” election cycle in the U.S., it is appropriate to note that the word “ballot” comes in to common usage because of the Priors. They use a voting system similar to the modern-day ballot, but instead of slipping pieces of paper in a box, the Priori delle Arti used chestnuts and cloth bags.
Chestnuts were placed in bags of fabric that indicated the voting preference of each member. Although the chestnuts were later replaced by balls of wax, metal or wood of different colors, the original ballots inspired the name of the tower, Torre della Castagna (Tower of the Chestnut). In Florentine dialect, boiled chestnuts are known as ballotte. It is short step to the English “ballot.” (The Venetians like to claim credit with their word ballota, meaning a small ball.)
Torre della Castagna Today
When Florence became a free city in 13th century and a republic was founded, all towers were cropped to signify that the age of clans and civil wars was over and to give precedence to the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio. Florentine historian Giovanni Villani (1280-1348) wrote in his history of Florence, Nuova Cronica, that in 1251 the city government decided “all towers of Florence – and there were in big number with a height of 70 meters – to be cropped down to 29 meters or even less; the stones from the cropped towers were used to build houses in Oltrarno.” It was probably in preparation for the habitation (and name change) of the tower by the Priori delle Arti that it was shortened to 29 meters.
Visitors to Florence can explore inside the Tower of the Chestnut on Thursday afternoons because the bottom three floors of the tower are now the Garibaldi Museum (open from 4pm to 6pm).
The museum is devoted to Giuseppe Garibaldi and the veterans of the movement for the unification of Italy over 150 years ago. Flags, clothes, photos, portraits, furniture, guns and so much more from Garibaldi’s Redshirts can be found in this quirky exhibit.
I am also a fan of all things Garibaldi, which can be seen here, here, and here. And I set my short story Cats of Florence in the museum and the tower.
Of course those who love towers and could care less about Garibaldi, get a chance by visiting the museum to imagine what living inside a medieval Florentine tower was like. Climb the stairs, imagine how the rooms would be furnished, think about what living without privacy would be like, and how hard it would be to carry everything up and down the stairs of a 120 foot tower, the work of servants for medieval nobility.
For Americans, licorice most likely means chewy candies called Red Vines or Twizzlers, which have no actual licorice in the recipe (corn syrup, wheat flour, citric acid, artificial flavor, red 40). (Red Vines also comes in Black Twists (molasses, wheat flour, corn syrup, caramel color, licorice extract, salt, artificial flavor).) Real licorice (liquorice to the Brits) comes from the root of a herbaceous perennial legume native to southern Europe, including Italy and parts of Asia, such as India.
The history of licorice in Calabria begins in the 11th century. Old records testify that in the 16th century the Amarelli family and others were interested in the roots of a particular plant that grew wild on their extensive Calabrian estates (then in the Kingdom of Naples). Its name was liquirizia, scientifically called glycyrrhiza glabra, which means “sweet root”.
Today, visitors taking a road trip in Calabria are in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience because the Amarelli family, licorice producers since 1731, has opened the Giorgio Amarelli Museo della Liquirizia, in Rossano near Sibari in the region of Calabria. The Licorice Museum was awarded the Premio Gugghenheim Impresa & Cultura (Guggenheim Culture and Business Prize) in 2001 and in 2004 Poste Italiane dedicated a postage stamp to it, part of the series Il Patrimonio Artistico e Culturale Italiano.
The Museum is located in the late 15th century historic residence, which was both home and production plant of the Amarelli family. The family’s history is presented through a series of engravings, documents, books and vintage photographs. The center gallery exhibits the history of licorice and the traditional system of its production, from the root bales, to the manual tools, to the bronze and porcelain molds and the first experimental machines. There are also documents about administrative procedures from the 18th and 19th centuries: manufacturing trade journals, accounting books, payments records and correspondence between manufacturers and government authorities. An old shipping office is reconstructed.
Visitors can also tour the production of Amerielli licorice, which still takes place in the historic eighteenth-century Concio, the original production site, across the road from the museum. In 1731 Amarelli’s established the concio, one of the first pre-industrial factories in the area to extract the juice of the licorice plant roots. The shiny, black licorice produced was not sweetened beyond the sugars naturally found in the root.
Historically, the roots were gathered and stored outside the factory (as they are today). The process began when the roots were milled by a big grindstone, then boiled (no grindstone today, but still boiled). The juice obtained was put through a sieve, cooked in great pots until the mass was reduced and thickened. While still warm and soft, it was hand-worked into licorice sticks and tiny buttons or squares. Find videos of the process here and here.
In 1907, steam boilers were installed. In 1919 the design of the first metal pocket-sized carrying cases for licorice drops was complete. These served to preserve the quality and in the following years became important for marketing with art-decò images still popular today.
In the present day, the process of root selection, juice extraction, boiling and reduction in modern facilities, in compliance with all the current regulations, computerized and automatically controlled, but the final product is controlled by the mastro liquiriziaio.
After three centuries the Amarelli Company, a member of the exclusive Les Hénokiens (an association of companies who have been continuously operating and remain family-owned for 200 years or more, and whose descendants still operate at management level), still produces a very high quality licorice, which can be eaten pure or soft or sugar-coated or tasted as delicious liqueur in candies, brandy and spirits. Amarelli licorice is even used in a Florentine toothpaste.
Shakespeare’s Shylock declared that the cats of Venice were “both necessary and harmless.” Venetians believe that cats helped save the city from the devastating plague of 1348 by killing diseased rats. However, from time to time the municipality has tried to reduce the teeming feline population. Each time the citizenry has been up in arms in protest. In 1960 there were over 12,000 stray cats in Venice. The cat ladies, known as gattare, provided food and water to colonies located in almost every neighborhood in the city.
Largely due to the efforts of an organization, oddly named Dingo, the number has been reduced to 2,000 without killing a single healthy cat. Founded in 1965, Dingo was started by British-born Helena Sanders and Venetian Elena Scarpabolla as a cat and dog rescue society. (Dingo was the name of the first rescued dog.)
It took Dingo 20 years, but finally Venetian authorities gave them a designated space, a gattile or cattery, on the abandoned island of San Clemente, an ancient pilgrimage site that in the 19th century served as an insane asylum for women and was finally closed down after World War II. Imposing 19th-century buildings were still intact, as was an exquisite Baroque church, though it was stripped of its most precious art works by thieves when the island was uninhabited and unguarded. The cat sanctuary brought people to the island again.
But in 2005, Isola San Clemente was sold for redevelopment as a luxury hotel and resort. Almost 250 cats (stray dogs were not part of the mandate by this time) were transported to Malamocco, a fishing village on the long sandbar that is the Lido of Venice.
Dingo is now part of the Anglo Italian Society for the Protection of Animals, a British based charity which raises funds worldwide for animal welfare organizations in Italy. AISPA was started in 1952 and has branches all over Italy. AISPA is concerned the welfare of all kinds of animals, from cats and dogs to livestock and circus animals.
The gattile is housed in a small group of buildings in Malamocco. There are cat dormitories with individual cages, a surgery, and a series of outdoor enclosures where most of the cats hang out. There are also quarantine huts and a convalescence ward, for short- and long-term care of the injured and ailing residents. The farthest building houses the isolation ward for cats suffering from infectious illnesses like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and panleukopenia (feline distemper) and a maternity ward for those about to give birth.
There is an ever expanding and contracting population of about 200 cats. Unwanted, sick or stray cats are brought to Dingo, either by Dingo volunteers or Venetian residents. Each new resident is given a medical exam and a determination is made whether they are lost, abandoned or feral. When its needs have been assessed, it joins the colony, some only for a short while. The gattile has an active adoption program and most of the captured feral cats are returned to their original colonies throughout Venice once they have been spayed or neutered. Unlike the U.S., where strays may be euthanized, Italy has laws to protect animals, wanted or unwanted. Most cities have TNR programs to trap, neuter and release feral cats. Venice was the first Italian city to pass an animal rights act, in 1987 (adopted nationally in 1991), and it guarantees stray cats an area to live in freedom.
On Robin Saikis’s website TheVeniceLido.com one can find this interesting snippet of history: “In Gaetano Zompini’s 1789 book about Venetian street traders we learn about knife-sharpeners, candle-sellers and wig-makers, but there is another intriguing trade, that of the castragatti, the cat-neuterers. The cat population of Venice had always been a problem but Venetians, as animal lovers, were always ready to try and compromise with their feline friends: cats kill rats, rats spread plague, so neutering the toms would have seemed a good way of keeping a useful ally under control.”
Dingo also maintains some kitty condos in various neighborhoods in Venice for the free feral colonies. Londoner Jeff Cotton keeps track of the colonies on his website FictionalCities.
Spring flowers are much more part of gardens in America and England than in the evergreen Italianate gardens of Tuscany. But now is the time to tour the Bardini Garden of Florence to see the wisteria. It is surely petaloso. Or can we describe it that way? Is petaloso even a word?
Early this February, in the small town of Copparo in central Italy, a primary school teacher, Margherita Aurora, was in a bind when one of her students, eight-year-old Matteo, used a made-up word in a written assignment.
Matteo described a flower as “petaloso” (“full of petals”). The word doesn’t exist in the Italian dictionary, but grammatically it makes sense as a combination of “petalo” (“petal”) and the suffix “-oso” (“full of”).
Ms. Aurora marked the error by writing, “1 errore bello.” (“1 beautiful error”) But as only the best teachers do, she went a step further. She asked her class, “Did Matteo invent a new word? How are words created?”
With his teacher’s help, the students wrote to the Accademia della Crusca—the institution that oversees the use of the Italian language—to ask for their opinion.
To their surprise, Matteo got a supportive reply. “The word you invented is well formed and could be used in the Italian language,” one of the Crusca’s linguistic experts wrote. “It is beautiful and clear.”
But, the linguist added, for a word to officially be part of the Italian language, a large number of people need to use it and understand its meaning. “If you manage to spread your word among many people who start saying ‘What a petaloso flower this is!’, then petaloso will have become a word in Italian.”
Matteo’s teacher was thrilled by the reply. She wrote,”This is worth more than a thousand Italian lessons” on her Facebook page and shared pictures of the letter.
This single act triggered a movement to do exactly what the Crusca had asked: make “petaloso” a widely known and used word.
Her original Facebook post has been shared more than 98,000 times. On Twitter #petaloso trended like crazy. Many tweeters used the word in context—demonstrating its wide use and commonly understood meaning, just as Accademia della Crusca had suggested. Italian companies joined the campaign, chefs created petaloso recipes, garden associations supported the idea, designers used it to advertise products, Italy’s prime minister joined the conversation on social media, the the story was reported throughout Europe, and even in the U.S. on NPR.
Imagine my joy when I read at the bottom of the letter from Accademia della Crusca to Matteo, a reference to an American author, Andrew Clements and his book, translated into Italian, Drilla.
The original American title isFrindle. The story is about an American schoolboy, Nick Allen, who likes to liven things up at school. When Nick learns some interesting information about how words are created, he’s got the inspiration for his best plan ever…the frindle. Who says a pen has to be called a pen? Why not call it a frindle? Things begin innocently enough as Nick gets his friends to use the new word. Then other people in town start saying frindle. Soon the school is in an uproar, and Nick has become a local hero. His teacher wants Nick to put an end to all this nonsense, but the funny thing is frindle doesn’t belong to Nick anymore. The new word is spreading across the country, and there’s nothing Nick can do to stop it.
The reason the folks at Crusca learned about Frindle/Drilla was because a few years ago I gave the young son of an employee of the Accademia a copy of the Italian translation of this book that I had so enjoyed.
Maria Cristina Torchia at Crusca suggested that Matteo read the book with his teacher and his classmates. “[R]acconta proprio una storia come la tua, la storia di un bambino che inventa una parola e cerca di farla entrare nel vocabolario.” (“It tells a story just like yours, the story of a child who invents a word and tries to enter it in the dictionary.”) As petaloso started to trend in Italy, so did Drilla. The Italian publisher wrote to Crusca to thank them for the reference.
I hope that someday I’ll be able to report that petoloso has been officially added to the Italian lexicon.
For years I told friends and family that the Duomo of Florence was called “duomo” because of the dome. Finally, because I was confused by the fact that Milan’s Duomo didn’t have a dome, I did the research. I was mistaken or just completely wrong.
Even the U.S.-based National Geographic got it wrong: “The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower), nicknamed the Duomoafter the enormous octagonal dome [emphasis added] on its east end, is the cathedral of Florence, Italy, and, arguably, the birthplace of the Renaissance.” There are two problems here. First is the duomo/dome mistake. And while Santa Maria del Fiore is a basilica, it is not one of the four major basilicas (see below), and should probably be designated as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
What is a Duomo?
Usually, “Duomo” is a term for an Italian cathedral church (or a former cathedral church). Italian for cathedral is cattedrale. To be designated a cattedrale, the church must have a bishop and a bishop’s chair (cattedra). But to make it more difficult, some, like the Duomo of Monza, have never been cathedrals, but are old and important.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to Lo Zingarelli, the main Italian dictionary, the word “duomo” derives from the Latin word “domus“, meaning “house.” In ancient Rome, the domus was the type of house occupied by the upper classes. It could be found in almost all the major cities throughout the Roman territories. The modern English word “domestic” comes from Latin domesticus, which is derived from the word domus.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin was spoken only by members of the clergy, and so domus started to be used to address the “house of God.” A cathedral is considered the “house of God” or domus Dei and “house of the Bishop” or domus Ecclesia.
The most important church in each city is often called Duomo followed by the name of the city; for example, Duomo di Milano or Duomo di Firenze. This can include small towns, like San Gimignano in Tuscany, which also has a duomo, but wasn’t a cathedral, and the Duomo di Volterra, which was a cathedral with a bishop. There is, however, no church in Rome known as the Duomo or even, a duomo.
The Duomo in Florence
The official website of Florence’s Opera del Duomo tells us: “Santa Maria del Fiore, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, is the third largest church in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London) and was the largest church in Europe when it was completed in the 15th century. It is 153 metres long, 90 metres wide at the crossing, and 90 metres high from the floor to the bottom of the lantern. [The cathedral] was dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, the Virgin of the Flower, in 1412, a clear allusion to the lily, the symbol of the city of Florence.”
Again, having nothing to do with “duomo” or “domus”, the dome of the Florence Cathedral is known in Italian as the “cupola”, as it is for any dome on any Italian church.
Consisting of two interconnected ogival shells, the Duomo’s octagonal cupola was erected between 1420 and 1434 to a design of Filippo Brunelleschi. His innovative approach involved vaulting the dome space without any scaffolding by using a double shell with a space in between. The inner shell (with a thickness of more than two meters) is made of light bricks set in a herringbone pattern and is the self-supporting structural element while the outer dome simply serves as a heavier, wind-resistant covering.
The cupola is crowned by a lantern with a conical roof, designed by Brunelleschi but only built after his death in 1446, while the gilt copper sphere and cross on top of the lantern, containing holy relics, was designed by Andrea del Verrocchio and installed in 1466.
What is a Basilica?
The Basilica was a Roman public building, a sort of tribunal. (The term basilica comes from a Greek word meaning regal or kingly.) When the ancient Romans spoke of a basilica they were referring to a large, high-ceilinged hall with three long aisles. In the centuries after the Roman Empire, the term basilica started to mean “big church,” because the first big churches were built in the style of the old Roman basilicas. Some architectural elements that you can often find in a church (for example, columns, apses, naves) were already present in pre-Christian Roman buildings. Nowadays, many of the main churches in Italy have the formal name of Basilica followed by the name of a saint; for example, Basilica di San Pietro (in Rome), Basilica di San Marco (in Venice).
Over the centuries, the Popes have awarded the title “Minor Basilica” to churches that had unusual historical significance, or were especially sacred because of the presence of a relic or relics. There are over 1400 minor basilicas around the world, 527 just in Italy alone. These honorary basilicas include the great church at the Grotto in Lourdes, the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice, the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The designation Major Basilica is restricted to the four greatest churches in Rome St. Peters, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls.
Update: During the week of 10 April 2016 the news site of La Repubblica Firenze reported that the tourist information signs at the central Florence train station had misidentified the Church of Santa Maria Novella as the Florence Cathedral.
Many people do not realize that the majority of frescoes in Florence have been removed and reattached in the place where they were originally painted. The process of “tearing” the fresco off the original wall is called Strappo.
Fresco (affresco) means “wet”. Paint is applied to wet plaster and becomes part of the plaster. This allows the fresco to look virtually the same for over a thousand years, so long as it is not exposed to water or sunlight. Frescoes are permanent because of their chemical composition. Lime paste, which is produced by heating calcium carbonate with limestone, is the active ingredient in the wet plaster on which the fresco is painted. When lime paste is exposed to air it changes back into insoluble calcium carbonate, a hard crust, with the process of carbonatation. If pigment is applied to this type of plaster when wet, it becomes trapped and is permanent because it is chemically stable. (Those who are interested in the full process of creating a 15th century fresco should read “How to paint a fresco (the Renaissance way)” on ArtTrav.com by Alexandra Korey.)
November 3, 2016 will be the 50th anniversary of 1966 flood of the Arno River in Florence, which killed 101 people and damaged or destroyed thousands of art masterpieces and many more rare documents and books. It is considered the worst flood in the city’s history since 1557. Many of the historic works have been restored. New methods in conservation were devised and restoration laboratories established. Some of the methods were already known and came into use immediately after the flood. One of those was the strappo technique used to save frescoes immediately after the flood, a race against time.
Frescoes demanded complicated treatment. Normally water, once it evaporates, will leave a layer of residual salt on the surface of the wall that absorbed it. In some instances, the resultant efflorescence obscured painted images. In other cases, the impermeability of the fresco plaster caused the salt to become trapped beneath the surface, causing bubbles to form and erupt, and the paint to fall. The adhesion of the plaster to the wall was often also seriously compromised. A fresco can only be detached when fully dry. To dry a fresco, workers cut narrow tunnels beneath it, in which heaters were placed to draw out moisture from below (instead of outwards, which would have further damaged the paint). Within a few days, the fresco was ready to be detached.
This film of the strappo technique probably dates from the late 50s – early 60s. It documents the phases of removing a 14th century fresco from a niche. The fresco was discovered under a plaster and brick wall. The strappo process is performed by a technician under the direction of the restorer Giuseppe Rossi.
The strappo process begins with a gentle cleaning of the fresco with deionized water and a scalpel to verify the resistance of the color. Next, a layer of cheese cloth is laid over the fresco and is attached or “painted” onto the surface of the fresco with protein colloid glue (animal glue formed through hydrolysis of the collagen from skins, bones, or tendons) that has been dissolved in hot water. After the first layer dries, the process is repeated three or four more times with the same glue and a heavier muslin cloth to create a a strong cover. It is allowed to dry.
The drying glue creates a stronger cohesion with the layer of painted plaster of the fresco than the fresco to the wall behind it. After two or three days the phase of the tear (strappo) begins. A gentle tug on the cloth will start the process of removing the painted plaster layer from the rougher dry plaster wall below with the assistance of a long flexible blade, like a putty knife. The fresco is laid on its face and excess plaster is removed from the back of the fresco layer.
Once the back of the fresco is clean layers of muslin and then canvas are applied using a strong non-water soluble glue (PVA or acrylic resins). This is allowed to dry.
The fresco with its new back is turned over and the layers of cloth and animal glue are removed with hot water and steam. The clothed–backed fresco is then attached to a new support of masonite, polyester resin or fiberglass. The fresco is then restored as needed with watercolor paints. Finally, the fresco is returned to its original position or moved to a safer location.
One of the best places in Florence to view frescoes that have been removed from their original plaster wall and replaced is in the cloisters at the Church of Santa Croce.
In the refectory is the 14th century fresco of the Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi , which has been restored and attached to a new base. The Last Supper was severely damaged during the 1966 flood. Along the side walls of the refectory are fragments of frescoes, some depicting the descent into hell, reposition onto wood backing.
This year in Florence there will be exhibitions, lectures, publications, films and much more celebrating the restoration of Florence after the flood that devastated the city almost fifty years ago.
Getting to view the collection of the Museo Bellini, located along the Arno in Florence, takes a bit of work. To understand its history, having some understanding of Italian helps. But for a new experience, a tour through the Bellini collection is as memorable, as it is fun.
To get in, you start by phoning or ringing the bell. Then make an appointment for a tour and turn up at the appointed time. The fee of 15 euro gets you three visits within a year.
As you walk in to the entry hall a mishmash of the ancient and the modern might make you wonder what is ahead. As you climb the stairs you are transported back to the early 20th century when Luigi Bellini, Sr. controlled the collection. It was the practice of antiquarians (Bardini, Contini, Volpi, Romano, Stibbert, Horne) to create “homes” filled with art that they might sell or trade or from which they couldn’t bear to be parted. The Bellini collection has this feel—fourteen rooms of a Renaissance home, but with a few touches that are medieval.
The visitor will find here a fresco of the school of Giotto, a bust by Donatello, a portrait by Tintoretto, a Della Robbia Madonna, a bronze by Giambologna, Ceramic from Xanto Avelli Rovigo, a Gothic tapestry, carved-wood Sansovino chest (armadio). Just when you have caught your breath the small doors enclosing a Fra Angelico gold-leafed Madonna are opened. There are ancient tables and chairs, a 19th century couch Luigi Sr. deemed “too modern”, statues, fountains, vases, minature bronzes, reliquies, carpets, and last but not least, a collection of crowns. Even if you don’t understand a word of Italian, the tour is fascinating.
Some say that this passion for collecting and selling started in Ferrara with Vincenzo Bellini (1708-1783), who after twenty years as a priest, developed an obsession for ancient coins. He was one of the most illustrous numismatists of his time, even selling coin collections to Austrian Emperor Francis I. His son, Vitaliano, expanded the business into antiques and his grandson Giuseppe moved to Florence and eventually became an antiquarian with a store on Via della Spada.
A few generations later the most well-known antiquarian in the family, Luigi Bellini Sr. (1884-1957) was born in Impruneta. At nineteen he took off for New York to make an international name for himself, bringing clients back to the gallery in Florence. In the 1920s, he moved the business to a more impressive location on Lungarno Soderini, where the museum is today. He needed more room for both his business and his collection.
“You start as an antique dealer and end up being a collector without realizing that the germ of antiquity has infected you, it debilitates and consumes you and you will never recover. It is worse than tuberculosis,” he wrote in his autobiography.
A decade later, in 1931, he acted on his interest in contemporary art by opening a gallery with a couple of partners in Palazzo Spini-Feroni (home of the Museo Ferragamo, which has included pieces from the Bellini collection in its new exhibit). The gallery opened with an exhibition dedicated to the sculptor Arturo Martini and the painter Primo Conti. This venture did not last the test of time.
Following the war, Luigi Sr. concentrated on antiquities and rebuilding the city. He was instrumental in the reconstruction of the Ponte Santa Trinita “as it was and where it was”, by setting up an committee chaired by Bernard Berenson, the famed American art critic. They obtained substantial contribution for the reconstruction of the bridge, which had been dynamited by German troops, from wealthy American bankers. (Bellini’s own building on Lugarno Solderini sustained severe damage when the Carraia Bridge was also blown up.)
Four years before his death, Luigi was the prime organizer of the 1953 national exhibition of antiques held in Florence at Palazzo Strozzi. It was the precursor of the present Biennial Exhibition of Antiques held regularly at the Palazzo Corsini across the river from Museo Bellini.
The Bellini Museum and Gallery, 2015
Luigi Sr.’s grandson, Prof. Luigi Bellini, Jr., and his great-grandaughter Sveva are still active in the Biennial Exhibition, as well as other projects, including Luigi Jr.’s 2004 exhibition entitled “Bellini Collection Presents the Renaissance of Florence” at the Museum of Imperial Ming Nanjing in China. This was the first exhibition at the Imperial Museum to showcase western art.
For the past 130 years the Bellini collectors have shared a desire to live the past while at the same time be present in the modern life of Florence. Through the status symbol of their collection and the role of protector of the past, they strengthened their relationship with the nobility of the city while becoming acknowledged experts in private collecting choices and exhibition content.
Lugi Sr., who controlled the collection between the first part of the 20th century, was known to believe anything created after the 1800s was too modern to be part of his private universe, but he was happy to support and advise the exhibits at Palazzo Spini-Feroni, which highlighted the works of Giorgio de Chirico, Mario Sironi, and Filippo de Pisis. Today Sveva Bellini produces exhibitions in the ground-floor exhibitions space introducing the most modern of Italian artists. The present exhibit with free entry, on display until June 4, is called Woodenkammer: Ogni Forma é Nella Natura.
Sveva, however, does not disturb the evocative collection on the primo piano of the the palazzo that invokes the passion of her great-grandfather, and generations before him, with rooms of ancient artworks styled in homage to earlier centuries. The masterpieces, the everyday objects and the walls and stairs are history revived, reaching into the present.
The best bookstore for visitors to Florence, the Paperback Exchange, just got a fascinating new book. The title tells it all—My Life as a Street Painter in Florence, Italy by Kelly Borsheim—and for any visitor to the Renaissance City it sheds light on a little-known artistic lifestyle, that of the madonnari, those who work with chalk and pastels on three large squares of paving stones between Piazza della Repubblica and the Ponte Vecchio, bringing well-loved paintings to “life” for a mere twenty-four hours.
Kelly, a sculptor with a studio in Texas, came to Florence just in time to fulfill a lifetime goal of seeing Michelangelo’s works before she turned forty. A few years later she joined an organization of pavement painters. (They are licensed by the city and pay for the privilege of using the designated spaces.) Her fascinating book contains hundreds of photos and the story of the little understood group of artists who have thrilled and amazed an audience of thousands of bystanders through the years.
You visited Italy for the first time in 2004 and in 2011 you published a book with the intriguing title My Life as a Street Painter in Florence Italy. How did you go from being a tourist to joining the small community of madonnari in Florence?
I backpacked around Italy for six weeks in the summer of 2004 and I fell in love with Anacapri and Florence. I decided to find a way to come back and stay for a longer period of time and returned to the Renaissance City as a student in the fall of 2006.
In early 2007, I met another student who created street paintings as part of the organization of madonnari (street painters) in Florence. She invited me to attend one of the meetings. Shortly after that, I returned to my home and studio in Texas. When I came back to Florence that fall, I went to Via Calimala where the street painters work and spoke with Claudio, the head of the organization. He had been instrumental many years before in having the city create three large squares on that street, consisting of street stones smoother than normal and outlined in brass. I was given a space on two different days in September while the senior madonnari were on holiday.
Could street painting be considered performance art? What are the skills that make a successful street painter?
Yes, street painting is more of a spettacolo, a performance. Timing is important. I learned a bit about what to do and when to do it in order to help the passersby envision what I was trying to accomplish, whether or not they would be able to return to see progress later. We work large; we work fast. The idea is to create a “Wow” impression in one day. Like any performer: the more skilled we are, the better the show.
Florence has an established group with most artists being fairly competent. I found that my having some drawing experience already made it easier to adapt my current skills to working large and in color, as well as working on a horizontal surface and in front of an audience. Physically, the work is very difficult and more tiring than anything created in a vertical position.
The history of madonnari is a bit unclear, but it seems that they were never really a part of the traditional atelier system that fine artists/professional artists were. There is a school for madonnari in Napoli that I believe was started by Gennaro Troia. The madonnari in Firenze have come from diverse backgrounds (and countries). Often they are art students temporarily in Firenze and working alongside master street painters.
Where else in Italy are there communities of street painters? Are there street art festivals?
I do not actually know if there are communities of madonnari, per se, or at least organizations such as we have in Florence. The madonnari mostly know one another because of the festivals. I have to say that I was thrilled by how so many of them welcomed me into the fold. I find so many in this community, either in person and on Facebook, to be wonderfully supportive of one another.
Yes, there are festivals and they are grand! I wrote about the two in Italia that I have attended: one in Nocera Superiore in southern Italy, not so far from the Amalfi Coast (in May) and the competition on Ferragosto (August 15) in Grazie di Curtatone in north central Italy. And there are other festivals in Europe and the US, perhaps in other countries.
You were a sculptor when you came to Italy. What are you working on now and how did your street painting experiences inform your present endeavors?
I am still a sculptor and I am in the process of finding a home in which I can start working with stone on a daily basis again. I have been lucky in that some Italian sculptors invited me to participate in a symposium to carve stone in Tuscany two summers ago. That led to my going to Bulgaria for a similar event last summer. Currently, I am working on several figurative paintings. This summer I will return to Texas to carve some of the stone I left there. I hope to be back in Italy this fall.
Drawing is the basis of all of the visual arts. Drawing and painting helps my sculpting, and vice versa. Before I began street painting, I had little experience with color. The sense of touch is far more important to me. However, I enjoy pastel art. I also wanted to work large and street painting was great training for my first mural as an adult. In 2012, I designed and painted a mural (400 x 200 cm) for a collector in Caprese Michelangelo. I was thrilled since this little village is the birthplace of the great sculptor. I would love to create more murals!
In Florence, street painting is creating copies of masterworks. I learn best through the sense of touch. So, through the copies, I was able to understand how great artists solved problems of design. I am not sure that I would have allowed myself as much of the luxury of learning from copy work if I had not been working as a street painter.
What question haven’t you been asked about your book or your life in Florence that you wish someone would ask and what is your response?
I have been called “The What-If-Girl” by friends. I can imagine all sorts of things. And yet people still surprise me. I want to change the world, but I have not yet figured out how. The life of an artist is rarely easy, but the Internet has opened doors never before available to the majority of us. Musicians and authors are reported to have used the Internet to change the dynamics of getting their work in the hands, ears, and eyes of new fans and outside of middlemen and normal distribution routes. They are often in direct contact with those that love what they do.
Painters and sculptors create art that is not so downloadable, nor available for a low accessible unit price as a digital artist. Even giclée fine art reproductions cost the artist much more than the individual cost of a digital book or album.
I would like to find a way to get fine art into the lives of more people without actually giving it away. Or, I would not mind giving it away if an artist could still find a way to have a long-term place to live (of his choosing) and not want for food or other things that people choose to have in their lives (travel and even our own art collection!). Unless a work of art is a commission, the artist must find a home for her creation.
In 2001, I met my mentor, Vasily Fedorouk. He introduced to me the world of stone carving symposiums. Here is how it works: A community or group of people get together and decide that they want a handful of large garden-size sculpture for a public art garden. They buy or have donated some large pieces of stone. They organize the workspaces for artists and they chose these artists, sometimes by jury, others by word of mouth. This group provides to the artists the electric power to each carving site, the air compressor and hoses, tables, tents or lots of trees for shade, and of course the work site itself. They also house and feed the artists for the duration of the symposium, which can last anywhere from five to 30 days. They pay each artist a stipend so that he may pay his own living expenses back home, as well as for his travel. The artist creates a specific design, gives his desired dimensions of the stone to the symposium organizers, and brings all of his own individual tools. And he works and works until he is done or the time is up.
And the community? If they did a good job of it, they created a work site accessible to tourists and locals so that everyone could watch the art evolve. They received an “instant” sculpture garden for a lot less than any other means of acquiring large original artworks in stone. They may later place their new sculpture wherever they like, usually on a permanent display. This helps the community build a tourist destination. It is an investment that improves the quality of life for all the citizens.
As for the street artists of Florence, I have not figured out how they pay their bills. Madonnari work for tips, but the ones I know have other means of income and it is still a difficult life. The world needs more beauty (and less graffiti/tagging).
I am grateful every day. I do not earn enough in art sales alone but I am quite fortunate in many ways. I know that my artistic life is made possible by every single person who treats me to a meal, gives me a place to sleep when I am traveling, shares useful information with me, makes me smile, makes me think, says a kind word about my work to someone else, and helps me in any number of ways. I work a lot to not disappoint while I follow the individual path that I must travel. But I still want to find a way to change the world . . . and not be living on the street.
On April 25, 2015, Italy marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the country from Nazi domination. This year much of the focus is on the 200,000 partisans who helped bring about the country’s liberation.
Over one quarter of the participants in the Italian Resistance during World War II were women (55,000), many acting as couriers (staffette).
In 1943, the Resistance strengthened in Italy as many Italian men chose to join the Partisans rather than capitulate to the German policy requiring the Italian military to be incorporated into the German army or be rounded up and sent as laborers in Eastern Europe.
Women also joined the Partisans but their involvement in the Resistance was truly a voluntary one since they did not face these same consequences if they chose not to participate in the war effort.
The first female partisans were couriers and spies. They were known as Staffette, a word for relay or courier. Initially they brought, along with assistance in the form of food and clothing, news from home and information on enemy movements. Shortly, this spontaneous work became organized, and every detachment created its own couriers, which specialized in shuttling between the city centers and the command of the partisan units. They relayed messages to and from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Operational Groups (OGS).
Frequently, these women had to cross German lines to accomplish their missions. Each time, they ran the risk of discovery, which they knew could result in torture or death. Their work was delicate, difficult, and almost always dangerous.
Even when they didn’t cross the lines during combat under enemy fire, they had to pass through the steep slopes of mountain on paths off main roads with dangerous, cumbersome material, covering kilometers on bicycle or truck, often on foot, in the rain or snow. Even traveling by train or car, the couriers passed long hours, often forced to pass a night in a station or in an open field, facing the dangers of bombardments or a German ambush.
After a tactical operation, the retreating partisans were not always able to take those seriously wounded with them. If there were men too wounded to hide, the couriers remained to watch them, to give them the necessary treatment and to seek medical help. After a battle women partisans were frequently left in the occupied country in order to learn the enemy movements and to get the information to the partisan command.
During the transfer marches the women were the advance expedition. When the partisan unit arrived near a town, the courier was the first to enter in order to find out if there were enemy forces and how many there were, and if it was possible for the partisan column to continue on.
In addition to taking part in partisan activity, women also volunteered to work in the Women’s Groups for Defense and for the Assistance of the Freedom Fighters (gruppi di difesa della donna e per l’assistenza ai combattenti della libertà) or GDD. The GDD collected food, money and clothing. If these women were discovered supporting the Partisans in even these ways, they would be arrested and sometimes tortured or killed. The women in the GDD also played a key role in motivating other women into public activism and recruiting them to participate in various Resistance functions.
The key to the success of women in the Resistance was their collective, almost anonymous character. These were not superhuman beings, but members of the community, belonging to all levels of society. The Resistance of women was born, not from the will of a few, but from the spontaneous initiative of the many.
After the war, 200,000 Italians were registered formally as active members of the Resistance, of which official records show 55,000 were women. More were never identified as part of the fight against fascism and the Nazis.
The diary/memoir covers the resistance to the Nazis when they entry Turin on September 10, 1943 to the liberation of the city on April 28,1945.
Ada Prospero Gobetti recorded the events on an almost daily basis, a dangerous undertaking. She jotted down her entries in a cryptic English that only she could understand; at the war’s end she deciphered the jottings for publication. The act of keeping an anti-fascist diary during the Nazi occupation carried an automatic death penalty.
Her involvement in the resistance movement goes back to 1922. Ada’s husband, the anti-Fascist activist Piero Gobetti, founded the anti Mussolini/fascist pamphlet Rivoluzione Liberale. Gobetti was arrested and beaten to death by Fascist gangs at age 24.
Ada, who found time to translate Sir Francis Bacon and Alexander Pope while tending to her teenage son Paolo,vowed to continue his work, as did Paolo. Her pride in her son and at the same time her fears that he will be captured are central themes in this story.
This book reads like a thriller, it provides first-hand knowledge of how the partisans in Piedmont fought and who joined the struggle against the Nazis and the Fascists.
Ada ran a network of safe houses in Turin for anti-Fascists in need of refuge. Among these was the sister of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, Anna Maria Levi. She and Paolo smuggled weapons and explosives into the Susa valley, adjacent to the French border, over mule paths and dense forests.
“4 September. It had gotten dark by now and soon we left with the new Tommy gun and what was necessary for derailing the train. We did not know exactly at what hour it would pass, but by now it was certain that no more civilian trains would pass by before dawn. We had to make the preparations quickly in order not to miss the strike.” — Ada Gobetti
Irma Bandiera was the treasured daughter of a wealthy family from Bologna. She became a partisan fighter in the VII Brigade Gruppi di Azione Patriottica (GAP) Gianni Garibaldi of Bologna. As was common with those who fought for the resistance she took a battle name: Mimma.
Captured with encrypted documents by the Fascists working with the German SS, after transporting weapons to her brigade near Castel Maggiore, she was tortured, blinded and then shot, having refused to give up the names of her comrades. On August 14, 1944, her body was left lying on the road near her home for a whole day as a warning to others who sought to join the resistance.
In her honor, a formation of partisans operating at Bologna was named First Brigade Garibaldi “Irma Bandiera”. She was awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valor (Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare).
After The War
After April 1945, Italian women began to participate in the politics of their country in unprecedented number. Fifty percent of the women elected to the postwar Parliament had a partisan background. The gains Italian women earned through their courageous work with the resistance resulted in them acquiring a seat at the table of Italian politics that they retain today.