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'PALACE WOMEN': A deeper dive

From September to December 2023

Photo kindly provided by Villa La Petraia, Venere Fiorenza

As Autumn approaches, we at Calliope Arts are gearing up for the third annual edition of ‘Oltrarno Gaze’, with our co-organisers Cultural Association Il Palmerino and the British Institute of Florence. The project, whose past editions were conceived and funded in conjunction with Advancing Women Artists and its Legacy fund, will expand its scope in 2023 to shed light, not only on female artists, but on notable women from various disciplines working in government, the arts, patronage, literature and philanthropy who lived or sojourned in the Oltrarno district and beyond, over the course of centuries. This year’s theme ‘Palace Women’ places historic women in their physical context, and focuses on the ‘room of their own’ idea by associating female forerunners with the monumental venues in which they lived, worked and built their legacy.

Eleonora de Toledo’s (1522-1562) purchase of the Pitti Palace triggered the emergence of the Oltrarno artisan district, as she needed expert craftsman to make a fitting and ‘healthy’ home for her growing family. The neighbourhood’s prestige grew and handcrafted industries flourished from the palace outwards, as other noble families sought over-the-river real estate, on which to build their own palazzi. The Grand Duchess’ initial support would give rise to a bustling neighbourhood known for its dynamic creativity and revolutionary ideas. Several women settled in the district and became influencers – long before the word was invented.

Before becoming Grand Duke Francesco I’s second wife, Venetian aristocrat Bianca Cappello (1548-87) had a home built for her on Via Maggio 26, to be closer to her lover at the Pitti. Its façade’s motifs, exquisitely created by master Bernardino Poccetti, using the sgraffito technique, were an idealist’s version of Venetian marine life, in honour of Cappello’s lagoon city (a tribute that makes the Florentines feel snubbed, even today). On Via degli Serragli, artist Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886) sought self-imposed exile from France and founded an atelier that became a magnet for travellers on the Grand Tour, where she marketed herself as a ‘vestal of sculpture’ combining fine art and craftsmanship, on a model developed by Benvenuto Cellini. Just a few block away, at much the same time, English poet Elisabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) settled at Casa Guidi, a home she decorated in red, white and green, to support a cause she held dear: Italian unification.

The ‘Palace Women’ trail continues beyond the Oltrarno, and leads to other spaces important to women's history. One interesting case study is the Villa of San Francesco di Paola, which international musicians, artists and suffragettes, like Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) and Elizabeth Brewster Hillebrand looked to for inspiration in Florence, during the last century.

Expect a unique calendar of events – including tours, lectures and a final exhibition, during this September-to-December programme which includes several grants in support of local culture and education. Co-funded by Alice Vogler, Donna Malin, Margie MacKinnon and Wayne McArdle, this project is made possible thanks to the support of Enjoy, Respect and Feel Florence, funded by Italy’s Ministry of Tourism, the Fund for Development and Cohesion, the Municipality of Florence and Feel Florence.

Music research grant and performance

A ‘Palace Women’ research grant has been awarded to writer and curator Claudia Tobin, with violinist Ruth Palmer and her pianist Alessio Enea. Together, they will set out to uncover and reveal “how music underscored the swell of women’s increasing liberties at the turn of the twentieth century”. According to Dr Tobin, they will focus on “the musical sisterhood between a network of European women artists, writers and music critics who took inspiration from Florence, including suffragette composer Dame Ethel Smyth (still best known for her ‘March of Women’ anthem); her friend, the writer and activist Vernon Lee (1856-1935); and suffragette, critic and playwright Constance Smedley.

These pioneers demonstrated the transformative power of music on the mind and body, and paved the way for the freedom of expression women enjoy today.” Awardees will bring together material which connects archives in the UK and Florence, including at the Villa I Tatti Harvard Centre for Renaissance Studies, the Lyceum Club archive, the British Institute of Florence; and at Somerville College Oxford and the British Library in the UK. The first iteration of this combined lecture and recital, scheduled for September 29, 2023 will be presented at the Lyceum Club Internazionale di Firenze, of which these women were members; with further iterations planned for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas in the UK and inclusion at academic conferences on Vernon Lee.

Photography grant

Thanks to a photography grant and a good measure of buona volontà, award-winning Florentine photography association ‘Gruppo Fotografico Il Cupolone APS’ is already poised to capture each phase of our 2023 programme. Ten women photographers, both professional and amateur, will continue the quest they began with last year’s edition of ‘Oltrarno Gaze’, whose photographs on women artists and artisans at work are immortalised in the book Florence in the Making (The Florentine Press, 2022). Via photo reportage an artistic images, the team is committed to the creation of a photographic archive spotlighting creativity linked to the ‘Palace Women’ theme, as artisans and art students find inspiration in the Florence palazzi (and gardens!) that female pioneers designed, developed and ‘populated’, according to their unique perspectives. From riverside to countryside, they will start with Oltrano sites and female-run workshops, before moving on to explore villas in other areas, like Medici Villa La Petraia or Cerreto Giudi. The team’s photographs will be exhibited, together with works of craftsmanship produced during the project, at ‘Palace Women’ a photography show at Cultural Association Il Palmerino, from October 30 to December 15, 2023.

Palace Women image by Virginie Houdet

Training and production grants for students and professional artisans

One of the Oltrarno’s most renowned public secondary schools dedicated to the arts is recipient of our Palace Women Students’ Grant. One fourth-year class of 18 students, and one post-high school programme of seven students at the Liceo Artistico Statale di Porta Romana e Sesto Fiorentino will benefit from a special programme focused on papermaking, art production, serigraphs and printing on textiles. This grant offers students the opportunity to attend workshops and visit the atelier of a sector professional. “Both hand-on, and theoretical, it focuses on conservation and project making – from conception to conclusion, in addition to providing students a unique exhibition opportunity,” says Paola Lucchesi, professional artisan who developed grant content, together with the school’s professors Silvia Coppetti and Aude Vanriette.

‘Palace Women’ also foresees a ‘production grant’ for seven local professional artisans inspired by the theme. Finalists will be featured at Il Palmerino’s exhibition, in the book Where Florence's Women Made History (The Florentine Press, ed. Linda Falcone, for release in October 2023) and a documentary short of the same name by Florence-based Russian video-maker Olga Makarova.


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