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Turn-of-the-century expats fight it out

Florence’s turn-of-the-century plan for urban renewal included replacing the Ponte Vecchio. It took an international campaign led by English author Vernon Lee, living at Il Palmerino, to stop plans for the ‘self-mutilation’ of medieval Florence.

John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Vernon Lee, 1881, Tate Gallery, London

“A word of warning about Vernon Lee because she is as dangerous and uncanny, as she is intelligent, which is saying a great deal. Her vigor and sweep are most rare and her talk superior altogether. She is faraway the most able mind in Florence.” This was how American author Henry James described one of the early twentieth-century’s most significant Pacifist writers. Lee’s ‘fighting spirit’, inspired Linda Falcone’s spring lecture at the British Institute, a portion of which is summarized here.

Villa Castellani, Bellosguardo, Louis Ritter, 1888, Cincinnati Art Museum

Villa views of Florence?

In his 1909 book Italian Hours, Henry James observed, ‘if one is an aching alien, half the talk is of villas’. For less than the price of a good painting, he notes, one could purchase an entire villa, garden and surrounding estate. Such was the case for a plethora of expats and adventurers who came to Florence in the late 19th century. Indeed, an estimated 30,000 of the city’s 200,000 residents were English and American expatriates or, according to another statistic, one third of its population was comprised of foreigners. There seemed to be a particular lure to Italy for writers and other creative intellectuals who wished to escape the modernism and industrialization of their home countries and, as art historian Francesca Baldry writes, “Rivers of ink have been devoted to describing the special idyll between Florentia and the expatriates. The city’s architecture and its surrounding landscape were chosen for the ubiquitous nature of its art.” Hilltop mansion-ateliers became home to artists eager to reinvent the Renaissance and immortalize Florence, as we continue to see it today. Imagery produced by the Pre-Raphaelite artists are a case in point and the clan would take over the 50-room villa at Bellosguardo’s Villa Castellani, as guests of painter Elizabeth Boott (Henry’s James’ inspiration for Portrait of a Lady) and her American artist husband Frank Duveneck.

English author Vernon Lee who took up residence at Il Palmerino on the Fiesole side of Florence in 1889 deemed the Renaissance, a “loathsome mix of good and evil, as the Italian people moved towards civilization and chaos”. She would call the Pre-Raphaelites “poeticules” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the movement’s founder, would inspire the character William Hamlin in Lee’s satirical novel Miss Brown. This rather harsh portrayal would prompt a stinging but affectionate letter from friend Henry James: “You are really too savage with your painters and poets and dilettanti. Life is less criminal, less obnoxious, less objectionable […] more pardonable, than the unholy circle with which you have surrounded your heroine. You have been too much in a moral passion! Cool first, write afterwards. Morality is hot – but art is icy.”

Henry James, John Singer Sargent, 1913, National Portrait Gallery, London

Setting her sights on the center

‘Moral passion’, as James so eloquently put it, would characterize all of Vernon Lee’s endeavours in literature and in life. Il Palmerino would be the author’s home until her death in 1935, but Lee had only just moved there, when she realized she would not be content with limiting her Florence experience to the lyricism of peaceful Tuscan landscapes. She quickly turned her attention to the center of town – and, specifically, to plans set in motion nearly a generation earlier by architect Giuseppe Poggi, during Florence’s 5-year stint as capital from 1865-70. Administrators were looking to widen city streets in order to give Florence a Parisian feel by building expansive squares and wide avenues. Thirty-seven reconstruction projects were presented from 1880 onwards, including one proposing the demolition of Ponte Vecchio, to create a bridge, which would allow for carriage traffic. Some called these plans reconstruction… Lee would call them ‘self-mutilation’. A portion of Palazzo Davanzati would be destroyed, as part of the expansion of the area that stretched from via Pellicceria Firenze to Ponte Vecchio, wiping out most of Palagio di Parte Guelfa and the Church of San Biagio, among other landmarks.

Demolition before the ‘battle’

Following the cholera epidemic of 1885 – thirteen years before Vernon Lee wrote her historic letter of protest, the authorities had voted to demolish the historic city centre – site of the Jewish Ghetto and Mercato Vecchio, including Vasari’s fish market, several guild palaces, old family palazzos and a series of medieval streets. As Vernon Lee points out, during these supposed public health efforts, “the streets were not cleaned, ventilated, drained or otherwise sanitised but simply swept off the face of the Earth” to make way for what she called “a dreary arcaded square”, otherwise known as Piazza della Reppublica. The square was seeped in controversy since its very creation. Indeed, intellectuals of the day considered it a modern monstrosity and Mayor Tommaso Corsini stepped down for his inability to stop this controversial urban renewal. Florence had lost 26 ancient streets, along with 20 squares of various sizes, 18 alleys, 341 residential buildings and 451 workshops. Some 1,778 families – an estimated 6,000 people – were ‘distanced’ from area.

1893 Palazzo Catellini after demolition of Florence’s Mercato Vecchio, S. Calamandre

‘Globalization’ for the sake of art and culture?

To keep the destruction from expanding, Vernon Lee took up her pen, as sword. As journalist and essayist Maurzio Naldini points out, she garnered attention from countries like Russia, France and the United States and cities such as London and Berlin. After approaching city administrators and rallying influential Londoners to embrace the cause, she moved on to inspire intelligentsia throughout Europe. Naldini calls it “One of the very first cases of globalization in the name of art and culture, an absolute novelty at a time when wars were fought among European nations and each one was preoccupied with their own absolute sovereignty.” Many foreigners residing in Florence, including art collectors and patrons Herbert Horne, Federick Stibbert and John Temple leader joined the cause as members of the Association for the Defense of Old Florence. Lee was its only female member. In a long letter, published in La Nazione, Mayor Torrigiani would scold Corsini for having sought the advocacy of foreign scholars and intellectuals, “I panni sporchi si lavano in casa”, dirty clothes are to be washed at home.

Getting grass roots

While she was ‘going global’, Lee forged a grassroots movement. According to Naldini, her tactics would comprise two strategic elements: first, she would use journalism to move the issue, rather than depending solely on city administrators, publishing in both The Times and La Nazione, then a top national paper. In Lee’s view, there was no sense in counting on any one official who would soon be out of office and replaced by another with differing views. Change would not come from administrative arm-wrestling, but as part of an advocacy program from the ground up. “Every means should be taken to educate the taste and historic spirit of the small bourgeoisie and working people and [it should be] made clear … to every class directly or indirectly interested in the presence of foreigners that one of the chief attractions of this city is its well-preserved medieval character.”

Preserving the past, protecting the future

Lee’s continuous efforts to protect Florence’s cultural legacy and her insistence that foreigners were an important part of the city’s economic prosperity brings to mind another historic woman who advocated the very same premise, centuries prior. Like Lee, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the dynasty’s last heir was another woman of ‘moral passion’. Through her 1741 ‘Family Pact’, it became unlawful to sell or remove any Medici property from Tuscany, where it would stay to “ornament” the state, “benefit” the public and “attract the curiosity of foreigners”. Both women’s foresight paid off in the end and Florence’s appeal has lasted, largely thanks to the integrity of its architectural and artistic patrimony, protected by Vernon Lee’s pen at the turn of the last century, in the noble tradition of the last Medici princess.


Author: Linda Falcone

This article was originally published in:

Inside AWA magazine, Summer edition, 2021.


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