Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

Florence Renaissance – Grand Italian City

The familiar, 500-year-old face of Lorenzo the Magnificent hangs above the door to Agostino Dessi’s mask shop in the city center of Florence, Italy. I have stumbled upon the laboratory, as Dessi calls his combination workshop and store, and found him painting base coats on a pile of masks while piercing violin music fills the small shop. There are hundreds of masks in the room, faces and expressions of every kind. Among them, I see many familiar types: my father in a rage, a laughing drunk, a stern matriarch, my angelic niece, rich and elegant women at a ball. There are baggy-eyed faces, ones with big noses, floppy hats, sunken cheekbones, and aquiline features. There are face masks and whole torso masks with donkey’s heads and womens’ naked breasts. The colors are everywhere jewel-toned, decorated with Moorish black and white stripes, thick gold speckles, lacquered turquoise, orange, and lapis. The faces hang from the ceiling and the walls, spill out of baskets and off of table tops, perch and lean from every available surface. The shop feels like a deserted costume room at a circus after all the players have changed their clothes and gone home.

“Lorenzo Medici was a great figure for the artist in the Renaissance,” said Dessi, who sculpted the ceramic mask of Lorenzo that hangs outside the shop. It is late February, and there aren’t many shoppers in the street this mid-afternoon, so Dessi has time to talk while he works. Many generations of Medici ruled Florence and were patrons of the arts, including Lorenzo the Magnificent, who lived in the 15th century during the artistic flowering known as the Renaissance.

Somehow, 500 years doesn’t feel that long ago in Florence — where the works of so many famous artists still fill the city. You’d think it would be intimidating to be surrounded by Michelangelos and Leonardo De Vinci’s, but instead it seems to have had the opposite effect on the living: There are many contemporary artists working in the city today. Dessi’s masks are sold as works of art, for theater productions and carnival celebrations.

Still, everything new in Florence is cradled by the old, just as the city’s surrounding hills hold its small historic center. Our hotel, the Grand Hotel Baglioni, built as a residential palace in the 18th century, is a perfect example of the juxtaposition of old and ultra modern that is Italy today. Our room has an old parquet floor, the high ceiling is carved wood, and there are four layers of doors leading to the room’s balcony — a wooden set, then glass, then stained glass, then wood. The furniture, too, isn’t new and not uniform — the pieces don’t match. Clearly, restoring the old is a valued custom here.

However, within this antique structure, there is a hot tub, very modern lighting, and a sleek phone: I am doing it up in style this trip. I have visited Florence many times while staying with my sister- and brother-in-law who live in Tuscany 35 minutes from here, but this is the first time I’ve stayed at a hotel in the city. In a few days, my husband and I will head to their home in the small town of Tavarnelle, and it is fun to be in the city for a few days first.

Later that night, some friends and I have stopped in for an opening at Ken’s Art Gallery near the Piazza della Signoria. Over wine and cheese, gallery owner Walter Bellini speaks with great humor about his 20 years at the gallery.

“I represent only living artists!” said Bellini. “I don’t care where the artist is from, as long as they’re living.

“Working in contemporary art is quite a feat in Florence. Within 20 meters we have Michaelangelo!” Still, Bellini has been successful, the artists he represents have sold to many big clients and their work in included in various museums world-wide. Bellini has had 364 such shows in his 20 years, and represented more than 500 artists. This show features the work of two, including that of American artist Roseanne Williams.

“Coming to Florence has been a dream come true,” said Williams, whose featured paintings were big, colorful flowers from her garden in Fiesole, a gorgeous hillside area that rises above Florence on its northern side. “You find so many artists living in small studios all over the city, who never get to show their work. We’ve been blessed to find Walter and this gallery.”

As Bellini charmingly holds court, you can feel the passion that has driven him to launch the careers of so many unknown artists. As he caresses the marble sculpture of one of his favorites, he laughs that the youngest artist in the city’s Museum of Modern Art was born 100 years ago. Still, he hopes that “sooner or later, Florence will have a museum of contemporary art.”

The next day it is overcast but warmish — considering it’s February — and we head to the New Duomo Museum, which of course, isn’t new at all, just renovated.

The Duomo is the city’s prized jewel — the church with the red-tiled dome that is visible far and wide throughout Florence. Duomo, which means main church, was built in the 13th and 14th centuries, and is still in use as a church today. The New Duomo Museum houses various works of art that have been removed from the Duomo and replaced with reproductions, so that the originals are protected from the elements.

Our tour guide, Carla Lucatti, looks like my Aunt Mary, a first generation American who was born in southern Italy. Carla, however, is a thoroughly modern Florentine, you wouldn’t catch her chopping the heads off of chickens for dinner, a practice my Aunt Mary brought to the U.S. with her from Calabria. No: Carla is a modern Florentine, which means she uses a cell phone, wears important Italian leather shoes, and is extremely proud of the city’s art history. We see one of Michaelangelo’s four Pieta, Donatello’s moving wooden sculptor of Mary Magdalene as an old woman, and Ghiberti’s original gilded bronze Doors of Paradise — copies of which attract great crowds where they hang outside the Duomo.

Carla likes us, and offers a special treat. After arranging things on her cell phone, she takes us to La Bottega Dell’Opera Di Santa Maria Del Fiore in Via dello Studio. It is a workshop where eight sculptors and 13 masons restore and reproduce various works of art from the Duomo. The head artisan, Paolo Bianchini, shows us the tools he and his men use: They are the same simple hand pieces that the original works of art were made with hundreds of years ago. The work is funded with money from the entrance fees to the New Duomo Museum, and has been on-going since the large church and its adjacent bell tower were built.

Art, art everywhere, makes a person hungry! This is a conclusion that’s easy to make after doing just about anything in Italy — so we head out past the Boboli Gardens — an enormous hillside park that overlooks Florence — to the set of a Ivory Merchant novel. No! That’s not right: We head out the city past the Boboli Gardens to the Grand Hotel Villa Cora for dinner.

Like our hotel, the Baglioni, Villa Cora was built as a private home in the late 1800s. I have never, in person, seen a room anything like the villa’s Byzantine room, adjacent to the lobby. Neoclassical in style, all its corners, edges and ceiling are carved moldings of sculpted angels, geometric designs, scrolls and fleur-de-lis. Everything is painted gold, light turquoise, coral, sienna, or green. Columns are everywhere. Dinner is as elaborate as the decor — and the evening passes in a state of excitement engendered by experiencing a facet of Florence as elegant and extraordinary as this small hotel.

The role of the artist and art is different in Italy than what I am used to at home. Beauty is considered a practical human need, a part of the everyday round, almost as fundamental to human life as food, shelter, and love. Understanding this sensual sensibility is fundamental to grasping a unique aspect of the Italian culture. Art is not a lofty pursuit accomplished by a few, but a much more earthy and practical occupation in the Italian psyche.

By the same token, food, too, plays a different role in Italy than in the U.S. While the need to make art is considered less lofty in Italy than in the U.S., the making of food is considered more lofty. Italians revere food almost as an art — it’s a serious thing, not morose, but a serious and cherished part of life that is given a priority position in the scheme of things. Fast-food is antithetical to an Italian way of life — taking food is a ritual to be enjoyed as a great part of being human. It is a daily pleasure that is allotted a good deal of time. The very fact that almost all stores close between 2 p.m and 4 p.m. — for leisurely lunch pursuits — is a clear example of this.

So, here we are at my favorite type of Italian restaurant — the family-style, family-run Trattoria Gozzi da Sergio, located behind the stalls along the main street of the large outdoor market known as Mercato Centrale. Four generations of Gozzi’s have worked it, and now father, Sergio, mother, and son, Alessandro, are here. It’s a Saturday at 3 p.m., and we’re racing to get in, hoping it won’t have closed already. Crossing my fingers and nodding at the Duomo for luck, I lift my gaze from the cobblestones and tug at the front door. It opens, a good sign: Lots of people are eating, which is even better, but still I know they may have stopped serving. Then I catch the eye of Alessandro —and his nod tells me we’re in. Though lunch is winding down, Gozzi is still open for business, open to serve us a meal.

Within minutes, the news that two diners have arrived has spread through the small staff of five, who work the restaurant like emergency room doctors in their urgency to get you in, seated, and fed.

The food is just how I like it — simple, perfectly flavorful, whole. The atmosphere is warm in a way I haven’t experienced in an American restaurant, just as the decor, the physical restaurant itself, isn’t something you’d find in America. Again, it’s not standardized, not glossy, the owners have made due with what they have. The tables don’t match, the chairs don’t all match, the painting on the walls are originals, the flatware and napkins are kept in a large, old wooden side-boy, like you’d find in someone’s home. There are 38 seats in the rear room of the two-room restaurant, clean white paper covers the tables, and that’s it. It’s made for eating like you’d eat at home — and everyone seems happy.

Leaving Florence on our way to my sister-in-law’s house to spend time with our nieces and nephew. This is a home away from home — where we can laze around, play with the dog, walk in the vineyards, eat my sister-in-law’s wonderful cooking. We can also visit our friend Francesca’s new store, Casa Mangani, where she sells the work of Tuscan artists, including the porcelain her father makes at his factory in Florence.

I love the story of how Francesca’s father started his factory. He was the son, nephew, and grandson of well-known sculptors, who had worked since the late 1800s in and around Florence. Then, when the recession in 1929 hit artists hard, Francesca’s grandfather transformed himself into a ceramisist. After the war, his son, Ivan, Francesca’s father, began making porcelain in a poor area outside of Florence, which has since become fashionable. Once Ivan mastered the difficult process of making porcelain, he would pack up his motorcycle with a few tea cups and buzz around to shops, trying to make a sale.

Then, one day, everything changed. A big Rolls Royce pulled up in front of Ivan’s house in his poor neighborhood, and out stepped a very distinguished looking gentleman: It was a buyer from Tiffany’s in New York City, who had seen one of Mangani’s porcelains, and tracked down the maker. He ordered 1,000 pieces for Tiffany’s that day, an order that took Mangani three years to complete, and launched his business. Today Mangani has a factory with 50 workers, and sells his still hand-made, hand-painted porcelains to collectors from all over the world.

The factory is wonderful to visit — you can see the porcelain in all the many stages of its development. Big kilns open like large walk-in freezers, filled with porcelain, and dozens work hand painting with colors that must be baked at different temperatures. Adjacent to the factory, is a large showroom, filled with the most unusual housewares made out of porcelain. Not only are there the standard vases, cups and plates, but tables, chandeliers, frames and mirrors.

“Zia (aunt) Joan, Zia Joan!” say my young nieces Gaia and Gemma excitedly, when we finally get to their house. After checking out all their new artwork, we spend Sunday playing soccer, watching Italian cartoons, eating pasta with artichokes, and loving the chance to be together.

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