But what would Dante say?

Posted August 22nd, 2006 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Trip reports, Tuscanophilia

pnt_sm0004.jpg Before it gets to be September, one more post about Florence and then I promise I will get back to more normal post-normal topics in science and policy….
My visit there earlier in the summer made me really wonder what it is people think they are buying when they buy GUCCI products, which is now only a trademark for a company that has little if anything to do with its more humble roots in the quality of design and craftsmanship for which the city is known, and, of course, with the Gucci family. On one side of the Arno river, there are, of course, still GUCCI stores in Florence. On the other side, in the older part of Florence, around where Guccio Gucci first started crafting leather, his grand-daughter Elisabetta, who grew up around the smell of it, and working in the family business, is now the artistic director for a gallery called Mirabili. In highschool where I first knew her, she was often referred to as “La Gucci” but I find it awkward to even say her last name now because it has practically become a figure of speech associated with fantasies that can be found in the ads in Vanity Fair, or with the power of well-heeled lobbyists in the corridors of the US Capitol – a place sometimesreferred to as Gucci Gulch.
Mirabili represents a group of artistic furniture designers whose work is on display behind a shop window that looks like no other – anywhere. At the time of my visit, they had teamed up with another art gallery for a combined exhibit of museum quality work, for which Elisabetta herself could easily have been mistaken. She is the only person I know with enough panache to wear yellow lipstick. It matched the yellow dress she was wearing on one of the days I visited with her. And when combined with a piece of jewelry made by one of the artists whose work was on display, and then the yellow wind jacket in which she left for the day – on a vespa – she is literally a self-designed piece of art work. Unfortunately, I did not get a picture of that but, the next time I stopped by, she was dressed in a simple brown outfit that matched her battered leather Gucci daybook that she still has from way back when GUCCI was a just a family-owned but well-known and expensive leather goods shop in Florence. It was around that time that we spent 2 years in the same high school. She also wore her hair exactly the same way as now, pulled back in a pony tail – which accentuates an infectious smile. So I had the opportunity to have a few long talks with her about Florence past and present. image0005.jpg
First, a bit of background. Florence is a subject of obsession also among Florentines who have a reputation of being sharp-witted disenchanted and often cynical and sarcastic, holier-than-thou snobs whose directness of expression pushes up against the borders of the offensive – and is not directed only towards the arrogant and pompous (like Mussolini for example) – for whom an ironic smile can more than suffice. Even some Florentines will tell you as much, as did Candida Vig – another high school friend, who helped me to elaborate on a less verbose description I had written. As her husband Maurizio subsequently explained (in a comment on the previous post, (Petrified irreverence) it is the immense presumption of the Florentines that God is happy to have invented them, and was himself born in Florence but does not wish to admit it. He also recalls Roberto Benigni talking about episodes with his father who, upon observing a majestic display of stars, would say “my how many stars there are!” and would go on to conclude with a heavy dose of swearing. Maurizio goes on to explain, “We Tuscans, when we love and admire a person, often kindly offend him as a way to truly demonstrate our sincere and genuine affection.”
giangastone0001.jpgBut Florentines do remain enchanted with their own history. According to an American friend who also studied there, they are living off of it like whores. But as Elisabetta G. is the first to explain, they are for the most part trapped in this history that has given them their identity. As if to demonstrate, on a previous visit she took me to visit Alessandro Riccio, director of the Tedavi ’98 theater company that almost exclusively produces meticulously researched plays about the various characters in the Medici family, in authentic costumes entirely made by his mother. When I asked to take a picture of one of the renaissance gowns, she promptly put it on and modeled it – as you can see in the first picture above. Meanwhile, Alessandro put on the mask of Gian Gastone, the last of the Medici family. Some of my high school classmates were convinced that Gian Gastone haunted the school, which was situated in one of the former Medici residences on the outskirts of town. pnt_sm0002.jpg
Elisabetta also explained that, much of the innovation for which Florence is known, has come from those who have left, and sometimes returned, as did her grandfather who, while working abroad, saw possibilities he might never have imagined had he stayed put. Her most knowledgeable and appreciative gallery customers have been the Germans – she thinks this is because WWII left them with a tabula rasa, or a void to be filled. As for the city’s appearance, she directs her most caustic remarks towards the shop windows across the river that look like they could just as well be in New York or Paris, new buildings that are oblivious to their historic surroundings, and the bright and noisy fairs that also clash with everything around them. Other Florentines will tell you that, in the midst of all of this tourism generated wealth, the public schools do not even have tp in the bathrooms, or even doors on them. They are also subject to a bumbling municipal bureaucracy that hands out tickets and tows cars by mistake – it still takes 6 months to get a refund.
Interestingly, Sifossifoco [warning: link is to a blog written in Florentine vernacular] ponders whether the displays in those stores across the river are polluting their very way of thinking. He also comments on the even more insidious chromatic pollution of the city and wonders – if chromotherapy can heal, perhaps the wrong colors can also kill. What then might be the damage caused by the loud tourist busses, publicity posters, parked cars, flags hung on balconies instead of seasonal flowers – all of which could be avoided if the city had a color manager? (him and Elisabetta need to talk…)
image0003.jpg Not everyone else is oblivious. Over the past few weeks, in Piazza Santa Croce, Roberto Benigni has been talking to Dante – or at least to his statue, just as Dante spoke with his predecessors in the Divine Comedy. It was a warm-up to a recital of selected cantos from the Comedy which he also learned from his father, and has known by heart since long before he became Benigni the film star. Had I known of this before booking my plane tickets, I would probably still be there myself, and could also tell you what Dante had to say this time. But perhaps someone reading this blog can fill us all in?
However – I did finally find out what Dante said after the flood in 1966. At the time of that flood, I would not have been of any help had I been in Florence instead of visiting my grandmother in Pisa over a long holiday weekend. I was 11 years old, barely spoke Italian yet, and had my right arm in a cast – the result of having tried to spiral backwards into a turning jump on roller skates, as a few of my classmates were able to quite easily do. But over the years, I had heard of a song composed by Florentines during the clean-up, and was able to find it via google after asking and being told by Candida that it must be the one about the floodwaters washing the balls of David. This time I actually found a recording of it by Riccardo Marasco. Sung to the tune of La guerra di Piero (a popular anti-war song by the late Fabrizio de André), the song’s unnamed protagonist swims submerged in a sea of s___ of unclear origins (man or cow?), and ends up in Piazza Santa Croce where Dante exclaims: “Oh Florentines, you sent me into exile… take this s___ that God has sent you!.” It must have been an expression of sincere and genuine affection.

Leave a Reply