Letter from Florence
At the end of January, two hundred new students arrived for the spring semester at NYU Florence, and another hundred were continuing from the fall semester. We held orientation sessions in the ballroom of Villa La Pietra, the magnificent Renaissance palace that was left to NYU by Sir Harold Acton when he died in 1994. NYU has a very extensive “global university”—ranging from Shanghai and Abu Dhabi to Madrid, Paris, Prague, Accra, Sydney—but Florence is the jewel in the crown. You can approach the villa along the avenue of cypresses, past the olive groves, maybe catching a glimpse of the pheasants; or alternatively, you can begin from behind the villa in the terraced Renaissance gardens of statuary and topiary, then come around by way of the kitchen garden where the lemon trees grow in the spring and summer, though in January they are all staying warm inside the Baroque Limonaia pavilion. Inside the villa, the students ascended the spiral staircase of the inner courtyard, hung with Flemish tapestries and transplanted Venetian frescoes, to arrive in the ballroom for their orientation, and we said to them: “Nobody in the whole academic universe is studying in a more beautiful place than this, and it’s yours until May, and we’re here to help you appreciate it.”
There’s a lot about college that is hard to appreciate properly when you’re nineteen, but this is perhaps especially true of study abroad, where there is so much that is so new to take in all at once. We usually start by talking to students about the first time that we ourselves, as clueless college students, came to Florence in the 1970s, stayed in the camping near Piazzale Michelangelo. Sure, we knew a very little bit about Michelangelo, but we had never heard of Ghiberti, Masaccio, Verrocchio, Fra Angelico, or Ghirlandaio, just for starters. We were overwhelmed—and changed. Everything about the American semester abroad in Italy is necessarily a crash course in language, art, politics, manners, fashion, coffee, pasta, and gelato—but, we say at orientation, it can actually change your life.
We talk about Harold Acton, who grew up in this palace, who lived most of his life here, one mile uphill from the old walls of Florence, on the Via Bolognese, the road north to Bologna. His parents, the British art dealer Arthur Acton and the Chicago banking heiress Hortense Mitchell, bought the villa and gardens and, using her fortune, assembled their astonishing and eccentric collection in the early twentieth century: elongated medieval religious sculptures, early Renaissance gold-ground religious paintings, Chinese porcelain vases, Venetian “blackamoor” sculptures. Harold Acton himself, born in Florence in 1904, went to Oxford in the 1920s with Evelyn Waugh (Acton is recognizable as the flamboyant Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited) and embarked on a life as a writer, historian, and lover of beauty; he later wrote his autobiography under the title Memoirs of an Aesthete.
In the ballroom we talk to the students about the many kinds of beauty to be found in Florence, and Perri, as a doctor, particularly mentions the clinical diagnosis, “Stendhal syndrome,” sometimes called “Florence syndrome.” Stendhal, two hundred years ago in 1817, while looking at the Giotto frescoes in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, suddenly felt dizzy: “I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty . . . I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations . . . Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.” Florence is the place where tourists have regularly been medically overwhelmed by an excess of beauty, and the tourist—or the student—must find the right balance of appreciation between, on the one hand, palpitations and dizziness, and, on the other hand, becoming so habituated to beauty that it fails to impress you.
Up on the wall in the ballroom for student orientation in January—after spending almost a decade in restoration—was the huge and gorgeous eighteenth-century Aubusson tapestry Palazzo di Circe, woven to a design by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. There is a tapestry restoration lab on the top floor of Villa La Pietra, where the fraying masterpiece was brought back to life over the course of many years of meticulous needlework. The palace of the sorceress Circe is represented as a fantasy of woven architectural ruins amidst a luxuriant abundance of foliage. Circe lived alone upon an island in the Mediterranean, and when sailors arrived on her shore, she transformed them into animals; Homer describes her love affair with Odysseus, whose crew she had previously turned into pigs. Louise Glück has written a marvelous poem from Circe’s point of view:
I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.
Oudry specialized in animal paintings, and in the Aubusson tapestry the palace of Circe shows a whole menagerie of animals who have undergone metamorphosis at her hands: a leopard, a unicorn, and a wild boar who stares directly out of the tapestry at all of us in the ballroom. Facing the animals, on the other side of the tapestry, stands an empty throne: the throne of Circe. What makes the tapestry so haunting, and all the more so in its vividly colored and brilliantly restored condition, is the absence of any human figure.
As you enter the ballroom, you pass an arrangement of Chinese porcelains. Harold Acton, who grew up living with this collection—and we preserve it largely as it was arranged at the time of his death—was fascinated by China, and, following his Oxford years in the 1920s, he lived in Beijing for most of the 1930s, leaving only with the explosion of war at the end of the decade. We held a conference last year on “Harold in China”—keyed to an exhibit of Harold’s photos that was partly curated by an NYU undergraduate research assistant. We discussed his role as an intermediary between English and Chinese culture, teaching modern English poetry at Beida University, preparing translations of modern Chinese poetry in English. We discussed Acton’s lovely novel of British expatriates in China (Peonies and Ponies), his dedication as an aesthete to Chinese art and poetry, and we reflected on what it meant to have to leave China in anxious haste in 1939 (abandoning a valuable collection of Chinese art) with the coming of war.
We thought about Harold Acton when we anxiously left China on January 24, 2020, the day before Chinese New Year and two days after the city of Wuhan was sealed off in response to the evolving coronavirus epidemic. We had spent three weeks in Shanghai, teaching within the NYU global university, and, as we departed from a suddenly masked Chinese city, to shift our responsibilities to Italy, we idiotically supposed that we were leaving the epidemic behind us.
On January 30, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus an “emergency of international concern.” In Italy, most of the concerns in late January revolved around people coming from China; there were evolving instructions about whether they needed to self-quarantine, so that NYU students who had not been initially instructed to quarantine, and had been mingling with roommates and classmates, were suddenly told to isolate themselves. By the middle of February, we had one such student living in solitary—isolated—grandeur in one of the guestrooms on the top floor of the Renaissance palace. While he was waiting out his time, we all assembled on another floor of the palace with the staff to meet with the heads of Public Safety at NYU, who were visiting our site to do some disaster planning. They took us through some scenarios—a serious car crash, students dead or injured—asking us to figure out who would do what job in handling a crisis, and encouraged us to write down our different contingency plans.
On February 14, we took ourselves out to a Valentine’s Day dinner in a restaurant we had never tried before, Padellaccia, where the waiter told us rather sternly that we should not mess up the flavor of the truffled pasta by adding cheese, as so many people are wont to do, and that we should not profane the beefsteak—the iconic Bistecca alla Fiorentina—with olive oil or salt. With meat of this quality, he told us firmly, a little pepper was sufficient. The restaurant was very much a family operation; his mother was the hostess, his father the butcher who made the special sausages, which we promised to try on our next visit. The next week, Perri attended a lecture, held at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, the oldest hospital in Florence, founded in the thirteenth century by Beatrice’s father (yes, that Beatrice). The lecture, in honor of Black History Month, was “An African American Doctor at Firenze La Bella—Sarah Remond’s Transatlantic Journey,” and traced the Italian years of Sarah Parker Remond, a prominent lecturer and abolitionist, originally from Massachusetts, who studied medicine at Santa Maria Nuova during the nineteenth century and went on to practice as a physician in Florence. The lecture hall at the hospital was—predictably—a place of dignity and Renaissance beauty, and the atmosphere was tranquil; there was some spirited discussion afterwards about other important abolitionists who had passed through Florence—some of them, we were told, are buried in the English Cemetery.
In retrospect, of course, all of this takes on the character of the perfect sunny day at the beginning of the horror movie; that moment, in retrospect, seems both full of sadness for a wonderful world now lost (restaurants, public lectures, and tranquil hospitals) and also imbued with that retrospective sense of complete cluelessness: how could we have been so unaware of what was about to happen? At NYU Florence, at Villa La Pietra, the spring courses were up and running. We welcomed a group of European students who would be spending the semester in Florence, rather than in NYU Shanghai, now closed on account of the coronavirus. But Shanghai now seemed so far away.
And then, over the last weekend in February, while we were actually in New York, the coronavirus outbreak began dramatically in northern Italy. On February 23, a number of small towns were placed on rigorous lockdown, and Carnevale in Venice was canceled. The next morning, the decision was made to suspend in-person classes at NYU Florence and send the students home immediately, changing all the classes to online, and hoping that it would be possible to start classes again in person at the end of March. An email went out to all the students, Monday afternoon New York time, but close to midnight in Italy, telling them this. Perri taught a graduate journalism course in New York and then caught an afternoon flight to Paris. In the taxi from the Florence airport to Villa La Pietra, she heard in a news report that the first case of coronavirus had been identified in Florence. It was another warm day, and the grounds of Villa La Pietra looked wonderful; there was a student walking around with a camera, taking farewell photos and weeping.
Many students—and some of the faculty and staff—wondered whether this decision to close up shop and send everyone home was a rash one. Other study-away programs in Florence were not closing—not yet. Students wanted to know if they could go join friends at other campuses—Berlin, Paris, London? They wanted to know if they could go back to New York City and finish out the semester there? One by one, we got the students sorted out as best as we could, urging them not to stay in their Florence housing, encouraging them to go home to their families, helping them get reimbursed for extra expenses, telling them over and over—and meaning it—that we hoped we could reconvene in April and give them the most beautiful Italian month of their lives.
When Perri flew back to the U.S. on February 28, there were some people in the Florence airport and at Charles de Gaulle in Paris who were wearing face masks. On arrival, the only thing that she was asked about was how recently she had been in China; fortunately, she could show from her passport that she had left China more than two weeks earlier. There were no rules—or even suggestions—that people coming from Italy should self-quarantine, but the following week, the CDC asked everyone who had been in Italy, China, or Iran in the past 14 days to do just that. On March 4, Italy closed its schools and universities; by March 9, the entire country was on lockdown.
In 2019, the American consulate in Florence celebrated its bicentennial; its presence dates back to the period following the Napoleonic Wars, when the defeated Napoleon was in exile on St. Helena, and the pieces of what had been his Italian kingdom were being restored to their former dynasties. In 1819, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand III of the Habsburg family, accepted Giacomo “James” Ombrosi as American consular representative. His responsibilities included helping to arrange access for Americans to the Uffizi collections, and, perhaps most notably, he assisted Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School. To mark the 200th anniversary of Florentine-American diplomatic relations, the basilica of Santa Croce was sponsoring, together with Ellis Island in New York, an exhibition and ongoing discussion entitled “Sisters in Liberty.” The metaphorical sisters are Florence and America, but the specific sisters are actually two statues. Not only does Santa Croce contain Giotto’s frescoes and Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel, not only does it contain the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, and Rossini, but it also has a nineteenth-century sculpture by the Italian sculptor Pio Fedi called The Liberty of Poetry which resembles (and anticipates), though on a much smaller scale, the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. It’s a sisterhood that creates perfect educational opportunities for a program like NYU Florence, and back in the fall, when people still went to churches and museum exhibits, we sent a few of our students to Santa Croce so that when they went back to New York for spring semester they could, hypothetically, have participated in public outreach for the Ellis Island exhibit.
In fact, our students catch sight of another work by Fedi every time they get on—or off—the bus which travels along the Via Bolognese between Villa La Pietra, up on the hill, and Piazza San Marco in Florence, named for the monastery of San Marco, which was the home (and is today the museum) of the early Renaissance master Fra Angelico, himself a Dominican monk. We tell all the students to go to the Museo San Marco and learn to love Fra Angelico, as we did when we were 19 (we had never heard of him before). We certainly never knew that the imposing bronze statue of General Manfredo Fanti, a hero of Italian unification—at the center of Piazza San Marco—was designed by Pio Fedi. In fact, we had never heard of either of them.
The sculpture that is the undisputed emblem of Florence, of course, is Michelangelo’s David. In the age of regular transatlantic flights and mass American tourism that commenced after World War II, Florence, with its Renaissance heritage and iconic statue of David, became an inevitable destination for tour groups and, eventually, a favorite placement for study abroad programs. In 1959, Mary McCarthy published a polemical essay, first in The New Yorker, and then as a coffee-table book, The Stones of Florence, referencing Ruskin’s nineteenth- century work of Venetian art history. McCarthy staked out a fiercely intellectual perspective on the city, even as Florence adapted to the mixed blessings of mass tourism (she complained, in the book, about the crowds, the traffic, and the summer heat). Last November, when international academic conferences were still being held, we hosted a symposium at Villa La Pietra to mark the 60th anniversary of McCarthy’s Stones of Florence. Reuel Wilson, McCarthy’s son, was there and opened the conference; he remembered driving around Italy on a rented Vespa and visiting his mother in Florence when she was researching the book, living with her husband Bowden Broadwater in an apartment they had rented in the Oltrarno quarter. His mother, said Wilson, was “an inspired guide,” though he himself, at the age of twenty, had “found it hard to warm to Florence; the city’s darker aspects—which she acknowledges—put me off.” The final speaker of the day was the writer Gaia Servadio, McCarthy’s closest Italian friend, who called The Stones of Florence “the most intellectual of her intellectual books” and a book that was “full of belief.”
McCarthy’s severe view of the Florentine Renaissance was focused above all on the Quattrocento, the fifteenth century: Donatello for sculpture, Brunelleschi for architecture. Michelangelo she regarded with some ambivalence, citing the louche decadence of his statue of a drunken Bacchus, and suggesting that his too-famous David was somehow implicated in the fraught progress of Western modernity; certainly, she felt that by the time Michelangelo came along, the Renaissance was basically over. Florentine painting she regarded as a lesser art, and Botticelli she dismissed as overly flowery, too much to the taste of the mawkish Victorians, the generation of her grandparents. As a twentieth-century cultural critic, with sharp political perspectives, she wanted to connect with the artistic and civic sobriety of fifteenth-century Florentine republicanism.
Mary McCarthy had called on Harold Acton when she was researching the book, and for the conference we opened the old visitor’s book to the page with her signature. We discussed McCarthy in the Acton ballroom, under the tapestry of Circe’s palace. We toasted her at dinner in the Acton dining room, before one of the collection’s Renaissance treasures, a gorgeous Vasari Holy Family in a spectacularly lavish (original) frame—McCarthy would have regarded the whole ensemble as frivolous. She might have been more interested in the Actons’ relief tondo of the Madonna from the workshop of Donatello. Every page of The Stones of Florence is a challenge to the reader to form her own aesthetic opinions of what she finds in Florence.
The Uffizi, where the largest crowds gather before Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus, was of minimal interest to McCarthy, who believed that the essence of Florence was contained in two museums of sculpture: the Bargello and the Duomo museum, that is, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The current director is Monsignor Timothy Verdon, a Roman Catholic priest and brilliant art historian from New Jersey who has lived in Italy for more than fifty years, almost dating back to McCarthy’s time in Florence. He has masterminded the design and construction of one of Europe’s most thrilling new museums, completely transforming the humbler old Duomo museum that McCarthy visited in the 1950s, and that we visited in the 1970s. The collection includes the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sculptures that belonged to the original façade and exterior walls of the Duomo—and now also the newly restored bronze doors that were created for the baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberti after beating out Brunelleschi in the most famous art competition of the early Renaissance. Outside the baptistery, replica doors look across the piazza at the façade of the cathedral: copies of the Ghiberti “gates of paradise” facing what is, in fact, a relatively new nineteenth-century façade—Victorian neo-Gothic—that was attached to the early Renaissance cathedral. Inside the museum, however, the original baptistery doors look across the principal museum hall at the original sculptures from the façade, arranged—and this was Monsignor Verdon’s brilliant conception—along and upon a large-scale model of the original façade which covers an entire wall of the museum, a façade which has not been seen in Florence since it was torn down more than 400 years ago. The designer of the original façade and the principal sculptor whose work constituted that façade (“adorned” would be the wrong word) was Arnolfo di Cambio, who began work on the Duomo in 1296, the age of Dante and Giotto, as the late Middle Ages were just beginning to give way to the new values of the Renaissance in Florence. The cathedral would be completed and crowned with Brunelleschi’s dome in 1436, the biggest dome constructed since ancient Roman times. Contemporaries doubted that it would be able to support itself.
A scant century and a half later, in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, Florence tore down the original Arnolfo façade of the church, with its statues, anticipating the construction of a more “modern” façade to fit the Roman Catholic spirit of the times, the height of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. This would seem to us like an act of brutal vandalism, and it is worth remembering that at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Bramante, working with Pope Julius II in Rome, did not hesitate to undertake the demolition of Old Saint Peter’s—which was a thousand years old, dating back to the age of Constantine the Great—planning to replace it with the Renaissance construction of New Saint Peter’s, as we know it today, crowned by Michelangelo’s dome. The notion of historical preservation was barely present in the Renaissance, despite the value placed on classical sculpture and the legacy of antiquity. Florence tore down Arnolfo’s façade and held competitions to design a new one (you can see the designs on display in the museum), but nothing was actually built until the end of the nineteenth century, the cathedral remaining strangely faceless for three centuries.
In the 1950s, when American tourists were crowding around Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia, Mary McCarthy loved the Arnolfo and Donatello sculptures in the Bargello and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. It was not until 2015, however, that Monsignor Verdon’s new museum made it possible to envision clearly how those statues would have appeared as part of the façade of the cathedral. At the beginnisng of the spring 2020 semester in January, we took a group of our students to visit this astonishing museum and showed them the model of the façade of the cathedral as it had once existed, the façade that nobody has seen in more than 400 years, not Thomas Cole, not Pio Fedi, not Harold Acton, not Mary McCarthy. We encouraged our students to think about all the layers and overlays of beauty and history that were there to be seen in the streets, in the churches, in the museums of Florence, and also the vanished beauties of past centuries.
A month later, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo was closed and empty, as was the “Sisters in Liberty” exhibit on Ellis Island, along with all the other museums of Florence and New York. Our students were at home taking Zoom classes with their professors who were locked down at home in Italy. The ballroom of Villa La Pietra, with its tapestry of Circe’s palace and its animal denizens, was empty. The original façade of the Florence Duomo continues to exist in all its original glory in our minds and memories—like the Giotto frescoes in Santa Croce, the Donatello sculptures in the Bargello, the Botticelli paintings in the Uffizi, which we will actually see when we are able to return to Florence, when people are traveling once more, when students and professors can go back to school, when life is normal again. At the current moment of medical preoccupation, of illness and death, we sometimes hope that our students, in the limited time that they had in Florence, were sufficiently touched by its beauty to understand, at least a little, the medical risk of “Florence syndrome”—of beauty so overpowering that it makes you dizzy.
Perri Klass and Larry Wolff