FAMOUS EXPATS

Giovan Pietro Vieusseux

A cultural entrepreneur
by Deirdre Pirro   (issue no. 150/2011 / October 13, 2011)

The pursuit of knowledge and business acumen appear not to be mutually exclusive. Consider Giovan Pietro Vieusseux, the man whose scientific and literary gabinetto (?reading rooms') in Florence not only linked Italian and European culture but were also an important resource for those pursuing Italy's unification over a century and a half ago.

 

Vieusseux was born in Oneglia, near Imperia, on September 28, 1779, the first of 12 children in a merchant family of Swiss origin. As an adult, he travelled widely in search of commercial opportunities. Travelling through Europe, Russia, Turkey and Tunisia, he not only soon spoke several languages fluently, but he wrote about his experiences, publishing his Journal Itineraire de mon voyage en Europe (1814-1817). However, in 1819, after the failure of the family business, he moved to Florence. 

 

Assisted by a bank guarantee provided by his brother-in-law's firm in Livorno and well aware of the entrepreneurial possibilities offered by the public subscription libraries that were springing up elsewhere on the continent, Vieusseux opened his Gabinetto Scientifico e Letterario. After a two-month search, he housed it in three reading rooms in Palazzo Buondelmonti in busy piazza Santa Trinita. For a sizable daily, monthly, quarterly or yearly fee, he provided his (then exclusively male) readers with a place where they could meet and discuss newspapers and magazines in their own languages, in particular, English, French, German and Russian. They were usually foreigners on the grand tour or expatriates living temporarily or permanently in Florence. Dictionaries, maps and other books were also available for consultation. 

 

In response to requests by his clients, in 1821 Vieusseux added a circulating (or ?lending') library to his enterprise and, as he lived on the floor above the Gabinetto, he began organising weekly gatherings, strictly by invitation only, for intellectuals and distinguished visitors. The men exchanged ideas about literature, politics and other issues that were of particular interest to Vieusseux, like education, advances in agriculture and recent scientific discoveries. 

 

That same year, with the assistance of Ugo Foscolo and Vieusseux's friend Gino Capponi, Vieusseux published the first issue of L'Antologia, a periodical in Italian that focused on natural sciences, geography and travel. Initially, many of the articles were translated from other languages, but soon the focus shifted to current political and social problems with contributions by some of the best Italian writers of the day. Alarmed by what he considered the periodical's ?revolutionary' ideas, Grand Duke Leopoldo II, the same man who had granted Vieusseux honorary Tuscan citizenship in 1824, closed the journal down in 1833.

 

Nonetheless, always with profit in mind, Vieusseux continued to publish periodicals such as the Giornale Agrario Toscano (1827), the Guida dell'educatore (1836) and the Archivio storico italiano (1842). For a price, he also put objects or the designs and drawings of new inventions on display. In 1824, he became a founding member of the Societ? toscana di geografia, statistica e storia naturale patria, which met at the Gabinetto until it was dissolved in 1833. From the beginning, Vieusseux built up a formidable network of contacts and corresponded incessantly with major cultural figures at home and abroad. In fact, scholars are still editing Vieusseux's huge body of correspondence. 

 

Vieusseux lived to see Italy unified, but the small, bald-headed man with a white beard died, aged 84, in Florence on April 28, 1863. He is buried at the English cemetery in piazza Donatello (see a two-part article on the cemetary in TF 122 and 124). By the time Vieusseux passed away, he had amassed 30,000 names on the Gabinetto's subscribers list over a 40-year period. They included such illustrious foreigners as Schopenhauer, Stendhal, James Fenimore Cooper, Liszt, Mark Twain and Dostoevsky as well as such celebrated Italians as Capponi, Leopardi and Manzoni. 

 

Vieusseux never married. After his death his nephews and heirs, Eugenio and Paolino Vieusseux, took over the Gabinetto; Paolino managed it until he retired in 1867, and Eugenio took over until his death in 1891. The following year, under the management of Eugenio's son, Carlo Vieusseux, the Gabinetto moved to via Vecchietti, but it faced grave financial difficulties as times had changed. To save it, Carlo was forced to transfer the Gabinetto to a bank, Credito Italiano. In 1921, after just two years of managing it, the bank handed the Gabinetto over to the municipality of Florence, which again moved it, this time to the Palagio di Parte Guelfa palace. 

 

Becoming a foundation in 1925, the Gabinetto had many famous directors, including the Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale, who directed the Gabinetto from 1929 to 1938, when he was dismissed for refusing to join the fascist party. In 1940, the Gabinetto moved once again, this time to its current home in Palazzo Strozzi, where it still plays a unique role not only as part of the Florentine cultural landscape but also as an international asset. All this thanks to Giovan Pietro Vieusseux, a canny and enlightened visionary.

 

 

 

 

The Gabinetto Vieusseux is still today the centre of numerous important cultural activities. Its library contains about 300,000 monographs in several languages. Manuscripts, private papers and private libraries donated by leading figures in twentieth-century culture make up the Archivio Contemporaneo, now named after a past director of the Gabinetto, Alessandro Bonsanti; the Centro Romantico specialises in romanticism studies and the nineteenth century. Created initially to conserve books damaged in the 1966 flood in Florence, the Restoration Laboratory continues to restore books and other media like photos and microfilms in the Gabinetto's collections. The Gabinetto also organizes meetings, conferences and exhibitions throughout the year, and in 1995 it resumed publication of the quarterly review founded by Bonsanti in 1966 Antologia Vieusseux (new series). For further information, see www.vieusseux.fi.it

 

 

Nuova Antologia, a periodical that began publication in 1866 in homage to Vieusseux's Antologia, is still published today by the Spadolini Foundation, established in Florence by politician and writer Giovanni Spadolini, who was one of the journal's editors. For additional information, see www.nuovaantologia.it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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