The Contessa is married to an Italian count and has lived in Italy for over 33 years. In 1998, she started Friends of Florence, a non-profit foundation that raises money to preserve Florence’s artistic legacy. The organization has raised millions of dol-lars to fund major restoration projects in Florence, the most noted being Michelangelo’s David, who was recently ‘spiffed up’ for his 500th birthday.
What inspired you to start Friends of Florence?
I think it was my love for Florence. Some people say that the majority of the world’s greatest art is in Italy and that the best of that art-work is in Florence. The Italian government has so much to look after that it just can’t take care of everything. Furthermore, since Italy offers minimal tax deductions for charitable contributions, there’s little incentive for even wealthy Italians to be philanthropic. I know that Americans have a love and an appreciation for this city and its art, and the tradition of supporting the arts, so I decided to set up Friends of Florence as a non-profit organization in the US.
How did you go about doing it?
From our business, I had many clients who became friends. Many of them had fallen in love with the city and were surprised that such an organization did not exist here. We wanted to create an organization where people could give money and receive a tax benefit. It’s quite complicated to be awarded this type of status, especially if you want to raise money in the United States that will be used in another coun-try.
Then we started to establish the board, which included five people from Italy, including Bona Frescobaldi, Piero Antinori, and Simone Rucellai, and three people from the US. Our first meeting took place in New York City in 1999. We realized that if we wanted to really be effective, we needed to prove that we were serious and could develop a project from beginning to end. I met with Antonio Paolucci, Super-intendent of Fine Arts at that time, and asked him what was most urgently in need of repair or restoration. He took us to see the Rape of the Sabine at the Loggia. As we were looking at it, one of the board members asked, ‘Why don’t we restore all of the statues here?’ So that became our first project. It took us 15 months to complete, and now, eight years later, we receive dozens of proposals regarding works that need restoration.
I have read that your ‘advisory board’ includes some of the ‘rich and famous,’ including Sting, Mel Gibson and Bette Midler. How did you manage that?
Through my business and thanks to other board members, I have come in contact with some extraordinary and generous people who love this area of Tuscany and its treasures.
Tell us about the restoration of David.
After the statues of the Loggia, we were asked to restore 22 paintings at the Academia. Again, we were able to raise money and complete the project quickly, which allowed us to then take on the David project. We were very fortunate to be able to take that on. There are some ‘policies’ that the foundation has established to regulate its projects here in Florence. First of all, we document our work so that it can be used for teaching and training. We create a book and DVD to accompany every project. In David’s case, we had a website where people could follow the methods and progress of the restoration. Another innovative thing we do here is to acknowledge donors by putting up honorary plaques near the masterpieces. A group of 11-year-old school kids from Texas read of our projects on the Internet and decided to raise money to restore a bust of Caesar by having car washes and bake sales, not by taking any money from their parents. The director of the Uffizi was so impressed that he gave them three statues, and there is a plaque there that says, ‘restored by the class of 2011.’ These kids came to see it and were so proud. I was so proud. At such a young age they had become patrons of the arts. I imagine them coming here in 30 years to show their children what they had done.
That has been your greatest accomplishment?
The accomplishment has been starting Friends of Florence. I’m very happy about what we have done and the way we have done it. We’ve developed teaching tools and, for instance, we sell the DVDs and use the money to maintain and preserve the David. Virtually all of the money we raise—99.6 percent—is used for restoration. I am most proud that we can restore art that may not be as ‘charismatic’ as the David, and doesn’t get as much attention. To me, these gems are like the ‘neglected children’ that I get to save.
About the David, do you think Michelangelo sculpted him before or after the stone was thrown?Before.Why?The intensity. I was able to go up on the scaffolding and look into his eyes. And I am not afraid of heights, but I became dizzy (this happened to the restorer also). He doesn’t look that tall, but when you are up there, there is a grandeur and power that overtakes you. And the fierce determination that I saw in his eyes, the way he is holding his breath, convinced me that it had to be in anticipation.