An interview with Antonina Bargellini

Daughter of ‘1966 Flood Mayor’ Piero Bargellini

Elia Celestina Della Chiesa
February 8, 2007

‘How fortunate indeed is your Firenze, to have as Mayor a man like you, so sensitive to her beauty’

Jacqueline Kennedy


Assessor of Education, Culture and the Environment under Giorgio La Pira in the 1950s, Piero Bargellini became mayor of Florence in 1966. Fondly remembered by Florentines as the ‘Flood Mayor’, Mr Bargellini distinguished himself for his dedication to Florence and his noteworthy organizational abilities. Bargellini used his home as the operation headquarters where politicians and writers such as Aldo Moro, Ted Kennedy, Saragat and Montanelli were received during the days following the Arno tragedy. Elected senator in 1968 and later appointed judge, he was a prolific writer throughout his entire life, authoring no less than 120 books. He was also founding editor of Il Frontespizio, an important cultural magazine which gathered together noteworthy Italian writers like Carlo Bo, Mario Luzi and don Giuseppe De Sica. The sixth daughter of Piero Bargellini, Antonina ‘grew up’ in Palazzo Vecchio. She accompanied her father on many official visits including the Mayor’s 1966 trip to the United States to raise funds for victims of the flood. Antonina has always shared her father’s vocation for protecting and improving Florence. She has dedicated her life to volunteer work in hopes of bettering her city  on both the human and artistic level.


Tell us about your father as ‘Flood Mayor’.


When my father become mayor he said, ‘I’ve made so many love declarations to Florence that in the end I had to marry her. I believe in life-long marriage so I will always be married to this city. In the same way that I’ve only had one wife throughout my life, I will only have one city’. And when the flood came, we really got to witness how strong that marriage actually was.


My father’s biggest worry after the flood was that Florence would be considered a dead city. He made huge, immediate efforts to help the city get back on its feet by giving public money to the people who needed it. ‘This money is burning in my hands’ he would say and then give it away without waiting for bureaucratic approval. The city sued him several times for that. He used to tell us, ‘The flood left me with bronchitis and a whole lot of time in court’.


In the days after the flood, people took to sending him money personally to distribute as he saw fit. Clothes, too. There was a Swiss baron who sent us a frightening amount of clothes—mostly tuxedos and evening gowns!  And my mother would wring her hands and say ‘How can I give these to people? They will throw them back at me’. Santa Croce was a poor neighbourhood. These people were fighting to survive. You couldn’t give them fancy suits at times like those! I remember my brother helping himself to some dinner jackets and I took a camel-hair coat. My father was very severe, ‘If you take one thing, you have to give back two of your own’.


We transformed our basement into a huge centre for the needy, and the door was always open. I mean, half of it had been washed away by the flood, but the other half was always open. We couldn’t give food, though. We had no gas to cook with. But people would bring us food and we’d host whoever came for a meal. People would come here, eat, talk, cry and then get back to work again.


What do you most remember about the flood?


Well, this house was flooded under 6 meters of water and we lived on the top floors. All the neighbours came to stay with us, because they felt safer here. They talked that first night saying ‘Well, at least we live on the mayor’s street; surely it will be the first one he’ll restore’. How wrong they were! My father never would have fixed up his own street first! He had a very different plan for our house. He made it into the symbol of flooded Florence. He’d take powerful people on tours through the house to make them aware of how hard the city had been hit by the tragedy. Santa Croce was one of the neighbourhoods that suffered the most. The only time we saw him in the days of the flood was when he came to tour people through. He had so many people to take care of. We weren’t his only family. The whole of Florence was his family.


The nights of the flood, citizens would spread news through open windows and from rooftops. ‘We have a sick woman here; send news of her to Palazzo Vecchio’. Messages would travel from rooftop to rooftop in the dark. People wanted the voices needed to reach City Hall because Bargellini was there. My father was struck by the faith people had in Palazzo Vecchio.


How has this experience changed your life?


Well, I do want to clarify one thing. I only want to talk about the flood if my stories can somehow have meaning in today’s world. To me, Florence is currently going through very hard times. Today’s tragedy is different from the one caused by the flood, and in a way, it’s almost worse. The degradation of the city and the indifference of its citizens pain me so much.


We must take the time to re-read the flood and see why Florence sprang from her ruins even more beautiful than before. In 1966, we all worked together, united by a real love for this city. People were desperate, but we all worked side-by-side without political or social barriers. All of those young people came from all over the world to help. My father worried about their arrival, ‘My God, he said, ‘where in the world am I going to put them all? What am I going to feed them’? They were children in his eyes-many hadn’t turned 18 yet. There were hundreds and they had nowhere to sleep. But they came with a certain spirit and with an inner strength.A true sense of solidarity. We need to re-introduce that feeling to this city. There are so many problems today. We have to find a way to recreate that welcoming, altruistic spirit.


This city has always demonstrated openness towards young people, and that’s why so many came to help when she was in trouble. Venice also flooded but didn’t receive the same response. Florence has always given a strong message to young people-of hope and Humanism. After all, Humanism was born here. This is a special city.


What problems do you feel are most prevalent in Florence today?


My father considered Florence a beautiful woman who needs to be cared about deeply and in even the smallest of ways. Otherwise, she’ll get worn down, lose her charm and become vulgar. He passed that view onto me. He felt it really important to protect her beauty, maintain her smaller alleys, city-wide lighting and her forgotten gardens—he truly wanted Florence to be ‘the city of flowers’. My God, if he could see Florence now! His goal as a writer was to inspire love for this city. It was the gift he wanted to give people, and it is a sentiment we are really lacking.


I mean, if you look at history you can see that there has been a true change in attitude. We’ve gone from being merchants to being mere shopkeepers. The Florentines have always been merchants, in the highest sense of the word. The Medici, the Strozzi knew how to get wealthy, but as they did, they made efforts to make the city more beautiful. Their perspective was simple: the more beautiful the city, the more wealth it will generate. People will come to it, and the more relationships we form with visitors, the better off the city will be. The merchants earned a lot, but they also built, restored and protected a lot. Our mentality today is drastically different. We are out to take advantage of the city, not to enhance it. In our search for economic profit, we render it poorer than before.


No one can spare a moment of kindness for a tourist, for example. Sometimes I see tourists admiring this house and I go downstairs and ask them if they’d like to see the inside of a real Tuscan palazzo.  Most look at me like I’m crazy, but some accept and leave my home immensely grateful. It takes so little to make a guest feel welcome. Tell them a bit of history or give a smile. Florence has become a vulgar city. We need to stop that and develop and protect our relationships with foreigners. People now come to Florence for three minutes, wait in frighteningly long lines and can’t wait to leave again. My utopia would be to make Florence in 2007 a welcoming city on various levels.


How can Florence become a ‘welcoming’ city?


There’s a lot of immigration today, we can’t negate that, and it’s right that things should be this way. The city hosts people from all over the world, and Florence needs to learn to welcome them.


I am working to bring together a group of Florentines and foreigners-people from Senegal, Ivory Coast, Togo, Algeria and other places around the world. There are many immigrants who have an incredibly high cultural level and they live as outcasts. Our group’s objective is to work together against the degradation of Florence. The city’s physical degradation comes from not having an authentic relationship with the city. It springs from feeling like you don’t belong to it. If people feel no spiritual attachment to the place they’re living, then they automatically lack respect for it. I don’t accuse foreigners: I think the Florentines are the first to show disrespect for their city. But with this international group, we are trying to educate ourselves about our rights and duties so that we can stop acting like subjects and start acting like true citizens. A Senegalese writer said, ‘We want to stop demanding things for our community. We want to start giving back to Florence. Ultimately, we want to give our love’.  It’s about offering concrete love-through various forms of social activism. I’m not talking about forming an association.


We are moving to become part of the solidarity networks that already exist in the Florentine neighbourhood councils. It’s about recognizing and responding to the needs of the people who live in our neighbourhoods. And it’s a movement where Florentines and foreigners work together. If you work together, side by side, you become friends, and forging friendship is the first step in changing society.

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