Michelangelo. Da Vinci. Caravaggio. Botticelli. These are the artists people generally come to Florence to see. But tucked away outside of the city center is La Tinaia, the birthplace of some of the most world-renowned Art Brut (a term coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet that literally translates to “raw art”).
La Tinaia, established in 1975, is a workshop for artistic expression that is housed in what used to be the San Salvi Psychiatric Hospital. Founded by two artist-nurses, Massimo Mensi and Giuliano Buccioni, the painting and ceramic workshop is committed to initiatives that enhance the human and artistic skills of people with mental health illnesses.
Conceived while searching for alternatives to institutional therapy, La Tinaiawas ahead of its time. The workshop does not incorporate any obvious, structured psychiatric therapy. Instead its philosophy is to provide a casual, open environment that fosters creative expression. There is no formal art instruction for the patients. Rather the staff’s role is to act as a support system, not to teach ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ techniques. The only rule for the patients is that they must consider their work art and complete each piece for possible exhibition. The staff is there to keep the supplies in order and to facilitate discussions about the art that arise among the patients.
The art produced at La Tinaia is unlike anything found in typical museums or galleries. It’s bold, unique, moving and often unsettling. Works produced by artists at La Tinaia have been exhibited at Lausanne’s Collection de L’Art Brut; New York’s Phyllis Kind Gallery; and galleries in Rome, Paris, Cologne and Chicago.
Visiting La Tinaia helps bring the artwork to life. Situated close to the train tracks and down a long, wide, tree-lined road, the location makes it easy to forget you’re still in Florence—the stillness is almost eerie. It’s a place one just doesn’t just stumble upon. In fact, most locals have not even heard of it before. But that’s part of its allure. You get a glimpse into a special, undiscovered world that few have seen.
The exterior of the old hospital is covered in graffiti from the patients. Next to the building’s main entrance is a particularly memorable graffiti ‘painting’. It’s a woman’s figure, in a pose reminiscent to a Degas dancer, with an exaggerated body and a small head. It’s difficult to avoid attaching meaning to the peculiar dimensions of the head in comparison to the body when thinking about the lives and stories of the patients on the other side of the walls.
Upon entering, a visitor will likely see some of the artists/patients loitering in the foyer or conversing in the shared sitting room. La Tinaia is in a separate room and is as a real workshop should be: untidy, cluttered, full of supplies and unpleasant smells—used. Paintings are everywhere, hanging on the walls, stacked in the corners and propped up on easels, and each one has bright colors, strong lines, and loads of energy. A painting of a city scene, with large, black, confident strokes pulled across the canvas to indicate rain, grabbed my attention. Many of the paintings, drawings and sculptures are studies of faces.
Franca Settembrini is one of the more well-known artists in the Art Brut world. Now in her 50s, she has spent little time outside the hospital walls, having been admitted into the psychiatric wards as a child. Her works of art have a strong sense of composition and line. She’s able to marry opposing emotions like sadness and comfort into her paintings and drawings.
As featured in La Tinaia’s 2007 calendar, Settembrini’s painting La Strega di Biancaneve features a ‘witch’ that appears to be hugging herself. Her eyes are directed to the bottom lefthand side of the drawing; she’s staring at something the viewer can’t see. On the surface it’s relatively simple, but a longer look reveals that it’s full of complexities.
Other artists at La Tinaia include Angela Fidilio, Umberto Ammannati, Margherita Cinque, Claudio Ulivieri and Massimo Modisti. Many of the artists at La Tinaia have been creating art there for over 10 years, and some have been there even longer.
La Tinaia is located at via San Salvi 12. It’s open from 9.00 to 15.00, Monday through Friday, closed on Saturday and Sunday. It’s possible to call ahead of time to make an appointment to get a tour; however, most of the staff do not speak any English. The website, www.latinaia.org, in Italian, provides a complete listing of the artists as well as a record of the past exhibitions. For more information call 055/5263578.