There are defining moments in history, when a particular city has become synonymous with a certain kind of artistic vision: such are Florence and the Renaissance, Paris and Impressionism, New York and Abstract Expressionism; contemporary London and young British artists.
How did this come about? Was it competition or friendship between the artists, enlightened patronage, frequenting the same café or art school that allowed those artists to emerge and develop? Is there a particular ‘formula’ or situation that helps to nurture creativity?
On the personal level, what about those of us who live and work in Florence now? We were initially seduced by the city’s reputation, its myths and architecture, its frescoed churches, and art treasures and the harmony of its surrounding landscape. But are we living in a time warp, a city forever bound to its past glories and always glancing backwards rather than forward? Are we in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Talking with various artists who have made Florence their home has been more encouraging than I had expected.
Charles Cecil is a Bostonian who first came to the city in 1966 and has founded a school that promotes the tradition of working from life and learning the techniques of the great masters. For him, living and working in Florence reinforces his sense of the rightness of what he is doing. Artists have always been inspired by and learned from the art of the past, whether it was Michelangelo looking at the newly discovered classical statues or Sargent working with paint in the manner of Hals or Velazquez.
Cecil has created his own context from which to continue his work. But his approach does not suit all artists. Amalia Satzòbal from Colombia has been studying elsewhere in Florence, learning the traditional techniques that she came for, but found them limiting and wants to explore a wider sphere. A fundamental element in an artist’s growth lies in self discovery and she has learned as much from living in the city and the interchange with international students.
London-based artist Mark Dickens has lived and studied in Florence but left because there was no market for his contemporary work. Nevertheless, he comes back regularly because the city and its history are the source of his inspiration. Working at Il Bisonte, a professional print studio in Florence, he felt the almost tangible presence of its ghosts, the artists who had worked there before him—Picasso, Moore and Matta—and feels that the city retains the imprint of this energy.
Florentines for the most part are negative about what the city has to offer artists, as typified by Alessandra Ragionieri, who has lived and worked here for most of her life. She feels that there is no active cultural life or curiosity here and that Florence does not influence her art. But despite these comments, there is an elegance and delicacy in her work that owes a debt to the Quattrocento.
Another Florentine, Giuseppe Bottai, has developed his own strategy. All of us who live in the city have our personal routes for avoiding the tourist crowds or particular road hazards. But for Bottai, walking through the city day and night, having it to himself in the small hours, provides him with unexpected visions and moments for contemplation that then feed into his work. He agrees that there is little encouragement here for artists but feels that it is like a laboratorio that can nourish and inspire.
Maybe you have to come from far away to appreciate what Florence continues to offer, and it is not just the obvious beauties and cultural references. As do other artists, I find a more subtle human side to daily life here that indirectly affects my approach to work. Heather McReynolds, who first came as a student over 20 years ago, agrees. She is inspired by the colours and landscape of Tuscany in general, but it is the dimensions of the city and the relationships it offers that keep her here. There is a symphony of bells as well as the noisy drills of the ubiquitous restoration work.
There is always a mystery at the heart of creation, escaping definition. As Harry Lime said in the film The Third Man: ‘In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace—and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock’.
Artists working in Florence today have a hard act to follow, but they also reflect a different reality. We find that our work is more appreciated outside the city, yet we continue to pursue our individual paths here with passion and dedication.