An interview with Horace Gibson

In 1950 I quit my job in New York and came to Europe, hoping to stay as long as my money held out

Helen Glave
December 13, 2007

Horace Gibson co-founded the International School of Florence, one of the oldest international schools in Europe. In recognition of his work, he received the European Council of International Schools Award for the Promotion of International Education. Now retired from the school’s board of directors, he still lives in Florence and is a leading and active member of the English-speaking community. He has long been associated with St. James American Church, for which he is an avid fund-raiser, and has received the Bishop’s Award for Outstanding Service. In 1998, at a ceremony in Palazzo Vecchio, he was presented with the Tuscan-American Award. He recently spoke with The Florentine’s Helen Glave.



What brought you to Italy and when did you first come?


In 1950, just five years after the Second World War ended, I quit my job in New York and came to Europe, hoping to stay as long as my money held out. It lasted for five months and nine countries, Italy standing out as my favourite. Florence was, however, in the midst of a heat wave and was depressing because of the war damage still evident. Some of the approaches to the Ponte Vecchio were still in rubble, as was the Ponte Santa Trinita. I didn’t tarry long, as Rome beckoned.


Can you tell us something about the foundation of the International School?  What was the idea behind it?


There was no idea behind it except a desire to stay in Rome awhile. In 1952, during my second visit to Europe, I was travelling with a friend from New York, Paul Burke-Mahony, a teacher on sabbatical. Rome, which I have long thought to be the most interesting city in the world, couldn’t have been more attractive, and the weather was glorious. But both of us were low on funds. I went to an Italian friend and asked him if he could think of anything we might do. Immediately he replied, ‘Teach English! Everybody wants to learn English’.


So he helped us find a small basement apartment and to advertise English lessons. Immediately we got three American sisters aged six, eight and ten. They spoke English but of course needed arithmetic, geography and the rest. The next day came the eldest son of the Thai ambassador, speaking only Thai. Two days later arrived two Brazilian boys, speaking only Portuguese.


Suddenly, without even planning it, we had an international school on our hands. Once we were into it there was no giving up, even though it was very difficult financially.


Why did the school move to Florence?


We had received a lot of publicity in Rome because we taught the children of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Peter Ustinov, Valentina Cortese, William Wyler and lots of other actors, directors and writers. But then Ben Hur and Cleopatra were finished and the film people departed in droves. At the same time a British school opened in Rome with very low fees and a British curriculum and took all our British, Israeli, Indian and other nationalities.


We had been approached by parents from Milan asking us to open a branch there as there was no English-language school. Milan didn’t attract, but Florence did. So we transferred lock, stock and barrel to Florence.


What have you been doing since you retired from the school’s board of directors?


Well, I still keep an interest in the school. Apart from that, next year is the 100th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the American Church. I am chairman of the centennial committee and we’re planning a whole year of events. A very erudite, charming man who was an interim priest for about a year did some research and wrote a history of the church right up to the First World War and wanted me to finish it. So with the centennial coming up, that’s what I’ve been trying to do, to finish this history and bring it up to date.


You’ve been in Florence since the early 1960s. How has the city changed since you came?


Well Florence has changed a great deal, especially during the last 20 or 30 years. And it has changed for the worse, I’m afraid. When I first came there were very few cars; there were no traffic lights. Florence is a medieval city and, like many Italian cities, it wasn’t built for traffic.    

And now there’s mass tourism. When I first came here nobody would have dreamed of charging for entering a church: you just walked in. Also the museums were very cheap. Now people have to pay to get into the better churches, and they queue for hours to get into the Uffizi or to see the David.


Another difference is that American ladies used to come here looking for romance and usually found it because young Italian ladies at that time were kept at home. That’s definitely changed! 


During your stay in Florence, is there any one event, positive or negative, that stands out in your memory?


The one great event was the flood of 1966. The school was housed in a farm villa on low ground between Settignano and the Arno. We were saved by the railroad embankment, which acted as a dam. We had a minibus, so were able to take water and other supplies to friends in the centre. I’ll never forget sloshing around in the mud and slime and viewing the dreadful destruction of our beautiful city.

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