Elaine Poggi has been living in Florence for almost 38 years, and for the past 10 years she has devoted her life to giving comfort and hope to patients and their families, visitors, and caregivers in hospitals around the world through her beautiful photographs of nature. In 2002 she established Healing Photo Art (healingphotoart.org), a nonprofit foundation for photography and art in hospitals. By November 2011, the organization’s ninth anniversary, she had placed over 3,000 photographs in more than 200 healthcare facilities on six continents. Elaine’s creative flair and passionate spirit are evident in her talents as a musician, photographer, dancer and scuba diver, and, as of last summer (although you would not think it to see her) a grandmother.
Elaine Poggi first arrived in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station as a young music student. From Sparta, Illinois, she came on a Rotary Ambassadorial scholarship to study for her master of arts in piano performance at Villa Schifanoia and for her diploma at the Cherubini Conservatory of Music. During this time, she met Maurizio Poggi, whom she later married. In 1936, Maurizio’s father, the late Armando Poggi had opened the
first shop of the family business: the Armando Poggi shop (apoggi.com) in via Calzaiuoli, opposite Giotto’s bell tower, offering clients a fine selection of Italian ceramics, Buccellati silver, Murano glass, furniture and accessories, crystal and glass, figurines and collectables. The shop is now embracing its third generation of management: Elaine and Maurizio’s son Andrea is helping to run the family business after recently leaving his job with Microsoft in New York City. ‘It’s very different for me,’ he reflects, ‘but here I have everything I need; my family, a home, a job and a great city!’
Elaine helps with the family business when she can, but her focus is primarily on her foundation. During her experience in 2001 of assisting her mother in last three months of her life, Poggi was astonished by what she called the ‘cold’ and ‘negative’ pieces of abstract artwork decorating the hospital walls. She decided to transform her mother’s environment by assembling many of the photos that she had sent back home over the years, decorating the hospital room with beautiful images of Florentine and Tuscan landscapes. This simple gesture instantly brought both comfort and a sense of joy to both mother and daughter. That, alongside the encouraging comments from other patients and from the hospital staff, set the idea in motion, and Poggi started her campaign to help others in the same way.
Already a keen photographer, Poggi now had a new purpose to her art. She invested in better camera and concentrated on increasing her portfolio to create a gallery for hospitals around the world with images of natural beauty, including beach scenes, underwater shots, nature and wildlife, and of course images of Florence and Tuscany.
The first hospital she worked with in Florence was Careggi. When Francesco di Costanzo, head of Careggi’s oncology department, learned of Poggi’s work, he invited her to speak at the National Oncology Association’s conference in Rome, and Poggi subsequently asked him to join the board of directors of the foundation. From
2004 to 2011, they collaborated in an Italian research project, Beyond Traditional Treatment: Establishing Art as Therapy, supported by an Italian oncology research group, the University of Florence and the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. When the patients were asked ‘What would you most like to change about your hospital environment?’ the majority answered, ‘The bareness of the walls.’
She initially used her own photographs, but for the past three years the foundation has welcomed work from about 100 photographers, who are thrilled to be supporting such a beneficial cause. Hospitals contact the foundation, which then raises the money, via support from donors, to cover the costs of printing, laminating, framing and shipping.
In addition to the United States and Italy, the foundation works with hospitals in countries such as India, Brazil, Japan, Venezuela, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Ghana, where patients are welcomed with scenes of the rolling hills of the Val d’Orcia, alongside other images of nature. Asked about the international impact of her work, Poggi smiles: ‘Everyone is the same, we all appreciate beauty, and I just want to help make a person’s experience in hospital as pleasant as possible.’
A current project is underway at the new Don Gnocchi Rehabilitation Centre in Florence, where there is no artwork at all for the walls. Poggi has raised funds from Italian and American friends to provide over 50 framed photographs, thus bringing colour to the interior spaces.
‘I work in a beautiful building in Florence in our family shop, where the view from our windows cross piazza Duomo, one of the most stunning squares in the world. This view gives me joy and my mission is to share this sensation and its effect with others!’
Where would you take a guest who doesn’t like art?
To the countryside, to Pienza, where there is so much magnificent natural art in the surroundings and great landscapes to photograph.
Best bar for lunch in the city?
I often take friends to Bar Pasticceria Robiglio on via de’ Tosinghi as they have delicious, healthy food and it’s round the corner from the shop.
Best restaurant in Florence and environs?
I love La Giostra on Borgo Pinti.
A place in the city that inspires you?
I would have to say the view from my home across the olive groves and over the city. We are incredibly fortunate to live in such a bbeautiful natural spot near Fiesole in my husband’s family country residence. We recently hosted our daughter Silvia’s wedding there-magical!
Advice for the newly arrived?
Learn the language!
Favourite artwork in Florence?
The natural art of the outdoors all over the city; it’s so beautiful.
Pet peeve about Florence (or one thing you will never get used to)?
I try to stay positive and I adapt well to new environments. I’m lucky to live here!
One thing Florentines will always do better?
Take pride in their appearance and in their home.
One thing the United States will always do better?
‘Get’ my sense of humour and understand me 100 percent!
What’s on your shopping list to bring back when you go home?
Barbeque sauce and baby clothes.
What would you ask Renzi over a coffee?
I would plead to help make the streets smoother so I don’t feel every bump in my Smart car!