Bruce Edelstein
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Bruce Edelstein

Like many expatriates, Bruce Edelstein came to study in Florence and stayed for love. But his is a personal and professional success story worth telling for the number of people he inspires, first in his role as a professor at New York University's (NYU) Villa La Pietra, and second,

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Thu 27 Sep 2012 12:00 AM

Like
many expatriates, Bruce Edelstein came to study in Florence and stayed for
love. But his is a personal and professional success story worth telling for
the number of people he inspires, first in his role as a professor at New York
University’s (NYU) Villa La Pietra, and second, less intentionally, as a
protagonist in the struggle for same-sex marriage rights in Italy.

 

 

Always
dapper in a slim suit and shiny loafers, Edelstein looks at ease in the sophisticated
atmosphere of Villa La Pietra. Although he grew up in Long Island, he is a
cosmopolitan New Yorker at heart. Raised bilingual (English and Spanish), he
was fascinated from an early age by culture and language, and Europe, with its
numerous borders separating even more cultures, proved an inevitable draw.

 

He
first came to Florence 27 years ago as an exchange student at the Università
degli Studi di Firenze and returned often thereafter. While pursuing his
doctorate in art history at Harvard, he conducted dissertation research (on
Eleonora of Toledo) in Florence for a year. Towards the end of this stay, he
met Francesco Spinelli, his partner ever since. After three years of
maintaining the relationship by long-distance, he moved to Florence.

 

‘I moved here for
personal reasons, without any particular professional plans, though I have been
very fortunate in developing a career here,’ says Edelstein with modesty. The
fact is, he has risen entirely on his own merit to the position of coordinator for
graduate programs and advanced research at NYU, where, along with teaching
graduate seminars in art history and core courses for undergraduates, he
mentors visiting graduate students and serves as liaison for visiting faculty.
As part of the director’s academic advisory committee, he has a role in
developing the program’s humanities curriculum, including helping professors
develop new courses, which, Edelstein says, is one of the things that keeps him
inspired and up to date.

 

One
can easily understand why students love this charismatic professor, whose
‘bestselling’ course is a seminar on the High Renaissance greats-Leonardo,
Raphael, Michelangelo-heavy with site visits and field trips. Edelstein’s
popular appeal was reinforced by his appearance on a History Channel program in
which he was interviewed as an expert on Leonardo. While he has yet to achieve
TV-star status, his mechanic recognized him when the show aired in Italy, which
prompted a discussion on art, conspiracy, history and the like. ‘Situations
like this do give one faith in Italy’s deep-seated connection to culture!’

 

In
June 2012, Edelstein found himself in a rather brighter limelight: he and
Spinelli decided to tie the knot in New York, where same-sex marriage had been
legalized the previous year. Their wedding announcement was published, with a
photo, in the print edition of the New
York Times, and subsequently the story was picked up by Italian local and
national news. Asked why he thinks there was so much media attention, Edelstein
explains that the New York Times’ choice was likely due to his position as an NYU professor and the exotic ‘New
Yorker living in Italy’ angle, while here in Italy the press was more
interested in Spinelli, who is an oral surgeon, as a rare example of a publicly
gay professional. Timing also played a role: their marriage story ran around
the same time as homophobic comments were made by Italian soccer player Antonio
Cassano, providing balance and an opportunity for commentary.

 

Edelstein
and Spinelli feel that it is important to share their story at this time, when
they and many others are hoping for a pan-European change in law that would
accord rights to same-sex couples. The sociopolitical atmosphere has fluctuated
over the years that Edelstein has been here, but with same-sex marriage and
rights a hot topic in the American elections this year (where it is being
treated as a civil rights issue), he says it is inevitable that countries that
look to the States as an example will have to deal with the matter soon, if
only for reciprocity. France is a European leader with its recognition of
same-sex civil unions (‘PACS’), and gay marriage and adoption rights played an
important role in Hollande’s election platform, while in Italy these couples
have no rights at all.

 

As an
expat, Edelstein faced another difficulty that international same-sex couples
have to deal with: with each renewal of his permesso
di soggiorno, which he managed to get for employment reasons, he worried
that he would be forced to leave Italy. With tighter immigration laws and less
opportunity for work, getting a visa is even more difficult now than it was in
the 1990s, a situation that may force some couples to live elsewhere.

 

One
interesting result of the press attention to the marriage is that Edelstein has
been contacted by all sorts of couples seeking advice, following their example,
or expressing happiness for their story. Italy is ripe for change with regards
to same-sex rights, says Edelstein: ‘I’m not as pessimistic [about this] as I
was a year ago; actually, I’m even more optimistic than I was when I first
moved here.’

 

 

FLORENCE QUICKFIRE

 

Where would you take a guest who doesn’t like art?

 

It’s
extremely rare that one of my guests would not be interested in art, or would
be willing to admit that, given that I’m an art historian! That said, I would
do some ‘stealth art,’ by encouraging him or her to visit, say, the Boboli
Gardens, where they would see some great art without feeling like they’re in a
museum.

 

One thing you hate about Florence?

 

‘Mi dica.’ It’s
much less common today, but I will never get used to people not being friendly
or professional when you enter a store. I’m from New York, a city not widely
known for the courtesy of its inhabitants, and yet I’m always stunned when I go
home by the professionalism and courtesy of people who work in service
industries in the United States.

 

Best bar for an aperitivo?

 

Probably
the roof terrace bar at the Continentale, which is all about location, and not
about grazing.

 

Best bistecca
fiorentina or ribollita in
Florence?

 

I
rarely eat traditional Tuscan food in the historic center of Florence, as I
usually find it disappointing. However, if I’m in the city, I find Marione in
via della Spada to be authentic and reasonably priced. For innovative cuisine,
I have lots of other favorites!

 

One place in the city that makes you happy or inspires
you?

 

I am
always inspired by a visit to the Museo di San Marco. It never fails to
astonish and delight me that we have such an extraordinary opportunity to study
so many works by a great Renaissance master in their original context. And,
apart from a few weeks a year, it is rarely overrun by visitors.

 

Best fashion find in Florence?

 

Florence
is full of great shops for stylish mens’ sportswear. One of my favorites is
Luciano Bargiacchi in via Gioberti.

 

Favorite day trip?

 

Just
one? I always love to do ‘the Piero trail’ with visitors: Sansepolcro,
Monterchi and Arezzo.

 

Advice for the newly arrived?

 

Observe
what the Florentines are wearing, how they behave, and what they are eating and
drinking. Respect those local traditions by trying them. And read George
Eliot’s Romola.

 

One thing you tell your students they MUST do?

 

Climb
to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome to see how it was built.

 

Favourite ‘Florentinism’?

 

‘Fritta è buona
anche una ciabatta.’

 

Favourite Florentine, past or present?

 

Perhaps
Benvenuto Cellini: he’s such a blowhard that I never fail to be amused whenever
I open up a copy of his autobiography.

 

 

[This article went to print on September 24, 2012 and was edited online on October 2, 2012.]

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