Foreign artists of many mediums have worked and studied in Tuscany for centuries, seeking inspiration from its masterful art and evocative landscape. Yet, who are some of the creative personalities that have produced art here during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? To find out, head up to Fiesole and take a peek inside the Casa Colonica in the Villa Peyron’s 40-acre garden, where author, art historian and collector Richard Fremantle has established The Fremantle Foundation for Foreign Artists in Tuscany (FFAST), an organization for contemporary creativity with a focus on the area’s ‘non-native’ artists.
Fremantle’s collection showcases 150 twentieth-century artists (mostly British and American), many of whom have donated their works in hopes of seeing the organization grow. Though a tribute to creative expression and not artistic excellence, it does host numerous notable pieces by renowned artists, among them John Singer Sergeant, Richard Maury and fresco painter Ben Long.
It is one of the area’s most populated venues for art by women with 45 works, such as Girl with a Woman and Doves (1918), painted by Elisabeth Chaplin as a wedding present to her sister. Chaplin, a French-born Nabis artist with multiple works at Florence’s Gallery of Modern Art, lived and painted at Fiesole’s Villa Il Treppiede. There are two prints from the Don Quixote Attacking Windmills series by Maya Einstein Winteler (1881–1951), Albert Einstein’s sister, who worked in Florence in the late 1930s.
It is also home to works by living artists. Several works by Susan Nevelson, a painter and textile designer with Ken Scott, who has lived in the city for over 60 years, are on display. (She’s the former daughter-in-law of sculptor Louise Nevelson; read more about Susan here: http://tinyurl.com/axgahy5.)
Mapping the Interior, a work on linen is by South African artist Rose Shakinovsky (b.1953), who currently produces art in tandem with her partner Claire Gavronsky (b.1957), under the name of ‘Rosenclaire.’ Since 1985, they have lived in Cerbaia, south of Florence, where they run an internationally known artists’ residency program.
Also look for a bronze statue called Sorpresa by Maria Gamundi (b.1952), a Venezuelan artist who resides in Pietrasanta. Her works—in marble, bronze and terracotta—are odes to beauty and the female form. American sculptor Laura Ziegler (b.1927) donated her Young Girl in glazed terracotta. Ziegler, whose works are exhibited at the Hirshorn museum in Washington, DC, also has a studio in Pietrasanta. She has lived in Lucca for over 30 years with her husband, composer Herbert Handt.
‘Artists have been extremely generous with us,’ Fremantle says. This eclectic 350-piece collection, exhibited in 10 rooms, is not organized chronologically or by style. Upon entering the Casa Collonica, abandon all hope of deciphering why certain artworks (some unlabeled!) are displayed together.
Fremantle rejects the idea of conventionally curating the venue. ‘In order to be part of this museum,’ he says, ‘there is only one criteria: to have produced the art in Tuscany. Some of the art is stunning. Some is not,’ Fremantle explains. ‘I accept what is given to me. We are not interested in good or bad pictures. We are interested in artists. It’s about people who make things—sculpture, painting, poetry, essays, etchings photography, even cinema.’
To this end, Fremantle has filled the Casa Collonica’s empty wall space with hundreds of newspaper clippings and computer printouts about foreign artists’ achievements. The museum’s library and display cases have 400 books by such Tuscany-inspired authors as D.H. Lawrence, Vernon Lee, Harold Acton and Mark Twain, as well as works by filmmakers and composers, including Herbert Handt and Sting, and garden designers such as Cecil Pinsent and Katie Campbell. One display case holds Fremantle’s own publications, as an expert in the early Florentine Renaissance specializing in Masaccio.
But how did a New York scholar suddenly decide to establish a museum like this one? ‘I had originally wanted to do a show at the Stazione Leopolda,’ Fremantle remembers. ‘When that didn’t work out, I discussed the museum idea with Villa I Tatti and they recommended Villa Peyron’s Casa Collonica. I’ve been here since 2006. The building was in bad shape as no one had been in here for 50 years. It still needs work, but I’ve tried to preserve the feel of an artist’s studio.’
Whether an original studio or a museum-in-progress, the scope of Fremantle’s dream deserves community support. A collection of contemporary works by foreigners is otherwise lacking in Florence, or even in Italy. ‘One day, the museum will be a real monument to foreign artists in Tuscany, starting from the Etruscan times. The Etruscans were foreigners to Tuscany as well! Florence is full of artists and nobody gives a damn about them! I work to create something non-commercial. Everyone thinks I’m crazy. That’s fine. I may well be crazy. Again, when all is said and done, this is about the artists.’
In addition to the Casa Colonica, the park also includes Villa Peyron, originally built on Etruscan ruins. Expect lovely views of Florence to the south and a formal, multi-terraced Italianate garden, with Venetian sculptures, fountains and a pool that’s fed by natural spring water. Springtime is the best time for visiting FFAST, which observes park hours.
The Fremantle Foundation for Foreign Artists in Tuscany (FFAST)
Casa Colonia, Villa Peyron – Via di Vincigliata 2, Fiesole
Tel: 348/5226068, email@example.com