Women whose art helped rebuild Florence

Paola Levi-Montalcini

Jane Fortune
November 6, 2014

In October 1943, Paola Levi-Montalcini and her twin sister, Rita, boarded a train in Turin without knowing exactly where they would get off. Decades later, her sister would be a Nobel Prize-winning scientist while Paola Levi-Montalcini would be one of twentieth-century Italy?s most significant abstract painters and one of the many artists who contributed works after the flood of 1966 devastated Florence.


Those accomplishments, however, were still a world away. In 1943, the Nazis had just invaded the twins? hometown of Turin, and Italians of Jewish descent risked slave labor or death. Paola had a friend in Florence who knew someone willing to house them. They would use the different names and false papers provided by the partisans to hide their true ethnicity.


There, after nearly 10 months in hiding in their small flat on via Cavour, they heard the Bargello?s great bell, La Montanina, calling Florentine citizens to rebel against the Nazis. That the bell tolled was largely due to the efforts of art historian Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, then head of Tuscan Resistance. The Florentines took to the streets to free their war-torn city, inspiring Levi-Montalcini?s most famous painting, The Walking City.


Two decades later, the Montanina once again rallied the people of the city. On November 4, 1966, the Arno had flooded and transformed the sleeping city into a swamp, engulfing much of Florence under 600,000 tons of mud, water and oil.


Within 10 days, Ragghianti, who had abandoned politics and become director of La Strozzina art gallery, mobilized a different kind of army: contemporary artists from around the world who wished to support Florence after the disaster. ?he idea occurred spontaneously,? Ragghianti writes, ?to ask artists to channel their feelings in a direction that expressed their hope that Florence?s artistic life might rebound in the readiest and most vigorous way possible, by offering the stricken city artworks that would substitute those that had been lost or damaged ?? Levi-Montalcini was one of the first to respond to Ragghianti?s appeal, which ultimately brought together 247 artists.


Works by some of these artists, Carla Accardi, Titina Maselli and Antonietta Raphael Mafai, have all been recently restored by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation and are now on display at  Florence's Museo del Novecento. Along with many others, the painting that Levi-Montalcini contributed will be restored and exhibited in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood, in 2016.


When the World Answered: Florence, Women Artists and the 1966 Flood, my newest book, co-authored with Linda Falcone, showcases the lives and works of the many women who, like Levi-Montalcini, responded to Ragghianti?s appeal. Each artist?s unique story is one of challenges and triumphs and offers insight on what it was like for women producing art in Italy in the mid-twentieth century. 

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