Many of us “expats” have fallen in love with Florence and made the city our home, but few, if any, will have had the insight, drive and determination of Jane Fortune to search, discover, retrieve, restore and present to the city an overlooked and invisible part of its history, making visible the works of Florence’s women artists through the centuries. At a special evening ceremony on Wednesday 2 November in the Palazzo Vecchio, which has been Florence’s Town Hall since the thirteenth century, the Mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, bestowed the city’s highest honour, the Fiorino d’Oro, upon Jane for her work as Founder and Chair of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation.
The ceremony at the Palazzo Vecchio was a personal honour for Jane and a tribute to her singular devotion to the adopted city for which she will work, as she said, “until my last breath”. It was also a recognition of the important work done by AWA. But it had a further significance. It also brought Florence’s women artists into the heart of the city’s political and cultural life both symbolically and actually.
In the grand and imposing Salone dei Cinquecento decorated by the great male artists of the Renaissance, where it is said that Leonardo’s original frescoes lie behind those of Vasari and we are surrounded by the sculptures of Michelangelo and Bandinelli, we were reminded that the women artists of Florence are an essential part of the city’s artistic heritage as Mayor Nardella praised Jane Fortune’s work and we saw a screening of the AWA documentary “When the World Answered” about Florence, Women Artists and the 1966 Flood.
It was a week when Florence celebrated the spirit of unity and solidarity in the face of misfortune and disaster as it commemorated the flood of the Arno 50 years earlier on 4 November 1966: one of the worst in the city’s history when 101 people were killed and millions of masterpieces were damaged or destroyed. Throughout Florence, the city has been remembering the flood, which wreaked havoc on people’s lives and Florence’s artistic heritage but also awakened a spirit of solidarity that caused people to come from all over the world to help in any way they could. Florence has been remembering the “Angeli del Fango” (Mud Angels) – Italians and foreigners who helped to save the city and its artworks. So the decision to award Jane the Fiorino d’Oro at this time, when it is usually awarded on 24 June on the Feast day of the city’s patron saint, San Giovanni, gave the ceremony an added resonance.
The day (2 November) was also the opening day of the Global Mayors Conference “Unity in Diversity” with Florence playing host to 60 mayors from all over the world, from Kyoto to Edinburgh, to debate common concerns regarding migration and natural disasters, some of whom were present at the evening ceremony. In his opening speech, Mayor Nardella placed Jane Fortune at the centre of all these events calling her an ambassadress for Florence in the world and “una grande Fiorentina” (a great Florentine) in making the values of art a form of emancipation and calling art not an end in itself but a means for future progress. He emphasised the importance of women in the city’s history, reminding us of the “Elettrice Palatina” Maria Luisa dei Medici, the last of the Medici dynasty, who ensured that the Medici art collection and the contents of the Uffizi would remain in Florence. He was joined in thanking Jane for her contribution by Nicoletta Mantovani, the City Councillor for International Relations.
Jane, in her turn, after accepting the award, paid tribute to all those who had helped to make her vision a reality, including the museum directors who had helped her to find the works by women artists that needed restoring, the women restorers who had worked on them, the forty members of the AWA Council and her partner Bob Hesse who had been supportive throughout. Her love affair with Florence had started in 1962 when she came to the city as a student and had vowed to give something meaningful back to the city. Ten years ago in discovering the work of Suor Plautilla Nelli, she started her quest to make visible the work of the women artists of Florence so that they would find their rightful place in the history of the city, adding that “by giving them a voice, I found my voice”.
In his poem “Little Gidding” T.S. Eliot writes of voices
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
It takes a particular vision and sensibility to hear those voices and to bring them to the world’s attention. This is Jane Fortune’s achievement and if we are now aware of them, it is because of her pioneering work.