At the turn of the last century, San Frediano was “the place the police wouldn’t go” and the people’s poverty and marginalisation filled local newspapers. The district’s bad rap was, in part, triggered by city officials who eyed the area beyond the Arno as a pretty real estate package. By pushing out the locals and overhauling the urban landscape, they could extend the sheen of central Florence, attract high-end investors and satisfy the grand-tour demand for “a room with a view”.
One of Victoria Slichter’s works in The Oltrarno Gaze series
They didn’t manage it in the end because, as the locals will still tell you, sheen isn’t everything. The saving grace of the district beyond the river can be summed up in one word: craftsmanship. Officials finally realized that, if the city lost its artisans, the city itself would be lost. But true as that may be, there is another reason the people refused to be uprooted, I believe, which can only be traced to the qualities of their character.
“San Frediano is the neighbourhood of the joking people, the artisans, strong and pure. Rough and just blossomed, good-hearted and a bit rotten, they are ready for the fierce quip and the punch,” wrote actor and playwright Alessio Sardelli, in his theatrical tribute to the people of the Oltrarno. “Its people are always ready to ‘roll up their sleeves’, [and work or fight] to the death, if and when there is need…”. And there always seems to be need.
In her portrait series on show at Associazione Culturale Il Palmerino from September 17 to November 2, Florence-based US painter Victoria Slichter gets to the heart of the district’s dwellers in pictures not words. “I paint those in the neighbourhood I have befriended. Those who carve out a place for themselves, despite visible physical or mental illness. The refugee, the gypsy, the man who lives on lottery tickets, not food. And ordinary working folk: the chimneysweep, the woman who fries coccoli, the shoemaker. The Oltrarno Gaze is a portrait series with different sitters, but they all say one thing to me. Everybody has a story and we are all in this together. Before I started, I tried copying a few Annigoni’s works, hoping to learn something good.”
Annigoni was called the “painter of queens, beggars and saints” because he depicted the world’s most powerful and the city’s most destitute. And he did it in Florence, a capital of portraiture since the 1500s. As a jibe against the Abstractionism “plaguing” post-war Italy, he said, “I want regular people to understand my paintings”. Based on her portraits, Annigoni’s art is an aspiration Slichter shares. The Gaze of the Oltrarno is an exhibition for regular people about just that—regular people, because it speaks to the queen, the beggar and the saint inside the eyes of everyone. Even the rough, the rotten and the refreshingly pure of heart.
The Gaze of the Oltrarno
Associazione Culturale Il Palmerino, via del Palmerino 10, Florence
September 17 to November 2. Thursdays to Saturdays, 3- 7.30pm. Admission free.
Those who would like to attend the inauguration on September 17 at 6.30pm are invited to RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reservations required.
Florence in the Making. Artisans and artists in the Oltrarno and beyond
FREE SHIPPING IN ITALY ONLY
Florence in the Making is a photographic journey, further illustrated through ‘snapshot quotes’ from interviews led by author and project coordinator Linda Falcone, as 21 of the project’s protagonists reflect on the values they find most indispensable to their creative process.
To capture the essence of their creative process, 14 women photographers, from the award-winning photography association, Il Cupolone, took to the town, from March to June 2022