The home in which I live in the hills of Florence had its first stone laid in the year 1120 on top of a hill overlooking the city’s mystical basin. The name of the family whose members laid that first stone was Compiobbessi, who originated from the small village down the hill called Compiobbi. Having driven through the town on various occasions, I have often looked up the hill to the house in which I live and wondered about the Compiobessi who took a look up the way and said, “The neighbors are driving us crazy, they’re loud, the sheep make a mess, the goats eat our vegetables, across the street the neighbors are always fighting… ‘bread WITH salt, no, bread WITHOUT salt,’ we need to get away from this racket. There. Up there! Up the hill!”
Only five families and 902 years later, as now the sixth family to be in residence, I look down the hill and wonder about the trek of centuries and lives that followed. There’s a grand story in that for another time, but in the meantime, a little less than 900 years later, I had the opportunity to be my little blip in this otherworldly mountaintop’s history. At the time, a member of the previous owner’s family stood with me on the terrace overlooking Florence’s Duomo and said, “We have been happy here for 250 years. Look after it for us, as we did for the families before us, as the next family many years from now will look after it for you. Know that once you have been here, your spirit never leaves, and we have all looked after each other, and will continue to do so through time. And if ever you feel like a little escape, just down the hill, right there, is our city that I like to call a small and soft Paris.”
I found that moniker unusual, but so was Fiammetta, who would be that last person from the previous family to be with me on the spot, before I became the “current” family. Fiammetta was very much her name: a blazing fire with emerald eyes. She was petite and elegant and dressed as if she had just emerged from her “small, soft Paris” for a visit. As we looked down to the mystical Florence basin, I said aloud, “Can you just imagine, Signor and Signora Compiobbessi junior, junior, after the first hundred or so years, here standing exactly where we are standing cursing the architect of the Duomo, Brunelleschi, for putting up this ‘monstrosity and ruining the pure unobstructed view. Well, there goes the neighborhood, and resale value.’”
How not to laugh? Every time I make my way down into what became one of the most magical city basins in the entire world, Florence, as we call her, I often remember Fiammetta’s words: it’s a small, soft Paris. So much of its origins and remaining architecture and beauty is much older than the current Paris we know, and how much of Paris is drawn from Florentine origins? We know for certain that without Marie de’ Medici and her fork that made its way to Paris when she went off to marry, Paris would never know from whipped cream or mousse. And then would it be Paris at all? Not without Marie de’ Medici. And how much of decoration, chiaroscuro and design made its way from Italian artisans into the salons and locales of Parisians? Most, if not all.
So when the opportunity arose to make a film set in Paris in the 1830s and 1840s, about the Romantic era composers Fryderyk Chopin and Franz Liszt, I wondered about the logic of bringing an Italian film crew to a modern Haussmannian Paris, which looks not much like the Paris of the 1830s, which was softer and smaller, like Florence. I wondered, what if Marie never took her fork and stayed put on the banks of the river Arno. Wouldn’t that feel right?
And so it became. We set our work for creating an entire 1830s Paris world within the confines of the ancient original city, recreating locations as authentic as if they were the originals. Artists came from all over to take part, from Amsterdam, the United States, London, from all over Italy, Canada and Israel, and lo and behold, Florence had become Paris, which is really a glorified Florence if one wishes to keep things real!
As Boris Giltburg became Chopin and Debi Mazar became George Sand, and Antonio Lysy became Auguste Franchomme, and Jonathan Silvestri became Eugene Delacroix, Joanna Barouch became Marie Dorval and Francesca Cellini Marie D’Agoult, Anthony Abbott became Heinrich Heine, Eric Nicholson Adam Mickiewicz, and many others became various and sundry in Paris in 1833, I couldn’t help but think about Fiammetta and her words: “Once you have been here, your spirit never leaves, and we all look after each other.”
That summer some four years ago after Fiammetta handed me the keys, she contracted an illness that would take her a short while later at a most tender age of 54. As I looked at the guests ready to be filmed, dressed in 1830s garb, while Chopin, Sand and many more milled about, I thought, yes, a soft small Paris, and I thought of Fiammetta. And for a brief moment, I was certain that among the guests I saw her shining emerald eyes.
Chopin and Liszt in Paris
Hershey Felder’s latest musical film will air this August 7. Get your tickets here.