Florence is a dream that can so easily become a love affair. A gentle basin of arts and artists nestled in the hills of Tuscany for centuries, her lush rolling hills of glistening olive trees and majestic cypresses standing guard over an ancient mystical world. The city’s mysteries reveal themselves one by one to those who come to adore her, whether it be the known landmarks of the Duomo, Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, Santa Croce or the traditional Oltrarno eatery Trattoria Cammillo, the Sant’Ambrogio market, the Ponte Vecchio or the less famous but equally mesmerizing nooks and crannies, hidden bookshops, art galleries or time-traveling courtyards with their thousand-year-old gardens and stones. And just at that moment when one can feel satisfied and “at home”, having experienced much that Florence has to offer, something so stunning suddenly happens that one becomes breathless and wordless, the only expression being tears of wonder and joy. And so it was on the day I was invited to a cozy burgundy house overlooking the Duomo nestled on the edge of our magical basin of dreams.
I was greeted at the angled green wooden gate housed in a rustic stone arch by an elegant diminutive lady with a shock of golden hair. Some might say the lady was in her later years, but her shining eyes displayed the youthfulness of a young girl. There was an immediacy and presence about this signora that was unlike many a Florentine nonna, skeptical until one proves that one’s intentions are genuine. The lady introduced herself as Elena. She was worldly and familiar all at once, but I wasn’t certain why.
As we sauntered beyond the gate into Elena Renzoni’s garden, she shared with me that she and her husband had built the house from the ground up many years before. Her husband was no longer with us, she said, having died aged 95 in 2018, but even as Elena confided, she walked slowly as if there was a looming presence by her side.
We arrived in the garden and it was as if Brunelleschi himself was giving us a personal tour, for there before us, at eye level, was the Cupola in all its grand but delicate glory, with the whole of Florence surrounding the monument at arm’s length, as if one was sitting at a magnificent piano keyboard, the Duomo being the musical score and all of Florence the keys. I could only stare and it took a moment for me to notice Elena’s wry smile. I wondered if Elena had ever met Brunelleschi in some fever dream. For an instant, I was certain she had. Little did I know.
To the side of the garden was an elongated villa room with an open glass door. As we entered, a baroque divan stood to the left and a dining room table to the right, which filled the room, except for works of art, canvasses, photographs and posters laid out in various ways, in stacks against walls, one of a very handsome man on an easel, a photo of the same man hanging on the wall, and the iconic signature NANO everywhere. Along the wall there was a counter buffet and on it were photographs of Hollywood royalty: Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Gene Kelly, along with an iconic painting of Marilyn Monroe familiar all over the world. When I had been asked to visit, all I was told was that I was to see the home of a man who designed playbills. Where exactly had I come?
Elena says that she would like to take me upstairs, but I must close my eyes as we go. She gently takes my arm. It was strange, but Elena’s touch was familiar, like that of an old friend. As she guided me, she repeated several times, “Make sure to close your eyes!” “Ok, ok!” I repeated. As we arrived on the landing, she let go of my arm and said, “Now, look.”
I opened my eyes and what lay before me elicited tears I was unable to hold back. It was the moment of recognition to where I had come: the home of one of Hollywood’s most beloved artists, Silvano Campeggi, known as “NANO, the man who painted dreams”, for there before me was the original movie poster of An American in Paris, to the side the iconic image of the movie musical Gigi, which was near the most famous sight of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, set against a burning background, and near that Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, the original West Side Story poster with Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer hand in hand, running together, right along the horses of Ben Hur, so lifelike that I could hear them whinnying as they race, pulling the ancient carriages. There was Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Exodus, Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain, all painted by Nano. If Nano Campeggi was the man who designed dreams, I suddenly found myself in one.
Once again Elena takes me by the hand. Now we are standing over Nano’s work easel, his brushes, paints and canvases, still there, as if he was just out for an errand, and any moment he will be back to continue dreaming and sharing his dreams with the rest of the world. How incredible but fitting that the man who gave the world the Golden Age of Hollywood in paintings was born in Florence in 1923 almost 100 years before not too far from where he had his final home, never having let go of it even though he travelled the world.
As Elena showed me the many versions of the historic, world-famous and familiar paintings of Marilyn Monroe and those red lips, she told the story of how her husband, Nano, had been in the presence of the world’s greatest beauties. He respected them. They loved him. How the whole world wanted to get close to someone like Marilyn, yet there he was just feet from her, painting her, and when he finished, she blew him a kiss. And the violet-eyed beauty Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, she would only allow Nano to paint her; no one else. There was something so beautiful about Elena’s retelling of the stories. Here was her husband whom she had been with since her early twenties, having met him through a mutual friend, spending time with the most beautiful women in the world, yet it was clear that all he had wanted his whole life was Elena, right until the very end, and she knew it.
As we went through Elena and Nano’s house, there were hints of the more than 3,000 posters that he had designed for films. Nano, the son of a typesetter, had early inclinations for art, being able to draw with prodigious talent when still a toddler. As a youth, he attended the Porta Romana art school and his first official painting commission was for the Red Cross to paint American soldiers at the end of the Second World War before they were sent home. These encounters gave Nano an understanding and love for American culture, which he demonstrated in his representations. So, when he went to Rome thereafter, MGM contacted and commissioned him to produce the poster of Gone with the Wind. Over the decades, Nano produced over 3,000 film posters for Hollywood’s famous studios: MGM, Paramount, Universal, Columbia Pictures, RKO, Twentieth Century Fox and more. He created the iconic Hollywood paintings of Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, James Dean, John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart in his white dinner jacket. As Elena showed me image after image, there was such pride in her eyes. She had been with Nano through all of it.
As the Hollywood Golden Era drew to an end in the 1970s, Nano returned to Florence where he continued to invent ways of telling stories on canvas. He was fascinated with horses and painted a series on Siena’s Palio. He painted a commission for the Italian Carabinieri, a portrait of Italian Renaissance hero Salvo D’Acquisto, which appeared on a postage stamp, a series of images of Florence, and so much more. His most famous work in Italy is his portrait of General Garibaldi, hero of the Risorgimento.
Nano has been exhibited throughout the world. His work is recognized everywhere. A film about his life and work, L’Uomo Che Disegnava Sogni (As Time Goes By – The Man Who Painted Dreams), by Simone Aleandri was released in 2018 and can be found online at NOWTV.it. Towards the end of the film, Nano, then in his early nineties, and Elena, dance slowly, the dance of a lifetime of togetherness, embracing each other in front of a huge projection of Nano’s poster of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.
As I stood in the middle of Nano’s studio overlooking the Duomo and his beloved Florence, Elena continued to look for photos, hidden sketches and paintings. I could tell how much she missed him. Yet there he was, an angel not just by her side, but with every turn enveloping her in his warm embrace. Nano had been in the presence of the most beautiful and accomplished storytellers in the world. He dreamed with them and he was able to translate those dreams into something that could be shared with the world. As Elena continued to proudly pull out more and more of his work, I could see him there smiling, as if all of it had been for her. And that is Florence. The artists here share their dreams with the world and, in some way, Florence forever remains their home, their spirits always there.