Contemporary cultural salons

Contemporary cultural salons

The tradition of literary and artistic collaboration live on.

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Tue 09 Jan 2024 2:22 PM

While the concept of a cultural salon has evolved from its historic connotations, there’s no doubt that the culturally inclined will always seek out new ways to come together and share their thoughts on all things sophisticated. (The Office fans might be thinking along the lines of the Finer Things Club!) In Florence, three such spaces come to mind when thinking about where the literary and art worlds meet: Casa Botticelli, the Santa Maddalena Foundation and Cultural Salon Firenze.

Casa Botticelli is a boutique hotel in piazza San Felice and host to rotating art exhibitions titled Camere con vista (Rooms with a view) inaugurated with literary soirées, but these cultural leanings have a historic precedent. The apartments were filled with notable literary figures when it was Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning’s residence between 1847 and 1861. The poets had fled what they felt was the stifling climate of Victorian London to marry secretly and have a son, known as Pen. The refuge they found was in a grand suite of rooms at Casa Guidi, a short distance from piazza Pitti, where they quickly made friends with a large community of English-speaking creatives who had moved to the city for similar reasons.

A great cultural exchange between writers and artists of the era bustled through the apartments, a reference point for esoteric activities that brought the attention of the likes of Virginia Woolf, who recounted the fascinating occupants in her imaginative biography Flush. Told from the perspective of Elizabeth Barrett’s cocker spaniel, we get a sense of the poet’s political involvement and the web of cultural characters, which included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller when we hear: “What was it all for? he asked himself. Who was this Grand Duke and what had he promised? Why were they all so absurdly excited? – for the ardour of Mrs Browning, waving and waving, as the banners passed, somehow annoyed him”. Equally, their daily activities in Casa Guidi are referenced: “Mr Browning wrote regularly in one room; Mrs Browning wrote regularly in another.”

The space ultimately became the Botticelli family home, where it was divided into different properties, one of which is the period residence we see today. The rooms once occupied by these writerly wanderers have once again been devoted to cultural endeavours, with owner Eleonora Botticelli collaborating with Ester di Leo in a carefully curated set of exhibitions that showcases works by amici artists in the domestic-like setting to give back the sense of a cultural salon when and where possible. The room occupied by Barrett is now owned by Eton College, with what was Browning’s studio forming part of the property owned by the Botticelli family since 1970. Casa Botticelli often hosts photographers, teachers, researchers and others engaged in cultural roles in its capacity as a period residence.

While on a long walk, Eleonora and Ester decided to devote the communal areas of the apartments to art, commencing a series of exhibitions by female artists in honour of the former occupant in October, November and December 2023 respectively. What the three artists have in common is not the technique or the expressive languages used, but the common experience of the city and the close network of interpersonal relationships that have always been at the basis of the Florentine cultural environment. The first display was by photographer Lucia Damerino, followed by the embroidered canvases of Muia Parapini and, finally, paintings by Chilean-Italian artist Daniela Meza Sigala, who displayed works on the poetry and life of the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral in an apt choice to conclude the series given the space’s poetic past. Titled Ternura, taking from Mistral’s 1924 work, the artist “was inspired by her works because she is a poet who was a teacher. She loved Chile, and she fought for everyone to have an education”. A work specifically dedicated to Elizabeth was made for the occasion. “She often wore black, so I represented her in that way, through silhouette.”

For those seeking sociability and intellectual exchange, the invitation-only Cultural Salon Firenze group is a reference point with monthly meetings to inspire and share cultural experiences, continuing an easily recognizable contemporary take on the traditional cultural salon encounters. For another current cultural salon of sorts, there’s the Santa Maddalena Foundation. The fascinating writer’s retreat hiding in Donnini, a short distance from Florence, was started by Beatrice Monti della Corte following the death of her author husband, Gregor von Rezzori, with the idyllic stone tower laced with ivy and book-lined walls of the Tuscan farmhouse serving as a siren’s call to writers and artists since its foundation. Names such as Sally Rooney, Deborah Levy, Joshua Cohen and hundreds more have found sanctuary in the comfortable cultural fold, and its ongoing role as a refuge for some of the leading literary figures of our time ensures that the communal feel of cultural salons is continued in a new guise.

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