There is a great risk to the world of art as we know it.
In Italy, funding for cultural preservation has always been a little murky. Just last year the EU pulled over 57 million euros for historical preservation funding form Italy over local mismanagement in Sicily, Calabria and Campania. It’s not just Italy though, the USA seems apt to join the path of undermining the arts which leads to a very uncertain future, though I dearly hope that I am wrong.
However in Italy, the light at the end of the tunnel is that in addition to the help of organizations like Save Venice, Friends of Florence, Advancing Women Artists Foundation. Additionally, there have been huge crowdfunding campaigns taking place in the past few years. This added by private sponsorships like that of Rome’s Trevi Fountain restoration in 2015 by fashion house Fendi or Bulgari’s restoration of the Spanish Steps (which also led to controversy as they suggested imposing a plexiglass barrier after the restoration, this thankfully did not come to fruition). Luckily just because they provide the money, doesn’t mean they can tell people what they can do with the monuments, after the fact.
Who are these Friends of Florence?
“Art has given us so much, now it’s our turn to give back” says Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, founder and director of a foundation called Friends of Florence.
They are a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit organization supported by individuals from around the world who are dedicated to preserving and enhancing the cultural and historical integrity of the arts in the city and surrounding area of Florence, Italy.
With a city home to 80% of the world’s cultural heritage and not enough national funds to save it, that’s a big pill to swallow and a lot of responsibility. However the determination and will of the ladies of FoF hasn’t waned since they started the organization in the early 90’s. They also work closely with the City of Florence, Italian Ministry of Art, Mayor’s office, along with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to make sure that the art we love and rave about gets the care and restoration it deserves for future generations to enjoy.
I’ve been following their work for some time now after spotting their plaques on various restored artworks since I arrived in Italy in Fall 2005. After over 10 years of appreciating the work they have done so far, it was high time to showcase them on the blog, after all anyone giving back to Florence is also a damn good friend of mine.
So, one pretty morning this past year in the sunlit lobby of the Lungarno Hotel, I sat down with the very friendly president Contessa Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda to see how this organization started its very noble cause of restoring Florence’s artwork.
I brought up the upcoming flood anniversary, November 4th, 1966 which prompted Simonetta, who at the time had already been in Florence since 1973, to say “What gave me the idea to found Friends of Florence is because I was helping out with Save Venice in the 80’s and the 90’s. They were already established and dealing with the effects of the flood that same day in Venice.” In fact, Save Venice has been a charitable organization since 1971 aimed at preserving Venice’s cultural heritage, it currently has an office in Venice and chapters in Boston and California.
Simonetta went on “This had me thinking, why doesn’t anything like exist in Florence?”
After doing extensive research and finding out there was no International organization already in place, the idea of “Friends of Florence” was born. Brandolini and her sister Renee Gardner, born to an American father and Italian mother, started the process of obtaining the 501(c)(3) non profit status in 1998 which is when FOF was officially founded. Their overhead is really low, they only have a few part-time employees (one in Italy, and one in the states) and have a few full and part-time beloved volunteers such as Kate Collins and Alison Gilligan. Their aim of course is preserving and enhancing the cultural and historical integrity of the arts located in and around the region of Florence. The projects are funded by FOF, made up of dedicated art patrons that help support the organization. The aim around 20 completed projects a year.
Regarding funding of projects, the way it works is that the Board of Directors carefully reviews and selects restoration projects, all while aided by an Advisory Committee of internationally respected experts and art historians. Donors are mostly American due to the 501(c)(3) status though Simonetta was quick to point out the generosity of non-Americans, including Ellen and James Morton who have given hundreds and thousands of euros to help restore the south wall of the cloisters San Marco museum.
Saving Florence’s Art: Friends of Florence Projects
Their first major project took place in 2001-2002 was in piazza della signoria, restoring all 10 of the marble statues including Giambologna’s incredible Rape of the Sabines located in the outdoor sculpture gallery that is Loggia dei Lanzi. This loggia is near and dear to my heart. I have spend countless evenings with friends here listening to music, watching art students draw, or even just staring up at the majestic statues rippling in detail. It makes me very proud and grateful to live in a city like this, you can only be awed by the bounty that lies around us.
Other notable projects include twenty-two paintings in the Accademia, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and funding for the diagnostic analysis and maintenance of Michelangelo’s David and Prisoners. Not just satisfied to do big name large projects, they also restore a number of the city’s tabernacles or “street shrines” which are omnipresent around Italy and Florence, here there are over 1200 in total. They functioned for a number of reasons, both as an alter for devout citizens and to provide light during the night. If you look beyond the often dirty exterior you’ll see some of the incredible works of art that lie beneath, you can read more about their place in local society via this great article by The Florentine.
I recently stopped on a walk with Nico and our beagle Ginger at this majestic one on the corner of Via San Giovanni and Borgo San Frediano. It features a tabernacle with a depiction of Madonna, Child and Saints, its restoration funded by the 2004-2012 Florence chapter of FOF (they usually have a little bronze plaque next to the tabernacle).
I also adore the restoration they did of La Maddona della Misericordia (The Madonna of Mercy), a fresco painted by the Bernardo Daddi school in 1342 that can be found in the Bigallo museum. It serves as a great example of one of the earliest depictions of Florence and the Baptistery, the Madonna protecting its citizens. Itself, the Bigallo and its treasured local history, is a place most people miss despite its extremely central position in Florence’s historical center. This particular project also coincided with their first edition of the Salone dell’Arte e del Restauro prize, a biennial grant consisting of a €20.000 check to pay for the restoration of a Florentine work of art.
This Spring Botticelli can Breathe
You might have seen Friends of Florence in the news in 2016 for being part of the newly restored “Botticelli rooms” in the Uffizi Gallery aimed at bettering the flow of visitors due to ever-increasing visitors numbers, this project is part of a multiyear renovation. This was badly needed as according to La Repubblica in Firenze the number of visitors to the Uffizi has for the first time climbed over 2,000,000. While gawking at “The Birth of Venus” or “Primavera” has been an everyday reality in the Uffizi Galleries, the rooms housing these famous works were in dire need of more space, better ventilation and a lighting system worthy of the art inside, and for the visitors too. Thankfully instead of the city partnering with a famous fashion label and a runway enacted in the Uffizi, it smartly chose to partner with an organization like FOF.
In addition to funding by the Italian government private donors are also welcomed which is where FOF (acronym for Friends in Florence) stepped in. According to The NY Times “Friends of Florence, a nonprofit American organization, raised some $910,000 in just six weeks to help pay for the renovation of the Botticelli rooms. The association decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flooding that devastated Florence and Venice in 1966, and chose to focus on these rooms in the Uffizi “that contained such iconic artworks,” said Countess Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, a co-founder with her sister of Friends of Florence.” They broke down the funding according to artworks and donors chose which work to “adopt or contribute towards.” For example, some of the donors for the major painting like The Birth of Venus” gave as much as 250,000 dollars. The restoration amount is decided by experts and the price includes a contingency fee. “Most of the time we always match our budget or even come in a little lower,” Simonetta explained.
If you’re wondering why Florence in particular seems to garner so much attention and support for its works of arts, the Contessa has an answer. “Florence and its art is not just for the Florentines, it’s for for everyone around the world. Especially for Western civilizations.” The city of Florence inspires so many people around the world, who consider it “home” even if they only visit once a year. The future looks as bright as the new lights in Botticelli’s chambers, with so many iconic projects gaining International press and support which help gain awareness. They foresee growth but are ok with it staying small (for now) “we want to maintain the personal connection, with the board members, with donors and our restorers,” Simonetta said.
It’s safe to say that the scope (from large “Botticelli” projects to small tabernacles and intensity of their work over almost twenty years has changed the cultural preservation of Florence is ways never thought possible.
Writing this has me thinking about other times you have seen a generous display of humanity when it comes to the cultural heritage in Florence, much of which can be credited to the Medici Family who were strong supporters of the arts. Perhaps one of the only reasons we even have such a wealth to display is thanks to one of the last remaining Medici women, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who signed a “Family pact” in 1737 with the Lorraines, donating the Medici family’s works of arts to the city under the condition that they could never leave Florentine soil. The first huge step in creating a lasting legacy, and its organizations like Friends in Florence who keep this spirit going.
How can you get involved?
Become an art patron, FOF is always grateful for financial support and consider it way to stay connected to the city you know and love, even if your residence is elsewhere.
Anyone can be involved, just ask to get on their email list!
If you live in Florence locally, join the Florence chapter which will put you on their mailing list to get invites to a number of free and paid events including everything from exclusive private lectures to an annual Easter egg hunt! Just today I was invited to next Wednesday’s inauguration of the recently restored tabernacles in Piazza Piattellina and Piazza Carmine restored by the Florence chapter of FOF. It’s a great chance to listen to lectures by the organization and to hear from the restorers themselves. I’ve been to a number of events which have all been a really enlightening experience.
Also for those who want visit Florence and get an insider’s look at its cultural heritage with Friends of Florence they often do events and trips together with local art historians for FOF doners. Themes in the past included “Piero della Francesca” which explored masterpieces by artist Piero della Francesca from Florence to Arezzo, Anghiari, San Sepolcro, and Urbino. They get access to the palatial homes of Florentine aristocrats that most people don’t have access too.