Exile in Paradise: Americans in Florence

Americans have been drawn to Florence for more than a century. Photo © hidden europe
Americans have been drawn to Florence for more than a century. Photo © hidden europe

A dense web of connections links America with Florence. Some argue it massively invigorates the Tuscan city, while others aver that Florentine life has been distorted by the American impact on the city.

What view you take on the American influence on Florence, there is no doubt that the Italian city (as seen through American eyes) has most certainly made its mark on American life and even the American soul.

Charmed lives on the banks of the Arno

American writers and artists have been inspired by the city’s artistic and literary heritage. Florence, with its plentiful supply of cheap marble, attracted American sculptors aplenty. The American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne captured the views of millions of his countrymen when he wrote of Florence: “I hardly think there can be a place in the world where life is more delicious than here.”

“Americani a Firenzi” is open through July 15, 2012. Photo © hidden europe

Successive generations of Americans have flocked to Florence in search of charmed lives. 150 years ago the literati visited and later the artists. Nowadays the transatlantic pilgrims are more likely to be well-heeled couples who judge that Florence deserves at least a night or two on a whistle-stop tour of old Europe. (Gucci and Prada perhaps possess greater magnetism than the Uffizi or High Mass in the Duomo.) Or their daughters, taking time out on a junior year abroad to jog along the bank of the Arno, isolated from the Florentine soundscape by their iPods or MP3 players.

The Palazzo Strozzi: Americani a Firenze

We were in Florence just before Easter, arriving as always in fear of the crowds and tourist tumult. But it was fun. Florence is always fun. And we stumbled on a exhibition that nicely explores America’s relationship with Florence.

Running at the Palazzo Strozzi until July 15, 2012, Americani a Firenze maps the strong ties between the Old and the New World that have found particular expression in Florence and its Tuscan hinterland. It is a chance to see the work of the American painters who in Florence engaged so powerfully with the Impressionist movement.

City of shadows and mysteries

Writing in the preface to The Marble Thorn (1860), Nathaniel Hawthorne remarked on how easy he found it to write in Florence, yet how difficult it was back at home. Of his native America, he wrote “there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque or gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity.”

It is those shadows, those mysteries which so inflect the Florentine spirit and Tuscan landscapes that were later to make so deep an impression on American artists like John Singer Sargent. Men like Sargent and Henry James, women like Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton, dreamt the Florentine dream and helped remind the folk back home that Europe deserved a visit.

It is this story of cultural interaction that the current exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi so perfectly evokes.

About the author

hiddeneurope
About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.
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