March 8th is a day on which women are celebrated in Italy and in other places around the world. It is International Women’s Day, or as it’s known in Italy, Festa della Donna. We wrote about this holiday 2 years ago, around the time of the first anniversary of our very first villa scouting trip to Tuscany. On that trip, Brandy and I spent Festa della Donna having a leisurely and empowering lunch with two wonderful women whom we had just met. You can read that blog post here.
To mark the upcoming Festa della Donna, I am inspired to talk about some amazing women that affected Florence’s history long ago, and some that are making an impact today.
First, a little history lesson: On the night of November 4,1966, the city of Florence changed forever. The beloved Arno river, which usually winds peacefully below picturesque bridges, burst from its banks and flooded the city. The flood was massive and caught sleeping Florence completely by surprise. Florentines and the art world would learn a hard lesson about disaster preparedness. In addition to the many lives and homes that were lost, it is estimated that fourteen thousand masterpieces were destroyed or badly damaged.
One of my favorite places to visit in Florence is Santa Croce. This enormous and beautiful Franciscan church sits in a large and lively piazza, in a fun neighborhood a few blocks east of the Duomo. It serves as a pantheon of Italian greats. In addition to the beautiful architecture and artwork, it is the burial place of the likes of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. The church must be low ground in the city, as it found itself submerged under 22 feet of water. The devastation was severe. Vasari’s famous Last Supper was badly damaged and is under restoration to this day. Cimabue’s giant 13th century wooden cross was found facedown in the mud, and experts have done their best to restore its original beauty. These are just two examples among thousands lost or damaged that fateful night.
It is human nature to look for a silver lining. In this case, it isn’t hard to find. The world was reeling from the news of such devastation. Volunteers showed up in the thousands from all over the globe. These young volunteers, mostly students, came to be known as the Mud Angels. They worked tirelessly to find and retrieve artwork and move it to safe locations. Also rising to the occasion were a group of diverse and talented female artists that donated some of their work to the city as a generous gesture to the art mecca that had lost so much and would need to rebuild. These artists would later be known as the Flood Ladies, and they donated over 40 pieces of work in total.
To commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the great flood, the Odeon (Florence’s English speaking movie theater) featured a documentary directed by Linda Falcone called “When the World Answered.” It is based on Jane Fortune’s book about her quest to find and, where possible, talk to the Flood Ladies. Although I couldn’t attend the event, I found the film online and watched. It is a fascinating history lesson and a portrait of the beauty of human nature. The Flood Ladies and many others understood the importance of Florentine art and came together in its time of need. Jane Fortune seems like somebody I’d like to meet. She founded and chairs the Advancing Women Artists Foundation and the Florentine Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and is known in Florence as “Indiana Jane” for her work in seeking out and rescuing lesser known art. This month, in celebration of International Women’s Day (a.k.a. Festa della Donna),
The Advancing Women Artists Foundation is sponsoring its third annual Wikipedia editing “marathon” and inviting members of the public to adopt a woman artist, do the research and write content about her for Wikipedia. The goal is to close the information gap about women artists from long ago and today. Participants show up on an evening in Florence, research and laptop in hand, and spend time writing and/or editing Wiki content. I love this idea.
Jane Fortune also wrote a book I’m reading called Invisible Women, which is a study of the “forgotten half”— the female artists of Florence’s history. In reading this beautiful book, bursting with photographs of stunning artwork, I am struck with two thoughts. First, I’m thinking about how incredibly hard it must have been for Ms. Fortune to find these works that have languished in obscurity, along with the stories of the artists behind them. Second, I’m thinking about how hard it must have been to be a female artist in Renaissance Florence. Think of the personal courage it takes to express oneself through art, and then remember that these artists were discouraged by every aspect of their society. As someone that has dabbled in art from time to time but is way too chicken to put myself out there, I am awestruck.
I’m reminded of a book I love and have talked about in this blog in the past— The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. This heart-wrenching work of historical fiction tells the story of a young, talented woman in Renaissance Florence, who is haunted by her uncontrollable desire to create art. Her city and her time were not ready for her. The book is captivating and very revealing about what it must have been like to be a woman in that era.
Ms. Fortune’s Invisible Women ends with a map— the Women Artists’ Trail map, which guides the reader through Florence on a tour of woman-made artwork available for public view. It includes works at the Accademia Gallery, the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi Gallery, as well as many other lesser known locations. Following this map goes on my bucket list. Sadly, it won’t be too difficult for me to do, as there are not many female artists with work on public display in Florence. This bucket list item will be much easier than the one about mustering up the courage to start painting again!
In any event, I dedicate this article to the many amazing women in my life. You know who you are.
Buona Festa della Donna!