In the late 19th century, American artists and their patrons descended on “the Boston of Italy,” and now the city is commemorating the event with a show at the Palazzo Strozzi.
This article originally appeared in the May issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “A Flowering in Florence”.
When James Bradburne, the dynamic director of Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, came to New York last fall to publicize the foundation’s upcoming exhibition “Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists,” he held his meetings at The House of the Redeemer.
“Where?” asked the seasoned New Yorkers who had appointments with him. Bradburne was referring to a 1916 Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, smack in the middle of Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile, that was home to Edith Shepard Fabbri before she willed it to the Episcopal Church as a retreat house. Born a Vanderbilt, she was married to Ernesto Fabbri, brother of the artist Egisto Fabbri, who anchored Florence’s American art colony. Egisto designed the House of the Redeemer’s interiors, complete with a 15th-century library imported from a ducal palace in Urbino—a fitting backdrop for Bradburne’s recounting of the early days of the art world’s great Italian-American love story.
It all started after the Civil War, when rich Americans, particularly from Boston and the East Coast, began traveling to Europe. It was the American age of the Grand Tour, and art capitals such as Paris, London, Munich, Dusseldorf, Venice and Florence were among the must-dos for the cultivated. Edith Wharton, Bernard Berenson, Gertrude Stein, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Vernon Lee all set sail. Artists were also making the crossing, enrolling in art schools and feasting on a smorgasbord of monuments, Renaissance paintings and the increasingly impressionistic painting styles of their European contemporaries. “My God, I’d rather go to Europe than go to heaven,” said William Merritt Chase.
Certain cities, such as Florence, proved difficult to leave. Henry James, who was omnipresent abroad during these years, called Florence the “little treasure-city.” East Coast intellectuals dubbed it the “Boston of Italy.” Thanks to Florence’s violet-tinged light, awesome art and architecture and poetic villas and gardens, American artists who couldn’t bear the thought of another bleak New England winter settled in, producing some of the finest American works of plein air landscape and portraiture.
“Americans in Florence” documents their progress, which would continue up to World War I. Early “pioneers” such as John La Farge, George Inness and William Morris Hunt were followed by Elihu Vedder, Frank Duveneck, Elizabeth Boott (who would marry Duveneck), Frederick Childe Hassam, Edmund Tarbell, Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Integral to the artist’s circle was Egisto Fabbri, the American-born Italian painter who had a palace stuffed with Cézannes in town and an overgrown romantic estate, Villa di Babazzano, in the Tuscan hills. American and Italian artists flocked to both of them. Of course, the true star of this era is John Singer Sargent, an American who was actually born in Florence.
One of the treats of this show is a collection of recently discovered photographs of this art colony that were taken by the eldest Fabbri sibling, Ernestine, who was also a painter. Shown side by side with a Sargent or an Egisto Fabbri painting, photos make the era—with its settings, costumes and customs—spring to life.
Palazzo Strozzi is noted for its creative approach to its exhibition subjects, and this show not only examines how Italy influenced Americans but how this wave of Americans affected Italian painters. They certainly took notice of those beautiful American girls wandering the city’s piazzas in their frothy white dresses—as evidenced by canvases of Giovanni Boldini, Vittorio Corcos, Telemaco Signorini, and Michele Gordigiani. The final section of the exhibition looks at how American artists who worked in Florence influenced later American painting—many of them, including Frank Weston Benson, John White Alexander, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing (all represented in the exhibition) returned to the United States and taught.
Palazzo Strozzi also has a reputation for coaxing little-seen loans out of private and museum collections. Among those in this exhibition is the painting that opens the show, The Hotel Room (1904–06) by Sargent, with the idea that this may have been an American artist’s first view of Florence. “Americans in Florence” displays examples of every kind painting that was popular in this era—portraiture of the wealthy, famous and titled; city scenes starring iconic Florence bridges and squares; “interiors with figures,” usually depicting a beautiful young woman in a sitting room in a faded Florentine palazzo; gritty paintings showing the encroachment of the Industrial Age on the verdant countryside, Renaissance-revival works, and idyllic Impressionistic Tuscan landscapes—think gardens, villas and lots of picnicking.
The exhibition has also produced a companion booklet, Passport for Americans in Florence, that provides visitors’ information on many of the palazzi, villas, churches and gardens that figure in these paintings. So, after viewing Sargent’s gorgeous At Torre Galli: Ladies in a Garden (1910), a visitor can consult the Passport for the opening hours of the garden and chapel at the real Villa di Torregalli.
“Americans in Florence” runs through July 15. The foundation selected this year to stage the show because it’s the 500th anniversary of the death of the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci, our country’s namesake. Matteo Renzi, Florence’s progressive young mayor, has declared 2012 the year of the Americas. In honor of the decree, a sister show, “American Dreamers: Reality and Imagination in Contemporary Art,” is also up at Palazzo Strozzi’s Center for Contemporary Culture through July 15.