In the Footsteps of Russians in Florence

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Daria Klimenko

The doors inhale air and exhale steam;
but you will not return here, where, breaking into pairs, the crowds go strolling by the Arno’s failing stream, like some new breed of quadruped;
doors slamming behind them, beasts appearing on the roadway.
Truly, there is something of the woodland shade about this city. It is a handsome city, Yet at a certain age you simply turn up your collar, shutting out its people from your gaze.

Joseph Brodsky, December in Florence, 1976

Florence is a wonderful forge of skilled men. This cradle of the Renaissance produced such great geniuses that all other cities can only sigh and envy. This small city was home to Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, who nearly elbowed one another there. One could bow down low to Florence for Botticelli, da Vinci and Buonarroti alone. And these are just a few names among the many talented figures… Giotto, Masaccio, Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi, Verrocchio, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi and, lastly, Dante.

I would need to use the encyclopaedia in order to continue this long list, and then the entire article would consist only of the names of great Florentines. Foreign luminaries loved this flowering city as well. Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Tarkovsky and Brodsky lived here. Although Brodsky is more associated with Venice, Joseph visited the capital of the Renaissance and was inspired by it. Perhaps only Alexander Blok was not impressed by Florence.

The wealthy Demidov family made generous contributions to restore the great monuments of Florence, Brodsky and Tarkovsky praised the city in their work, while Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky usually stopped at Florence during their travels through Europe. All of them left their imprints on Florence in one way or another.

Russians became interested in Florence and first arrived there as far back as 1439. It was related to one significant religious event – the Florentine Union, that is, a failed attempt to unite the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. From that time on the city was visited by Russian pilgrims (who briefly looked round the city and hastened to Rome and Bari) along with Russian intellectuals, captivated by Dante and the masters of the Renaissance. Among them were also the so-called ‘holiday-makers’ who came to Florence for long periods to improve their health and eventually stayed there forever, becoming the patrons of art and collectors. These were followed by emigrants, among whom we can include Dostoevsky, Brodsky, Tarkovsky and others.

Wherever you might stay within Florence, try to start your tour of the city with the Duomo. This symbol of Florence comprises three buildings: the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery with the golden Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti and Giotto’s Bell-tower.

Looking at the Duomo’s interesting façade, one should remember that its construction was largely financed by the Demidovs, factory owners from the Urals. This family’s coat of arms is situated in the place of honour – to the right of the main entrance to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

The connection of the Demidov family with Florence began with Nikolai Nikitich Demidov who in 1819 moved to Tuscany to recover his health and stayed there forever. Florence and the region of Tuscany became his second motherland. According to different sources, Demidov served there as Russian Ambassador or as charge d’affaires at the court of Tuscany, and he won fame among ordinary Italians by his generosity, love for the arts and large-scale charitable activities.

In a public garden, located at a square with the name Piazza Demidoff, the grateful residents of Florence installed a white marble monument to the first member of the Demidov family in Florence – Nikolai. It was Anatole Demidov who commissioned Lorenzo Bartolini to sculpt this statue. The symbols that represent the might and the merits of Demidov are interesting: Nikolai himself is depicted as a Roman senator, pressing his son Anatole to his bosom, and a female figure beside him symbolises gratitude and presents him with a laurel wreath. At the corners of the pedestal are four statues-allegories: Nature, Arts, Mercy, Siberia (by the way, ‘Siberia’ holds Plutus – the Greek pagan god of wealth – with a bag of money, symbolising the Demidovs’ glut of wealth). Take note of this feature: only the fourth figure, ‘Siberia’, is fully clothed and wears a hat – an indication that all Italians are aware of occasional extreme cold weather in Russia.

On his arrival in Florence Nikolai Nikitich founded a home for orphans and the elderly at this square, which was called ‘Demidov Asylum’. Today its façade is adorned with a high relief of Nikolai Nikitich. The asylum stands close to Palazzo Serristori (to the left of the monument in the public garden – 21 Lungarno Serristori), where Demidov initially lived. Today this building is closed, but its neglected exterior can gladden the eyes of many photographers and lovers of the antique.

By coincidence, the name of Nikolai Demidov is remembered throughout this district of Florence: the district itself is named after St Nicholas the Wonder-worker, and there are also a street, an arch and a church with the same name there. And Florentines often joke that if the locals are used to meet near the statue of David, then Russian patriots should go out on a date near the monument to Demidov. Nikolai Demidov donated money to hospitals, helped the poor, and was a keen collector of works of art. His son Anatole financed the restoration of Santa Croce Church’s front and acquired works of Perugino, Giorgione, Tiziano, and Tintoretto, and received the title of Prince of San Donato (named after the family villa outside Florence) from the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Pavel Demidov, Anatole’s nephew, opened schools in Florence, cheap dining halls, and shelters for the homeless. In addition to this, he donated 38,000 lire (in the nineteenth century there was still a system by which the value of a currency was defined in terms of gold; this sum was equal to hundreds of thousands euros) for the restoration work and completion of the façade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, which until the nineteenth century had been covered with unpolished stone (San Lorenzo Cathedral has a similar façade). Today tourists’ eyes are fairly dazzled at the sight of the numerous sculptures and decorative elements of white, green and pinkish marble.

If you pass round the cathedral on the left side, you will find yourself in the street with the name Via dei Servi, leading to Santissima Annunziata Square. Here, near the house no. 2, we can remember another compatriot of ours, Count Dmitry Petrovich Buturlin.

The Buturlins, natives of Moscow, following the terrible fire of 1812, when they lost their huge library, became the first Russian emigrants in Italy (1818). Settling down in Florence, they began to collect books again in the splendid Renaissance mansion called Palazzo Montauti-Niccolini (today – Palazzo Niccolini) in the very centre of the city. Until recently this mansion was labelled on the city maps as Palazzo Buturlin, while the façade still retains the coat of arms of Dmitry Petrovich Buturlin.

Now this mansion is used as a luxury hotel where the whole nineteenth-century interior has been preserved. If you ask for permission, you will be allowed to see not only the mansion’s courtyard, but also its interior (enter through its gate and on your left go up the stairs to the first floor).

Moving along Dei Cerchi, you can reach the square called della Signoria and the town hall, called Palazzo Wecchio. It was here that in March 1996 Joseph Brodsky was given a title of the Honourable Citizen of Florence for his contribution to world culture and was awarded the Golden Florin – a replica of the medieval Florentine coin.

That trip to Florence in 1996 was his final visit to Italy. The poet passed away in the same year in the USA.

Not long ago a plaque appeared on a rather modest house, 91 Via San Niccolo, Florence, which reads: ‘Andrei Tarkovsky, a peerless film director on spiritual themes, an exile in Florence, spent the final years of his life in this house. A guest and Honourable Citizen of the city of Florence.’

‘Florence is the city that gives back your hope,’ this is what the film director, who had become a homeless wanderer in Europe, wrote. The Florence city hall gave him a room in Via San Niccolo, where the great Russian director resided from 1983 till 1986 and where he wrote the scripts to his last films, ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘The Sacrifice’. There are similarities in the fates of these two masters – Brodsky and Tarkovsky. Both of them loved Florence, both spent the final years of their lives there, both became Honourable Citizens of Florence.

By the way, if you are a big fan of Andrei Tarkovsky’s works, then you can take a short tour of Florence’s surroundings, visiting the places where the film ‘Nostalgia’ was shot. These are the unfinished cathedral of San Galgano and the pool at Bagni Vignoni.

Notice the memorial plaque at 64 Via San Leonardo: ‘In 1878 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky lived and worked in this villa, where, of the boundless plains of Russia and the sweet hills of Tuscany he materialised the undying harmonies of both regions.’

It is not the only place in Florence where Tchaikovsky stayed during his visits to this city. However, the hotels Sofitel and Washington are not so romantic places to have such beautiful words left on their walls, as opposed to Villa Bonciani which is situated in Via San Leonardo, one of the prettiest streets of Florence.

It was at a hotel near this mansion that Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, a great admirer of Tchaikovsky’s talent and his patron for many years, lived. The composer communicated with von Meck for thirteen years only by correspondence and never met with her in person. Nadezhda Filaretovna gave him extensive financial support, but wished to remain practically unknown to the object of her admiration.

Tchaikovsky was passionate about Florence, called it an excellent source of inspiration, the city which nurtured creative personalities and his second home. It was in theWashington Hotel where the famous opera The Queen of Spades was composed, and it was first performed at the City Theatre of Opera and Ballet. This hotel stood at 8 Amerigo Vespucci Embankment, now it is a popular tourist bar . But I wonder if its customers are aware of this building’s significance for world music and that early in 1890 the great composer in one breath, over forty-four days, composed here his most favourite brainchild, The Queen of Spades. The sophisticated Florentines nicknamed The Queen of Spades ‘The Florentine opera’ because it was created on the banks of the Arno River. The famous opera was put on the stage again in 1974, and in 1999 it opened the May Festival. Tchaikovsky became attached to Florence and more than once said that it was his most beloved and desirable city. And it came to pass that the composer obtained a house, or, to be more exact, a villa in Florence. What is most remarkable is that this villa was provided for him by his patron Nadezhda von Meck.

Tchaikovsky also dedicated his famous sextet to his beloved Florence. He particularly liked to dedicate his compositions to the places where he used to stay that played a special role in his life and were dear to his heart.

Florence inspired one more great Russian man. ‘Late in November, 1868, we moved to the then capital of Italy and took up our residence near Palazzo Pitti. The move proved wholesome for my husband and we began to visit churches, museums and palaces,’ this is what Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, second spouse of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, wrote in her reminiscences.

The exact address of Dostoevsky’s home in Florence remained unknown. However, in the twentieth century the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko examined documents of that time and found out that Dostoevsky had lived at 22 Via Guicciardini, where later a memorial plaque appeared. According to some evidence, it was there that in 1869 Fyodor Mikhailovich completed work on his famous novel, The Idiot, which he had been writing ng for seventeen months.

Dostoevsky first visited the city of Florence in 1862 together with the literary critic Nikolai Nikolaevich Strakhov, and later, following wasteful travels across Europe, he returned there with his new wife, Anna Snitkina, who supported the writer financially. Florence attracted Dostoevsky by its clement climate and the library.

According to Anna Grigoryevna’s evidence, ‘a fine library with a reading room and two Russian newspapers were found’ and the writer ‘used to call at the library for reading daily after dinner.’ It was the scientific and literary Gabinetto Vieusseux [the library, founded in 1819 by Giovan Pietro Vieusseux who was of Swiss descent], which received all the major books published in Europe. Today this collection is housed at Palazzo Strozzi.

‘The doctor instructed me to walk a lot, so every day Fyodor Mikhailovich and I went to the Giardino Boboli gardens (situated behind the Pitty Palace), where roses were blooming in spite of January. There we would bask in the sunshine and dream of our happy future,’ Anna Grigoryevna wrote.

There are cities to which one cannot return.
The Sun beats on their windows as though on polished mirrors.
And it means that no amount of gold will make their hinged gates turn…
(Joseph Brodsky, December in Florence)

Lorenzo Bartolini, the monument to Nikolai Demidov at Piazza Demidoff, Florence
In March 1996 Joseph Brodsky was given a title of the Honourable Citizen of Florence for his contribution to world culture
‘Florence is the city that gives back your hope,’ this is what Tarkovsky, who had become a homeless wanderer in Europe, wrote.

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