Saturday, March 26, 2016

Poli & Teatro Niccolini: Death & Resurrection

Life, death and rebirth: the Easter story in three words.
Easter 2016 in Florence was no exception.

All the world's a stage," wrote William Shakespeare in "As You Like It."
Florence in 2016 saw the rebirth of its oldest stage, the Teatro Niccolini in early January, and right before Easter, the death of the actor who was invited to perform on opening night:
 Paolo Poli.

The origins of the theatre date back to the 1600s.  Amplified to its current size between 1711 and 1764, its original name "Teatro del Cocomero" (Watermelon Theatre") merely mirrored its location on via del Cocomero" (Watermelon Street).  In 1860, it was re-christened in honor of Giovanni Battisti Niccolini, a playwright from the Tuscan town of Livorno who had the honor of seeing his works on stage there. The road, now the present-day via dei Ricasoli leading from Florence's Cathedral to San Marco, was renamed for the second Prime Minister of a united Italian kingdom, Bettino Ricasoli.  The statesman was a Florentine.

Florence was also the birthplace of the acclaimed stage actor Paolo Poli.  He starred in 12 plays at the Niccolini in the 1980s until the early 1990s, when the theatre was closed.  Graciously coming out of retirement at age 86 just for the occasion, his performance re-inaugurated the space after  restoration and renovation which lasted exactly 10 years, from 2006 to 2016.

I met Poli at the event's press conference on January 9.  He praised local publisher and entrepreneur Mauro Pagliai who purchased the building.  Pagliai found financing to so the theatre could maintain its 18th century architecture with modern wiring, lighting and security and Poli thanked him
"for giving the Niccolini back to the city."

Then he unexpectedly expressed his desire "to die in exile, like Dante."
"Florence is a city of merchants with closed hearts, who as described in his 'Divine Comedy' are
ungenerous and miserly, prideful and envious," he added.
Poli's wish was granted: he passed away in Rome.  Dapper and elegant, I was not surprised to discover that he had a degree in French literature.  Since I studied French and French literature for a number of years, even acting in a college production of "The Bourgeois Gentleman" by Molière (who knew I would move to Italy?), his style brought to mind the attitude of my teachers.
Although they were "Québécois" (French-Canadians), they were careful
to instill in us a Parisian accent and knowledge
of France and French manners.

Back to Poli, he entered a new life on March 25.  The date also happens to be Florentine New Year, the Feast of the Annunciation (Gabriel appearing to Mary). It was the first day on the calendar up to 1750 in Florence, where it is still  celebrated with traditional events.  Like it or not,
Florence was Poli's final resting place.

In true Florentine style, the actual birth of of Teatro Niccolini had its roots in conflict.  Members of the theatre company founded the "Accademia degli Immobili" on the premises of the present-day Niccolini in 1650.  A year later, the group split:  half went to establish the Teatro della Pergola, and those who remained renamed their company "Accademia degli Infuocati" (The Ardent Actors Academy).  Their coat-of-arms, visible in the newly renovated theatre (right), is of a fiery time bomb beginning to explode.

A speaker at the event said that Pagliai (which means haystacks in Italian, notably combustible) was the right person to to reopen the Niccolini!

The Niccolini's fiery beginning was to continue throughout its history.  After hosting notable productions and actors such as Poli and Vittorio Gassman, it closed in 1995.  The theatre suffered abandonment, the ravages of time, even severe damage caused
by a student sit-in which happened in 2002.
At the press preview, I was sitting one seat over from another extremely famous Italian stage actor, Gabriele Lavia.  I  surreptitiously aimed my Iphone camera towards him, and luckily, he didn't notice.
I did, however, hear him comment that Pagliai's gamble was one of "incosciente follia" (pure madness, not taking risks into account).

In his "fool's paradise" Mauro Pagliai (above), found a bank foundation, the Ente Cassa di Risparmio, as a partial sponsor in the rebirth of the Niccolini.  Knowing that the box office receipts from 406 seats plus boxes of a theatre prose season would probably not cover costs, he decided to turn the
Niccolini into a "multipurpose cultural space."
Sounds like a man with vision.

In the 2 1/2 months of its newfound existence, the Teatro Niccolini has hosted a designer's event during Florence Fashion Week, a concert, and a performance of traditional and contemporary dance marking the close of the Korea Film Festival.  Sunday evening chamber concerts, regularly held in 
Teatro della Pergola's intimate Saloncino, have found a new home.  Starting in May, to avoid waiting in lines, from 9 am - 5 pm, visitors to the Cathedral complex and museum have the option of viewing a video that provides background information on the landmarks.  A bookshop and a café have been added to the ground floor.

Next door is a modest trattoria/pizzeria, which has been there for many years.  The "Buca," in the title means that it is underground, probably in a former wine cellar.  During my first year in Florence, in the '80s, I had a pizza there with my friend Marjorie Coeyman, who was working towards her masters at Florence's Middlebury College study center.
I remember Marjorie and I discovering pizza "capricciosa" (capricious pizza, a tomato base topped with a mixture of mozzarella, artichoke hearts, baked ham and mushrooms as well as the "quattro stagioni," which had the same ingredients neatly divided neatly into four sections.  I believe that I ordered the former and  Marjorie the latter, which surely reflected our personalities.
We did not go downstairs, but dined on the streetfront patio.

Although I enjoyed the pizza, for now I never managed to go back.  There will surely be an opportunity given the upcoming program at the Teatro Niccolini.

I initially meant to post this blog entry the weekend immediately following the re-opening, specifically after a Saturday afternoon meeting at Florence's La Repubblica.  When I arrived at 5 pm, the meeting was postponed.  "We are in the midst of covering a murder of an American --
 do you know her?" I was asked.

I did not personally know Ashley Olsen, although she was to change my life.  Two days later I was asked to write a story on the case that was posted on the homepage of the national Repubblica web site  -- a first for a piece in English, by a American no less.
This led to five days of coverage on my part, relaunching my international career.

And the Niccolini?  When would I write about the Niccolini?

You see, I had a second chance, during a weekend highlighting death and resurrection.

Below is a perspective from the seat where Paolo Poli sat on opening night, representing 3 1/2 centuries of passionate "theatre," reborn and destined to live on, portraying the dramas and comedies of life.

Happy Easter/ Buona Pasqua!

--reporting live from Beautiful Florence
                                                                 -- Rosanna


  1. Great story. I like how it unfolded.

  2. Nice piece of writing, really enjoyed reading it.