Saturday, December 25, 2021

Looking Back on 2021 in Florence Through Street Art


It's the Christmas season in Florence: one that is the usual shiny and bright, mirrored by the installation and decorations above on via Tornabuoni.  After six months of Covid restrictions (December 2020 - May 2021), for the holidays the city was luminous, basking in light.  The atmosphere was positive -- that is, until the Omicron variant hit Italy 
this week.

Yet, the month had started out so well.  Tuscans flocked in ever-increasing numbers for the booster shot, but also flocked at markets, holiday events, Christmas villages and shopping.  On December 8, Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian college student at the University of Bologna, was finally freed from pre-trial detention in Cairo on trumped-up charges of subversion (i.e. freedom of thought) thanks to support by the international community and especially in Italy.

Readers of Beautiful Florence may remember that, reported in last December's Christmas blog, I came across a cardboard cutout Nativity scene at Villa Arrivabene created by Gruppo Donatello artists.   As you can see below, "Freedom for Patrick Zaky" (sic) is written on the T-shirt of the activist, with the depiction inspired by Amnesty International's poster.  

So, hope was in the air.  There was even hope for Dante Alighieri, who was finally freed from endless commemorative events, including historic exhibitions -- ostensibly designed to honor the poet and author of the Divine Comedy.  In many, if not all cases, the program was meant to attract the public and sell tickets.  Florence at a certain point even asked once more for Dante's remains back from Ravenna, where he died in exile.  Ravenna, of course, refused, much as city fathers had in 1519, when a Tuscan delegation arrived to take what was left of Alighieri back to Florence.  They found an empty sarcophagus thanks to the prompt intervention of Franciscan fathers, who had temporarily moved his bones.

Unlike what is depicted in the above piece of Florence street art, Dante was never arrested.  He chose exile as an alternative to being burnt at the stake in Florence, a punishment for being on the wrong side of the political fence.

So, until the next anniversary at least, Dante is a free citizen again.

A modern-day Dante, if not in literature but equally as influential as an environmental activist is 
Greta Thunberg, honored in Florence in 2021 as a Superwoman winking at the skeptical.  The sticker reads "the time is now! -- put your heart into it."  It, being of course, the cause to halt and even reverse climate change.

Set in a secluded spot in downtown Florence, the work is framed almost in the manner of medieval street tabernacles (still visible today) where citizens would stop, pause, and pray.  Greta herself would surely approve that the work -- seemingly a modern day fresco -- is brushed by oxygen-creating nature, 
the branch of an olive tree.

With over 50,000 new Covid cases reported in Italy on December 25 -- an all time record but with 
fewer hospitalizations and deaths that period of the pandemic before the vaccine -- the times suddenly look uncertain again.  What will the future hold?

Times are such that one may be tempted to put a life jacket around one's heart, like this piece of street art near my office, on via Verdi.  The street leads to the piazza and church Santa Croce (which also contains an empty sarcophagus and monument to Dante Alighieri, waiting for the day (over Ravenna's dead body), that the poet's remains return to Florence.  For the record, the stone sign is used to disaster -- it was nearly submerged by the waters of the great flood of Florence in 1966, when the Arno burst its banks, reaching a level of 21 ft (6.7 meters) in the historical city center.

One can also turn to history for solace. This is a fact that I discovered when researching a current mega-project spanning WWII to the pandemic in Florence. As it noted, the retreating Germans blew up every single bridge except Ponte Vecchio in and around Florence in the summer of 1944 to slow 
the Allies' advance and liberation of Tuscany.

Or so it is believed.  Actually, there is another (tiny) bridge that the Germans did not manage to destroy.  It is located in Mantignano, an old neighborhood just past Isolotto on Florence's left bank facing Ponte all'Indiano on the other side of the Arno.  Known locally as the "Ponte dei Cazzotti" (the bridge of blows, thanks to memorable fistfights, the diminutive span over the Greve river was heroically defended by partisan resistance fighters and saved.  When the soldiers of the U.S. 442nd Infantry Regiment -- a segregated and highly decorated unit comprised entirely of volunteer second generation Japanese Americans, many of whose parents were in internment camps in the U.S. for the duration of the war -- arrived, 
to create the first known graffiti in the Florence metropolitan area, still visible today.

Reputedly familiar with the 1943 Cary Grant film, "Destination Tokyo," the soldiers left their mark on the "Ponte dei Cazzotti":  Los Angeles City Limits, then underneath (partially hidden by plastic), 
Aug. '44, and to the left, their I.D:
the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (of the Infantry).

While the bridge is closed, the writing is visible to this day.  I took this photo with my I phone (as all others in this blog post), in November 2021.

Exile, war, flood -- Florence has seen it all and survived to eventually prosper 
in the brutal ups and downs 
of the cycle of life.

While the pandemic resembles a roller coaster, we can take solace in the fact that feelings as well as the physical world have survived.  Like this tower, the Torre di Pagliazzi
in via Sant'Elisabetta in the old city center of Florence, on the right of the below photo.

It was constructed between the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. on the ruins of a preexisting Roman building, either by the Longobards, a Germanic tribe, or Byzantine invaders, all of whom had dominions in modern-day Italy during that period.  Look at that stone work -- now that is patience.  

Patience enough to withstand the trials of time -- 13 centuries worth!  

Featuring a holiday glow, the tower and the adjacent building now hosts a luxury hotel 
and two-star Michelin restaurant.

We, too, shall overcome this challenging moment.

                           -- Reporting live from Beautiful Florence


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