Monday, 26 June 2017

La Specola

One of the most under explored museums in Florence has to be La Specola. When I visited I was practically the only visitor, walking through rooms and rooms of ornate taxidermy and botanical models, it's hard not to feel that in any other city this could easily be the main attraction. The famous  anatomical wax models were originally used to teach medicine, nowadays you're more likely to find artists sketching the strange silent bodies in these corridors. The museum is certainly worth a visit if you want to get away from the crowds and marvel, tucked away around the corner of the Pitti Palace on Via Romana the back even leads out into the Boboli gardens – what more could you want from a Natural History Museum?

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Festa di San Giovanni

So yesterday was the feast day of St. John the Baptist, or as he's known here San Giovanni Battista. As the patron saint of Florence the city gets very excited when the 24th of June comes around. Throughout the day there are parades, the final of storico calcio, and parties left right and centre. One of the highlights for me was definitely the incredible fireworks display held by the council. Heading down to the Arno's latest addition for summer, the make-shift spiaggia (beach), sitting on the sand and watching the sky erupt with light was incredible. The fireworks echoed so loudly you could feel them shake through your body and bounce about across the city. The entire display has to be one of the most magical performances I've witnessed over the past few months. If you're in town next year be sure not to miss the opportunity to grab a Campari, sit on the sand, and be amazed. 

Friday, 23 June 2017


“I’m not optimistic” began the eminent political scientist Professor Dame Helen Wallace on the eve of her Culture Talk. “I’m a very angry lady, I’m not going to be a bundle of laughs this evening”. The warning was hardly needed; the air within the room before a talk on Brexit was one of anxious anticipation. For a room full of people currently residing in an EU country, the question of what comes next is pressing. In the first week of the negotiations, it was clear that the future of England’s relationship with the EU and therefore Italy was about to change.

For Wallace, Brexit was a result of the “very troubled” relationship with the EU, she apologises again that her opinion for the talk will not be unbiased, Brexit “engages you very much as a citizen” as well as an academic; “I’m probably muddling the two” she muses. One wonders if that’s a bad thing. She began by giving us her own version of what was happening with the referendum and the negotiations that have only just started this week. Yet in order to do so she had to revisit the EU itself, giving us a whistle-stop guide of how it all began with only six countries. Formed out of a need that arose when many countries had been through the shared experience of World War II, the union was a means of banding together, a first option to form part of an organised European family to produce a framework for a united Europe. For England, Wallace was adamant that it was a “very transactional pact”, more about “nuts and bolts” than about comradeship.

After all as she remembers all too well – “I speak as a veteran of the 1975 referendum” – in 1973 neither the Conservatives or Labour parties were at ease with the idea of the EU. Both remained uncertain about the framework, with no stable rhetoric about its contributions to daily life and the investment with EU, as there was in other countries. “We’ve developed a habit for repetitive exceptionalism” Wallace declares, and her examples of such behaviour are compelling, including the more recent decision to not partake in the Euro. Rather than an exception she marks this as merely another decision added to a long history of arguments about budget contributions. “It became normal to be exceptional”. 

This continued “special treatment” as Wallace dubs it often clouds the brilliant work of the UK within the EU. We were crucial within the system of eastern enlargement, and hugely important in stabilising the EU after the cold war where such inclusion enabled countries to find a place in a democratic family. It is strange that while “explicit exceptionalists” like Denmark and Sweden are able to remain part of the European mainstream despite their differing regulations, we seem to have always remained apart. “We spend a lot of time whining” says Wallace, continuing wryly “we’re good when we’re not whining”. She also blames our isolation down to bad education about the role the EU actually plays in everyday life. The level of language competency in the UK is appalling, even in our own language. For other European countries language learning is practically a necessity.

So here we are, trapped in referendum dialectics; a scenario that Wallace predicted long ago. “I have often thought I should change my name from Helen to Cassandra” she jokes, with what one can sense is more than a little bit of seriousness, “I say that with no pleasure whatsoever”. Originally studying classics, Wallace knows that civilisations face dark times. Right now she believes Brexit is just part of “worldwide destabilisation” – “I think we’re living in very troubled times.” The question of why a referendum was called in the first place rears its head and we’re given the example of Brussels, where a friend of hers in politics decided to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. The Dutch have no history of referendums, and see them as “a hazardous process”, very different to electing a government, with much more dependence on fluctuating opinion. When she asked them why they decided on the move her friend replied that he wanted to give the people a chance to “have their say”. Without proper education the vote inevitably failed, and the plans for the Lisbon treaty were dissolved. Without educating the people on what they were voting for, it was no wonder the government didn’t received the result they had expected. The same attitude could be seen when the Brexit vote occurred. 

In 1975, she witnessed all parties mobilising their active members behind a yes vote, in 2017 she witnessed the Conservative party close down and Labour remain confused about which side it was on. There were no “troops on the ground” so to speak to mobilise as there had been in 1975. Looking at the Leave voters it was clear they had prepared much earlier, spending in Wallace’s view at least two years mobilising distinct sections of the population. The Leave campaigners had cleared lessons from the referendum in Ireland, which the Remain had not. The equation was a simple one, the Leave campaign developed simple compelling messages, simple messages that lent themselves to being artfully repeated in “new social media”. The internet offers a new dimension to politics, and Wallace commends the Leave campaigners in their cunning identification of those things that “get people in the gut”. Immigration and the control of borders were obviously issues that held huge sway, as outside of metropolitan London there are segments of the population who feel very keenly that they’ve been put at a disadvantage by emigration and globalisation. In the end it was simple a matter of simplified vs complex messages, it’s easy to see which were louder. 

Yet despite the Leave campaign’s majority their 52% was by no means a large win. For many countries the requirement remains that at least 2/3 must be met in order for there to be a majority at all. Most importantly Wallace highlighted how the referendum was in fact an advisory one, and yet is being treated as binding. Something that is itself problematic. 

So what do the negotiations need to do? That’s a question that’s still being answered, and hopefully resolved starting this week. What’s most important is that it “can’t be done in a rush”; the last thing our country needs is a hatchet job. Wallace herself lives in Yorkshire and knows first-hand how worried the farming community is about the March 2019 deadline. 

The general election earlier this year was held by Theresa May in order to establish certainty. She had hoped it would be a strong conservative government she would be leading into Brexit, with the results as they are without a real majority uncertainty has only increased. Now with her talks with the DUP the issues relating to Ireland only become more complicated we’ve witnessed “strong and stable turned into weak and wobbly.”

As the two negotiating teams begin their meetings the UK is coming from an even more divided and conflicted country, whereas the EU has remained impressively coherent and cohesive in negotiations so far. They’re “playing hard ball”, setting the UK as an example so that other countries won’t be tempted to follow; they’re going to make it as difficult as possible, they know where their red lines are. The problem is we don’t even know if we have red lines yet. So what are the aims and preferences of future settlement? Wallace notes how there is still a lot to come, that she’s worried at how self-confident the country is in assuming other countries will be generous with us. The cost of the financial settlement alone will be huge, then there are so many thorny issues within Brexit itself: the issues of a frictionless border in Ireland between North and South; the rights of EU nations in the UK etc. “Maybe we’ll have sheep wrestling on the Northumbrian border” she muses. With experts looking back over existing European deals, it’s been agreed that the current arrangements are the best we could want. 

So where do we go from here? What happens now? “Anyone who says they have an answer is telling fibs”. What is certain is that “we’re in for a very difficult time”. Wallace ends remembering how the day after the referendum 24th June, her 5 year old grandchild could tell his parents were preoccupied with something. When they tried to explain he let out a great, “hmm” in the way only a five year old can. “When I grow up” he said “I’ll make sure we’ll join this club again”. 

We can only hope.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

A Picnic in Piazzale Michelangelo

One of the simple pleasures of life. Talking with friends for long hours, and eating al fresco. After the talk in the Harold Acton Library on Brexit (write up to come soon) I headed with a visiting friend to buy fresh pane, pomodori e formaggio along with a cool birra and walked up the many steps to Piazzale Michelangelo in the dying heat of the day to watch the sunset over the city. 

The steps up to the famous viewing point are always crowded with people, we even saw a bride and groom still in all their wedding garb clambering amongst the crowd to get a good view. Everyone comes here, from the Gucci-wearing fashionistas to the buskers with no shoes. If you don't get a good spot to see the sunset people watching comes in as a close second. We sat at David's green feet (the bronze replica of Michelangelo's real statue) away from the main cluster of crowd watching the midsummer sun snake away through the clouds. Apparently the statue was originally brought up by nine pairs of oxen back in 1873 which must have been quite a sight. I think I almost prefer this version of David, out in the open air, looking out over the city like some great protector. These spaces are built for people to linger in, you feel that keenly in the evening hours. 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

La Musica

Fabrizio De Andre
After all what's one of the best ways of learning a language? Listening! In class we've covered several songs by now, ranging from Italian pop to The Sound of Music. As exercises go it's one of my favourites, often we're given lyrics with certain words missing and listen to the song until we are able to fill every missing word. As a result I now have a growing playlist of Italian songs that I regularly listen to, so I thought I'd let you in on some of my favourites that I've been enjoying with a peak at my 'Italia' playlist.

Mia Martini


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Relations between the United Kingdom and Italy

Morris before her talk
Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Italy faced a challenge as she stepped onto the “Culture Talk” floor in the British Institute’s Harold Acton Library. On the eve of the UK General Election, just a few days after the attacks in Manchester and London, with Brexit on the horizon, to talk about England’s relationship to one of the cornerstone countries of the European Union meant she had to take on board a difficult national mood.

Many were expecting Jill Morris to take a more historical approach, guiding us through the relationship of the two countries and their numerous alliances throughout history, but it was with a far more personal tone that the Ambassador addressed the crowd. She began simply, noting how it is no surprise that English people are, and have been, in love with Italy for years, yet she was adamant that one of the lesser-explored mysteries she had found was that Italians have often been just as affectionate about the English. 

She thanked the Italian public profusely for their solidarity over the past few days in particular, noting how she was “personally very grateful” for the incredible demonstrations of love. During difficult times when it’s easy to feel far from home, the mayor of Florence placing a black band around the statue of David’s arm in Piazza della Signoria and a Union Jack in his hand makes one feel “we have friends by our side”; the overwhelming response from Italians is “really quite special”. At the British Institute itself, this mutual respect can be felt very strongly: in a place created to enable the exchange of ideas between the two countries there is always, in the ambassador’s words, “a real sense of welcome and joy”. 

Although she recognised that the strong relationship between Italy and England is “built on the past”, Morris was far more interested in contemporary matters, unsurprising given that she is the first woman to have been appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Italy. Morris’s job is to look forward, in particular to envisage how our two countries can continue to be a “force for good together”. She noted that both countries are among the biggest contributors to global peace-keeping, “something we should all be very proud of”. In an ever-changing world facing the problems caused by war, mass migration, and climate change, Morris stressed it was the “values of pluralism, human rights and democracy” that combat the wrongs of the world, values that Morris sees as being born in the Renaissance, and consequently in the city of Florence itself.

Maria Manetti Shrem & Jill Morris
Morris’s tone throughout was light. She joked easily about how at the outset England and Italy were very different: “Beer vs Aperol, Fish and Chips vs Fiorentina, Pizza, Vs well. . . Pizza’. Rather than accepting painful mistakes from English learners as simple ignorance: ‘what’s the Italian for Pizza?’ (when she gave this example you could practically feel some of the audience wince), Morris instead used the blunder as a testament as to how intertwined the two cultures have become. Beyond the rudimentary stereotypes, she senses something profound that binds us together, a deep and abiding belief in the importance of culture “as a civilizing force”. Culture, after all, is “a fundamental part of what it is to be human”. It’s much more than “going to a museum on a Sunday afternoon”, although she admits these small acts are crucial. But culture “can’t endure through good will alone”. In Morris’s eyes, it is a living force that “needs to be looked after, needs to be cherished”. 

In Florence, Morris notes, you see an active love of culture, but you also see “why it matters”. At G7, she recalls, it was Italy who organised the first meeting of experts in order to preserve cultural treasures and keep them protected in war zones. Italy has always valued its cultural heritage, yet a large part of the world is only just catching on. After the tragic losses in Syria, Iraq and other countries in the last few years, the importance of employing specialist units to defend our common cultural heritage has become ever more clear.

Despite her declarations that she “wouldn’t talk politics” the night before the General Election, Morris made clear to the audience that although the UK may well be leaving the European Union “it is not abandoning Europe”. She was adamant that England remains European whatever the future holds: “historically, culturally, and geographically” its identity will always be rooted in Europe. Brexit “should not change that”. We can only hope that she is right, and that the relationship between the UK and its fellow European countries will survive the negotiations to come. 

Towards the end of her talk Morris invited the audience to join her in a small “thought experiment”, imagining that Michelangelo’s David was damaged. If damage came to David so much more would have been attacked than mere marble. David remains even today “a symbol of the weak triumphing over the strong”. If he had been damaged, an assault would have been made “on the world’s culture, not just Italy’s”. In Morris’s eyes David belongs to us all, so “we all have a responsibility to protect him”. The variety of culture in the world is part of a mysterious unity. Despite our differences, it holds us together. 

“Art raises us from barbarism; that’s why barbarism fears art and wants to destroy it.” It is this “thread” that ties England and Italy together. For Morris, those core values that originated in the Renaissance, those ultimately “Italian” values, will defeat terrorism. Whatever the future holds, sitting in a room filled with Italian and English listeners, one couldn’t help but feel optimistic that whatever the world throws at humanity, people from different shores will always find a way to come together—even if only for an hour or so in an old library on the banks of the Arno.

The Ambassador Jill Morris with British Institute Director Julia Race


Friday, 9 June 2017


On Thursday afternoon I was lucky enough to help out in the British Institute Archives. After the success of the brilliant Forgotten Bookmarks exhibition in the library the team wanted to bring the exhibition to an online audience. To do this obviously required a lot of scanning to accurately reproduce the beautiful and delicate paper notes, letters, cards and clippings for the website, and I was more than happy to assist. 

After my morning Italian class I headed straight to the library. Here, behind a pair of white painted doors, I was introduced to the archives, a haven that contains years of history. Talking to Alison the Institute's Archivist I also discovered that the Institute holds an extensive collection of works by Edward Gordon Craig, a brilliant modernist theatre practitioner, which came as a rather wonderful surprise. It's incredible to think just how many creatives have been drawn to Florence over the years. Alison explained that Craig and his wife Dorothy Lees Neville lived in Florence and even founded a theatre magazine here called The Mask. After Craig left Italy, Dorothy continued on in Florence rescuing his archive from the Nazis before leaving his books and publications to the Institute. 

It was wonderful to be able to spend the day amidst such beautiful objects, hand-painted books, black and white photographs, and ornate letter-press fonts. Now I know about the Edward Gordon Craig collection I'm certain I'll be thinking of reasons to linger in the library archives more over the next month. Also watch out for the website write up of the Forgotten Bookmarks exhibition which will hopefully allow a closer look at the incredible documents found between the pages of the library books.

Friday, 2 June 2017


Vintage shopping in Florence . . . what can I say? This is a city filled to the brim with incredible vintage shops, markets and dealers. The best places to get a bargain are the amazing weekly market stalls. My nearest piazza Santa Spirito is especially abundant with stalls, piled high with vintage goods all at very good prices. One of my favourite activities is rummaging through the €5 piles and discovering a hidden gem. 

Traditionally the first and second Sundays of the month are both notorious for their abundance of vintage and antique markets throughout the city. Think the weekly markets but amped up a notch. So make sure to remember and head out on those days to the piazzas near you. In the meantime I thought I'd give you a few tips on some of the Vintage shops I've been haunting around the city, just in case you miss the markets this time around. 

The photos above are from Vera's Vintage, a rather chaotic but incredible collection on Via Maggio. For a slightly more 'high-end' sell in Oltrano head to 'Celeste's Vintage' on the corner of Palazzo Pitti which has some great bargains (a friend picked up a Moschino jumper for under €60).

I'd also heard a lot about CERI vintage on Via dei Serragli (pictured above) and although it's fairly pricey it's still worth a look for some beautiful unique pieces.

The photos below are from a beautiful courtyard of vintage shops called Cortile Fossombroni on Via dei Fossi just past Santa Maria Novella, one shop in particular La Corte, (7R) run by a very jolly Italian woman called Franca Montesi even houses gowns donated by Italian nobility. There's vintage Pucci, Prada, Gucci, Chloe, everything you could want, it manages to house both high end brands and affordable knock-offs along with unique pieces. She's also – like most vintage and stall owners here – very open to a haggle. Owners are almost always open to doing discounts for two or more items being bought together too – take note when shopping with friends! The courtyard itself is wonderful, filled with 'bargain baskets' of china and odd bits and bob for as little as €1. I picked up a little wrap-around dotted silk skirt with buttons from La Corte that I intend to wear as often as I can now that the weather has woken up and Summer is in full bloom. But enough tips from me, after all what's the best part of vintage shopping? The hunt. So get out and there and explore for yourself.