Fiona Graham-Mackay writes from Florence: Sitting, sipping coffee, prosecco and nibbling on a crème croissant in Caffè Rivoire in the Piazza della Signoria I muse. Muse is mostly what I do because Firenze is for just that – musing.
Ronnie who is – OMG yet again giving up Gitanes – says my musing on why Rivoire does the best coffee in the city is a waste of time. Perché? Or even che cosa? Ronnie who gets one swig from a doppio espresso and 16 drags from one of those filthy ciggies, says I’m right about Rivoire coffee with one exception. One exception pray?
She starts to explain then falls into what the bishop of Unzo or somewhere (he so had the hots for Ronnie but not her halitosis that he once said Mass for her in the hope that she’d give up her 40 a day habit) calls her spluttering indignity. The long dragged out final wheeze is done and then she does her usual whisper-gasp. Except for the Palazzo Strozzi. The gallery? She’s reduced to nodding and head-shaking. The gallery.
Now I have never rated coffee enough reason to visit any gallery. If I did, I’d never get to the Royal Academy in London. It has a Bland Factor of 9 on a scale of Zero-10.
But I do think the Palazzo Strozzi is worth the walk because I want to get a second look at the American in Florence exhibition before it closes 15 July. The subtitle tells all: Sargent and the American Impressionists. It is on a bigger scale than just another ex-pat painters’ show.
As the curators Francesca Bardfazzi and Carlo Sisi make clear, this is a celebration of the unbreakable ties between the Old and New Worlds. This is artistic theatre in the closing acts of the nineteenth century and opening scenes of the twentieth century.
The first thing that hits you in the wonderful Palazzo Strozzi (apart from the coffee aroma) is the exceptional use of space. That is the trade mark of the brilliant Anglo-Canadian gallery director general James Bradburne. He has inspired curators under the direction of Antonella Loiero, but it is Bradburne who has brought a special of-course-we-can spirit to Palazzo Strozzi.
The space lets you into the secret of great gallery viewing when a director doesn’t get cluttered by a standing exhibition. This way you can move easily and uncluttered through the story of impressionism as well as individual painters – William Morris Hunt, John La Farge and Thomas Eakins. And just imagine having the space and time to linger over John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt (I was rushed along when I wanted to stay by her in the Dublin National) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler and the rest and the rest after that.
Why Florence for them all including the so-called Ten American Painters (Frederick Childe Hassam is there of course).
Maybe it was not simply an Italian Left Bank atmosphere. These painters were part of something much greater. Florence for the Americans and the British was a colony for writers, critics and collectors. This was the world of Mabel Hooper La Farge, Mabel Dodge, Gertrude Stein, Henry James and his brother William and the irrepressible Egisto Fabbri and his sometimes sad sister, the poet Cora.
Americans in Florence is full of inspiration as much for the wonderful paintings on display, as the evocative lifestyle that the artists led. Wealthy and privileged they undoubtedly were. They all look fabulously wealthy and beautifully dressed. The gracious way they enjoyed their creative lives makes me swoon with envy. Not only would I like to paint like Sargent I want to live like him too. I want to ride through pine forests, after waking from my room with a view and spend warm days painting my friends before enjoying a long and languid lunch overlooking the Arno.
And typical of what you’d expect in a Bradburne-run house, the exhibition moves. You can line up to find a quiet tour of where the artists lived or stay in the gallery in the quiet room, just to read or write or talk.
Ronnie says Gershwin was wrong. It’s about the Americans in Florence, not Paris. Gershwin’s Paris was circa 1928. The Americans of Bardfazzi and Sisi are three, maybe four decades earlier and a mind-numbing war in between. Make up your own mind.
But if you’re through Florence or close by, make the diversion. You’ve got until 15 July.
And there is the coffee. So you’re just as likely to spot Bradburne (he’s the one in a shiny silk waistcoat even in summer) sitting there with his 11 o’clock doppio espesso. Don’t smile politely and walk on. Tell him what you think – in almost any European language will do.
Everyone goes to the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. Everyone should make the Palazzo Strozzi and not just for the coffee.