The U.S. Consulate’s 2019 Bicentennial Program
As 2019 ushers in the 200-year anniversary of the United States Consulate General in Florence, one can look forward to a myriad of events throughout the year celebrating both Italian and American culture and, even more, their role together.
The logo for the year, “Insieme 200” (Together 200) featuring an image that meld two domes—that of the U.S. Capitol and Florence’s cathedral—was designed by American artist Nina Peci, who lives in Florence.
The program contains a number of surprises: in a break with the past, which included a 2005 Consulate-sponsored exhibition honoring American artists resident in Florence such as Richard Serrin, Charles Cecil, Richard Maury, Anne Eldredge Maury and Kathy Knippel in conjunction with Vista magazine’s 15th anniversary, local museums and a gallery will organize major shows on contemporary artists working in the U.S., as well as an exhibition on 19th century art created in Florence by visiting Americans.
The Uffizi will present the retrospective on historical art (the upcoming Kiki Smith show at the Pitti Palace is not in conjunction with the consulate), the Pecci and Studio Abba on contemporary art.
Poetry readings spotlighting American poets Anne Sexton (1928-74) and Jorie Graham (b. 1950) respectively in March and May are organized by the Semicerchio Comparative Literature periodical. Poet Rosaria Lo Russo of Semicerchio is Italian translator of Pulitzer winner Anne Sexton.
On a lighter note, Florence’s Gelato Festival at Piazzale Michelangelo will unveil a new flavor dedicated to the U.S. Consulate General’s bicentennial presence in Florence.
Annual recurrences also included in the schedule are Verrazzano Day in Greve in Chianti; Memorial Day commemorations at the Florence American Cemetery.
In March, the town of Bagno a Ripoli will be hosting an event honoring the work of Silvano “Nano” Campeggi, a renowned Hollywood graphic artist. Raised in Florence, where he studied at the Porta Romana Art Institute, his father, a typesetter, taught him the beauty of print and his passion continued to grow as he did. Campeggi would go on to produce posters for Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, West Side Story and Gone with the Wind and other films which would garner him the generally accepted title of most important movie poster designer in the history of American cinema. Despite the glitter of Hollywood, he returned to settle in Bagno a Ripoli.
The exhibition “Americans in Florence” will inaugurate April 4, running until April 18 (hours: 10 am – 1 pm and 3 – 6 pm). The retrospective will be held in the gallery of Studio Abba located at via dei Serragli 17, a fitting location for the bicentennial event as the former premises of the U.S. Embassy (and consulate) during Florence’s time as the capital of Italy in the 19th century.
At this show, visitors will expand their horizons through works of notable American contemporary artists such as David Harry, an innovative artist emphasizing synergy and perspective through forceful abstract pieces. This will be complemented by naturalistic sculptures coated with overlapping coins by William Braemer, who lived for a time in Florence. His paintings, however, fall into the category of abstract expressionism, characterized by vibrant colors which recall his Cuban background. Braemer will not be the only artist who sources unusual materials: Sandra Muss utilizes feathers, flowers, wooden doors and rubble from around the world to add texture to her multi-media works, which are layered to offer a reflection on life.
As May comes to a close, on the 27th and 28th the public is invited to celebrate the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty. Santa Croce and the Consulate have organized a seminar on “The Liberty Sisters: From Florence to New York.” The look-alike precursor to the Statue of Liberty, entitled the Statue of Poetry, can be seen in Santa Croce above the tomb of Giovanni Battista Niccolini, and was created by Pio Fedi in 1870 to honor the playwright.
In June, the Uffizi will present an exhibition and conference on American artists who called Florence home for short or long periods in the first half of the 1800s. As Uffizi director Eike Schmidt notes, “down the centuries American artists and intellectuals came to Florence and Tuscany to be inspired; many of them, such as Benjamin West (1738-1820) and Thomas Ball (1819-1911), chose to admire the Uffizi and its masterpieces.”
In addition to those cited by Schmidt, U.S. artists present in Florence at the time were Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860); Washington Allston (1779-1843); Samuel F. B. Morse (also the inventor of the telegraph, 1791-1872), Horatio Greenough (1805-1852); Hiram Powers (1805-1883); and William Page (1811-1885).
Many arrived to study the Old Masters, such as Morse and Peale. West came to copy Titian’s “Venus” in the Uffizi; Allston and Page also absorbed the brilliant coloring and true-to-life portraiture of Titian. The Uffizi’s Venus de’ Medici statue was to influence Hiram Powers, who arrived in 1837, in the creation of his signature sculpture, “The Greek Slave.”
Powers, Ball and Page all had studios on via dei Serragli. Greenough, a sculptor, studied under Lorenzo Bartolini in a deconsecrated church now the premises of the Charles H. Cecil Studios.
July will bring the annual Florence Dance Performing Arts Festival. As in the past, the 30th edition, to be held once again in the Chiostro Grande of Santa Maria Novella, will highlight the best of contemporary and modern choreography. According to festival director Keith Ferrone, “three performances will be dedicated to special guest companies from the United States.”
As previously announced by a major Tuscan news site, in the works at Prato’s Pecci Modern Art Center is a show spotlighting up-and-coming American artist Tschabalala Self, age 28, in late summer or early fall. This Bard College and Yale University School of Art graduate made the Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” annual list of trailblazers in 2017. The Harlem-born artist has been featured on several occasions in The New York Times; her ingenious works of mixed media, incorporating acrylics, printed materials and fabric, create statements on black femininity. An initiative organized by the Pecci Center and the U. S. Consulate is also being planned for Florence, with Palazzo Vecchio as a possible venue.
Visitors to Greve’s Piazza Matteotti are sure to notice the imposing bronze statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano peering into the distance—just as he did when he first set sight on what would one day become New York. Verrazzano, the first European after the Norsemen to sail down the Atlantic coast of North America, is a local hero and every year the town celebrates the date in 1524 when he discovered New York Bay.
April 17 will mark Giovanni da Verrazzano Day, with a morning commemoration around the statue of the explorer in the square. The ceremony will be followed by a visit and a conference hosted in his honor at the nearby Verrazzano castle, the explorer’s birthplace, where three stones from the foundations of NY’s Verrazzano-Narrows bridge are displayed on the ancient facade.
With generous financial support of the powerful Florentine banking families, the French king engaged Verrazzano to sail to the Terra Nova and search for a northwest passage to Asia and its spices, gold and silver. He was to detail a significant sector of the East Coast of North America, leaving a profound legacy even today in the study of geography.
The highlight of May 28 will be the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Falciani’s Florence American Cemetery. This place stands as a haunting but fitting echo of the past, a resting place for 4,402 soldiers who lost their lives in World War II north of Rome, marking 39% of all Americans killed on Italian battlefields.
THE PRESENT CONSUL GENERAL
The bicentennial of the U.S. Consulate will occur under the leadership of the 44th Consul General, Mr. Benjamin Wohlauer.
Wohlauer grew up in Massachusetts as the son of a German immigrant, eventually attending Grinnell College, a liberal arts university in Iowa. There, he studied diplomatic history, which he attributes to confirming his predisposition for a career in foreign service. He holds a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University.
Wohlauer has had overseas postings in Jakarta, Rangoon, and Tokyo. His newest position, his first as Consul General, marked a return to Italy after serving in the U.S. Consulate in Milan from 2007-11, an experience which undoubtedly facilitated his transition into his current role.
From the start, his work in Florence has centered around specific goals, focusing in particular on strengthening economic and cultural ties, while “promoting the security of American citizens and maintaining strong relationships between the Consulate and Italian authorities,” he said in an interview for Vista magazine.
THE CONSULATE IN THE PAST
Mr. Wohlauer is continuing a legacy that can be traced back to May 29, 1794 when the Grand Duchy of Tuscany recognized the first regional U.S. Consulate in the port city of Livorno.
This will be expanded upon during the February 15 talk at the 5 pm in Palazzo Strozzi’s Sala Ferri, by Giovanni Cipriani in an Italian lecture entitled, “The U.S. Consulate in Livorno in the late 18th Century and the Unity of Italy: Art, Politics and Economy,” with an introduction by the current Consul General.
It was not until May 15, 1819 that the Grand Duke Ferdinando III accepted Florence as a consulate site, and Giacomo “James” Ombrosi, would become the first official U.S. Consul General.
After its inauguration, there have been a few benchmarks, with changing locations. From 1865 to 1871, when Florence served as the capital of Italy, the U.S. Embassy was found in Palazzo Rosselli del Turco. From the 1870s to World War II, the consulate was housed in three different buildings, all along Via Tornabuoni.
The Consulate General’s permanent home on Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci was acquired by the U.S. government in 1947. The building, Palazzo Calcagnini or Canevaro, also has a notable history, having been created in the neoclassical style by the renowned architect and urban planner, Giuseppe Poggi, for Manfredi Calcagnini Estensi, a nobleman of Ferrara in 1857. It was later purchased by Count Francesco Arese and subsequently by the Canevaro family.
In 1995, the U.S. Secretary of State recommended the closing of 19 consulates worldwide, including Florence. Local American residents spearheaded a crusade to save Florence’s Consulate General. As letters flooded into Washington D.C after this call to action, then-Consul General Sue Patterson stated that the campaign played a key role in saving the consulate by describing how much Florence depends on it.
Exactly 20 years later, in 2015, a yearlong restoration of Palazzo Carnevaro’s facade and roof was completed.
Although the building has changed, it has always been characterized by dedicated individuals, Italians and Americans alike, coming together to ensure Italian-American relations that empower both nations. (kimberly brooking/ additional reporting by rosanna cirigliano & rita kungel)