This is a stock image of Ponte Vecchio with a frosting of snow. We didn’t receive this much of the white stuff today, but for a few seconds, it looked like this is where we were headed! False alarm, but pretty nonetheless!.
There’s a rather unique small museum in Florence in the Palazzo Spini Feroni in piazza Santa Trinita dedicated to the masterpieces of shoewear designed by Salvatore Ferragamo. It’s the only museum of its kind of which I am aware. And where better to house a museum dedicated to the fine art of shoe design than in Florence?
And, If you’ve lived a particularly lucky life, then maybe you’ve worn and/or perhaps even owned some of his shoes. If you do, please treat them with the tender loving care they deserve, I beg you! Each shoe is a small masterpiece.
The museum is located in the basement of the Palazzo, which is the grandest extant medieval palazzo in Florence in private hands and which serves as Ferragamo’s flagship-store. Ferragamo himself purchased this building in the 1930s.
If you are in Florence and you need a break from all the high culture, need a more common touch as a contrast from stludying some of the grandest achievements in the fine arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, etc., then this museum dedicated to modern era shoes is a nice place to refresh your mind from the Stendhal syndrome.
Ferragamo led an interesting life that included a bit of the American dream, believe it or not. He was born in 1898 in the south of Italy, traditionally the poorest part of the county. He was the 11th of 14 children. Legend has it that he made his first pair of shoes for his sister to wear at her confirmation. Even though he was only 9 years old, young Salvatore felt he had found his calling.
Salvatore studied shoe making in Naples for a year and then opened a small shoe store out of his parent’s house. He realized he could get better instruction, as well as greater opportunities, if he were to move to the United States. He was very young, very ambitious, and he emigrated to Boston in 1914 at the age of 16.
Fortunately, one of his older brothers had already moved to Boston, so young Salvatore had family and a place to live on the foreign shores. Ferragamo was a quick study and after a relatively short stint at the boot factory where his brother was employed, he convinced that brother and another one or two to move to California, the land of milk and honey and soon, thanks to the Ferragamo brothers, luxury made-to-measure shoes.
The Ferragamo brothers set up a store first in Santa Barbara, but soon realized that Hollywood was a better location for their specific clientele. Ferragamo achieved astounding success by catering for the burgeoning film industry. Cinema supplied a natural market place for Ferragamo’s beautiful luxury goods, shoes made-to-measure. Wearing a pair of custom made Ferragamo shoes was a premier fashion statement, in part announcing that the wearer was “somebody.” His fine leather creations became prized items among the celebrities of the day.
With his thriving reputation as “shoemaker to the stars,” Ferragamo was not completely fulfilled. He knew that his shoes were aesthetically beautiful but apparently his customers complained that some of the shoes were not comfortable to wear. Ferragamo decided that the only way he could solve the problem of providing comfort to the wearer of his shoes would be a detailed study of anatomy at the University of Southern California. Presumably, his knowledge of the anatomy of the foot allowed him to create better comfort for his customers.*** At least that is what the museum in Florence is at pains to explain to the viewer!
In all, Ferragamo spent 13 years in the United States, returning to Italy in 1927 and he chose to settle in Florence. He was a brilliant shoe-designer as well as a brilliant businessman (although he did file for bankruptcy in 1933 from economic pressures brought on by the international depression) and he spent the next decades fashioning high-end shoes for the elite patron, many of whom traveled to Florence specifically to be fitted by the master.
His customers over the next decades included Eva Peron, Maharani of Cooch Behar, and starlets such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.During these halcyon years for the Ferragamo brand, Salvatore opened a workshop on Via Mannelli and concentrated his effots in experiemtning with design, applying for patents for ornamental and utliity models and some other inventions.In the 1950s, his workshop hummed. He had a force of around 700 expert artisans and they produced 350 pairs of handmade shoes a day.
Ferragamo died in 1960 at the age of 62, but his name lives on as an international company, which has expanded its operations to include luxury shoes, bags, eyewear, silk accessories, watches, perfumes and a ready-to-wear clothing line. At his death his wife and later their six children ran the company. Ferragamo was always recognized as a visionary, and his designs ranged from the strikingly bizarre objet d’art to the traditionally elegant, often serving as the main source of inspiration to other footwear designers of his time and beyond.
I took the following photos a couple weeks back in the Ferragamo museum. Please feast your eyes!
*** I’ve been lucky enough to have several pairs of Ferragamo shoes and I have loved them all. However, despite the fact that Ferragamo himself, and certainly the signage in his museum, believed the master had overcome the issue of achieving a high factor of comfort in some of his beautiful creations, I beg to differ. I still have one pair of shoes that I’ve had for more than 30 years and they are almost in pristine condition because I have never been able to wear them for more than an hour at a time. They are not extremely high heeled, but they are not truly supportive and my own arch is what keeps the shoes operational. So, as much as I love Ferragamo and want to believe the hype about his study of anatomy and solving comfort issues, I must be honest and say, not so much. But, I still love his shoes! and would buy another pair tomorrow if I had the need for some crazily fabulous shoes!!
Every year, right around 7,000 college age foreign students join Florence’s population.
The majority of the 7,000 students are American.
80% of the 7,000 foreign students are female.
You may draw your own conclusions from these facts, but this is obviously happy hunting ground for young Italian men who are looking for a foreign girlfriend. One imagines that most of these American coeds are from middle class to upper middle class families, and so a number of Italian men are able to find wealthy young American wives, if they don’t mind utltimately living abroad themselves.
My favorite museum in all of Florence, at least for today, is a great big dollhouse known as the Palazzo Davanzati.
It isn’t really a dollhouse, but to me it has always felt like a playhouse for life-sized historical living dolls, sort of like Williamsburg in the United States. I’ve been visiting this place for thirty years and I love it the very most out of all the musei in Firenze.
At least for today.
Because my love for beauty can be fickle; one day I like marigolds the most and the next day it is geraniums. Or, one day I like kinnikinnick the best and the next day it’s lantana. Today my favorite color could be green while tomorrow I realize I can’t live without orange.
My favorite line from opera is “La donna è mobile!” The lady is fickle. It’s probably a good thing I only had one beautiful child.
Anyway, back to the palazzo: when I wander through the building, starting in the lovely courtyard and then climbing the stairs to level after level, finding the kitchen, the bedrooms, the reception hall, I feel like I am a living doll from say about 1375, and I get lost in what I think it must have felt like to be the daughter in a wealthy household in Florence.
And I love it.
But, I already said that, didn’t I?
Well, I really do love it.
This great palazzo was constructed c. 1375 by the wealthy Davizzi family, who were operatives in Florence’s important wool guild. Life and society in Florence at that time were organized by the major and minor guilds. In order to be somebody who was anybody, you had to belong to a prominent guild.
After a century, plus or minus, the palace changed hands a couple of times, eventually being purchased by the Davanzati family. The palazzo remained in Davanzati hands until 1838. At that time, it looked like the palazzo might well have been razed, as many, many ancient buildings were being destroyed within the fabric of the city.
Fortunately for posterity, a wealthy antiquarian, by the name of Elia Volpi, purchased the palace, thus saving it from demolition. Signor Volpi restored the building to what he believed was its original style. So, in fact, when we visit this great palazzo, we are viewing an early 19th-century vision of what 19th-century antiquarians thought the lifestyle of the Renaissance looked like.
It is kind of like viewing a kaleidoscope through a kaleidoscope, if you see what I mean.
In 1951, the palace was purchased by the Italian state and in the current century it has been extensively shored up and restored.
The facade of the palace is a unified veneer which actually covers up a mixed bag of earlier, medieval tower homes. Signor Volpi had the vision in the 19th century to purchase all of them with the intent to blend them together as one palace. The facade is constructed in local sandstone and the topmost floor has an open loggia supported by four columns and two pilasters that was added in the 16th century.
The Davanzati coat of arms appears on the facade and there are traces of other decorations as well.
Let’s go have a quick look! Andiamo!
The courtyard on the ground level is very nice.
I am absolutely fascinated by the bamboo looking vertical line that snakes down the wall. It is a water pipe, that collects water from the roof in a rainstorm and carries it down to the courtyard where it drains away.
Let’s climb to the first floor and take a look down into the courtyard from above.
I like the lion who stands guard, discouraging, or even keeping away, the wrong people from entering. I believe he is a version of the Marzocco, the heraldic lion symbol of Florence noted at the Bargello.
A view of the lion and the courtyard from the first landing. The vibrant red cyclamens caught my eye. They were much more vivid than this picture captured.
Looking down from the first floor loggia above, I inadvertently caught a specimen of modern man, somewhat out of his native habitat, but still acting true to his current state of evolution. I caught the modern man in his most characteristic posture of the second decade of the 21st century: the” let me look at my smart phone” pose. It’s everywhere, you see it all of the time, 24/7. Boys do it, girls do, even educated bees do it. I do it, you do it, it seems that none of us can escape doing it. Let’s do it, “let’s look at our phones.”
Because I am pretty sure President Obama is texting us or sending us an email, and it’s essential that we stay in touch. We don’t feel whole without our smart phones. We must be in touch with the world and available at all times. We must be.
Our smart phones are the elephant in the room, that’s for sure.
OK, back to the palazzo. Here are a bunch of pictures for you to get a sense of this wonderful piece of living Renaissance history.
From the first landing you see directly into the grand front room. You can see a marble bust sitting inside on a console table between the two windows.
It is so interesting that there is a pully with a rope that would allow you to haul water or anything else up from the ground floor. You see the doors open to this dumbwaiter area and the rope hanging here. Below is what it looked like when I looked down inside the dumbwaiter space. Man, a living doll could have a lot of fun with this device! (when I was 3 my family moved into our newly constructed home and my favorite part of the whole thing was the laundry chute…that has got to be where the basis of my interest in the dumbwaiter started).
Final shot of an insignificant artwork (that some talented male artist in Florence once created on a commission, using his trained and innate skills; tempus fugit and so does recognition for 95% of us regular humans. We each have our brief moment on the stage and then poof! we are gone [Thanks for the quote to Shakespeare] ). Remember to live in the moment. The wisest words probably ever spoken.
Ciao, bella! It was lovely to know you, however briefly. Knowing you enriched my life and I am grateful.
The potted orange trees were looking delightful, bearing their fruit like Christmas tree ornaments.
You know how much I love potted citrus trees in Italy in winter.
The pansies were holding their cheerful heads up very high, reaching for the warm rays of sunlight.
Much of the pathway system throughout the garden is made from these hand-set riverstones in concrete. I first saw this technique used in Japan, but obviously great cultures think alike when it comes to some things.
Hold that thought on the possible influence of Asian techniques for below.
I also like the way the moss has added its own organic modification to the image presented to us. You can really see the moss on the pavement 3 pictures up, the one of the close-up of the orange tree. Isn’t that moss wonderful! And it adds a slight earthy fragrance to the garden, and maybe a little humidity. Moss rocks!
And, at one end of the great formal garden, I noticed a very large and obviously very aged wisteria vine. It added a majestic contrast of wild nature into this otherwise very orderly landscaped space.
This wisteria trunk is magnificent, for its wildness and strength (wisteria can be a weed in some places). It’s being partially held up by a wire support as you can clearly see. All wisterias need supports, whether they’re in nature or in a man-made garden.
The vine has been severely pruned, obviously, over the centuries, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it were growing here when Lorenzo de Medici was living here in the quattrocento. It’s possible.
The picture below shows a younger vine trunk on the opposite side of the courtyard. The two vines are strategically placed so that they meet over one end of the courtyard, covering it with lavender colored blossoms in a manner I can only imagine for its stunning beauty.
I know an old wisteria vine in Seattle quite well. When I give tours of the Seattle Japanese Garden to visitors, I never fail to walk them by the braided trunk of that vine and challenge them to guess how old it is. I don’t have a great picture of the Seattle vine trunk available right now, but if you look at the lower right corner in the following picture, you can make out some of the trunk’s volume and shape.
This Seattle wisteria plant is about 100 years old, for it was planted in the 1960s when it was already known to be about 40 years old. The landscape architect for the Japanese Garden hand-selected most if not all of the specimen in that landscape, and it is not a coincidence that an already mature wisteria plant was placed in the Seattle garden.
So, if the Seattle wisteria is about 100, with a diameter of the trunk at about 6 inches
Just imagine how old the Florence wisteria must be with its largest diameter at about 20 inches. I think you are starting to get the picture.
So, you see, it is possible that this plant has watched 600 years of human activity in and around it. We always say, “if walls could talk.” In this case, I wish plants could talk. Think what this vine could tell us about the people who lived and plotted here. It boggles the mind.
And, as far as aesthetics: well, for a person with a vivid horticultural imagination, my mind can go wild with visions of the Florence wisteria in bloom in a few months. As a reminder of wisteria’s glory, take a quick look at the Seattle Japanese Garden vine in bloom about 8 months ago.
Love, love, love. Pendulous racemes, as heavy with flower as a hanging bunch of grapes. Lavender color. Beauty.
POW! Gets me every time. A beauty knock-out!
OK, so one last point: remember the East meets West confluence I noted above with the inlaid riverstone pavement? Well, add this to the mix. The source, as always, is my home boy, Wikipedia:
Wisteria (also spelled Wistaria or Wysteria) is a genus of flowering plants in the pea family, Fabaceae, that includes ten species of woody climbing vines native to the Eastern United States and to China, Korea, and Japan. Some species are popular ornamental plants, especially in China and Japan.
Uh-huh, that’s right, wisteria, especially the ornamental type, is native to Asia. So, we can say with confidence that just as Italy (read Europe) was importing porcelains, teas, silks and exotic spices from the East, plant collectors were hustling hither and yon all over Asia, looking for plant sources that could be grown in Europe and which European would like to grow in their gardens.
I am an art historian by training and, as surely as we study provenance as a tool for determining a painting’s authenticity, horticulturalists study when and how plant materials were introduced to other continents. It is completely plausible that the paving river stones and the use of the ornamental wisteria informed the Medici patrons who built this palazzo, or the Riccardi family who later enlarged it–or perhaps just the garden designers and workers who created this formal giardino— with layers of culture that only the well-informed–then and now–can truly appreciate. I live for those people. I am one of those people.
And, finally, a wondrous yet superficial fact: did you know that you can tell if the vines are from China or Japan by whether the vine twines itself around its support in a clock-wise or counter-clockwise pattern. The Chinese varieties twine clockwise; the Japanese counter-clockwise. Isn’t nature grand! I just love it for its complications and patterns.
Now, if your mind works like mine does, you are going to ask me which way the Florence wisteria twines.
And I am going to admit that I have no idea, because I wasn’t thinking about that yesterday when I was there, and also because the vines had been so severely pruned that there was no obvious indicator of twining direction.
Which obviously means I will have to come back to Florence in May and June to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Ha ha. Don’t I wish!
And what did I see this girl tourist doing as she walked through the major monument we both happened to be viewing today: she carried her liter size bottle of water and drank from it as she looked at the furnishings of the Medici-Riccardi palace.
Sure, why not?
And I said nothing. That earns me a better place in heaven, correct?
Because it took every ounce of self control that I possess not to say a word.
I hoped she’d figure out I was taking her picture, but she was oblivious. Of course.
There is so much art in Italy and Florence in particular that relief sculpture like this one goes unnoticed. It is nothing special. It was at eye level when I walked out of the Boboli Gardens and I just felt like playing around with the image. I was in a photography frame of mind and wanted to stay out in the winter sunshine as long as possible.