Firenze

Joan Eardley: 'Foreign Familiar' Curated by David Cass

I'm thrilled to be able to include Joan Eardley's 1948 Florence watercolour in Foreign / Familiar.

The works that form this exhibition are observations of the foreign ‘everyday’ through often overlooked architecture and city elements, and indeed scenarios that might not spring immediately to mind upon consideration of these locations. This is taken to a further extent in Eardley’s ‘Building, Palazzo Type’, for it was not only in Glasgow that the artist sought out derelict or dilapidated built-environment subjects. In this watercolour the noble proportions of a Florentine riverbank palazzo stand — quite unfamiliarly to the ancient structure — on unstable foundations, at a precarious angle, the rubble of restoration work all around, and with another isolated (spared) building standing exposed behind.

Joan Eardley:  Building, Palazzo Type  (1948) Gouache 49 x 42 cm

Joan Eardley: Building, Palazzo Type (1948) Gouache 49 x 42 cm

Eardley here is documenting the extreme restoration works necessitated by the devastation Florence endured at the end of the Second World War. The Germans had blown-up buildings along the river and each of the bridges that crossed it, except for Ponte Vecchio, which Officer Gerhard Wolf had ordered to be spared for personal reasons. Eardley’s watercolour depicts Piazza di Santa Maria Sopearno — along Lungarno Torrigiani and just behind Ponte Vecchio — and focusses on the still-standing Palazzo Tempi. This work therefore celebrates this steadfast ochre palazzo, one of many that line the riverbank, built some-time in the early fifteenth century and then restored three hundred years later to take the form that Eardley describes. Perhaps spared because of its close proximity to Ponte Vecchio, this beaming structure — owned by successive Florentine noble-families — has stood resolute throughout a turbulent history of siege, political struggle, war and repeated flooding*. Eardley’s painting presents this bastion as etched into that same history and memory, as familiar to the city’s inhabitants today as it would have been four hundred years ago.

*During the lifetime of Palazzo Tempi, Florence has endured seventeen small floods, sixteen large floods, and seven exceptional ones: most recently that of 1966, as seen in [Cass’s] Florence in flood project.

Florence Flood Aftermath

Inch by inch, the filthy floodwaters lowered, as daylight gradually left Florence on 4th November 1966. Oily black perimeter lines marked the water’s journey down façades: from a height of four adults in Santa Croce, each stage of this slow recession was charted in level horizontal lines of varying thicknesses. This process was repeated, unbelievably, over hundreds of acres. Clocks throughout the city sat stationary, reading 7:26 AM, when power in the city had been lost as the force of the inundation took hold that morning.

As toxic muddy diesel and oil-infused sludge settled on pavements and roads of deep clay as daylight broke the following morning, Florentines searched for lost family, friends, neighbours and pets, as upturned cars bleated from short-circuited horns. “Steel blinds were twisted like paper”, records artist James Hogg. Antique furniture lay strewn across streets. The Ponte Vecchio was in danger of collapsing, having been stripped to a near skeleton, like the carcass of a whale stretched out between two banks. 

The force of the inundation had been relentless as it pounded streets, ripping apart ground floors and basements, shopfronts, signs, generators, garages, cars. It tore the city apart from the ground up over the course of an entire day. The devastating and deadly force of black water. Had it not been Armed Forces Day on the 4th (a national holiday), the streets would surely have been busier as the tides entered the ancient city early in the morning. 

I've dedicated the last couple of years to researching and responding to this catastrophic historical event (drawing parallels with 'extremes' of today). Through this research I've come across all sorts of ephemera (newspaper articles and clippings, magazine features and appeals for help, short-run flood related publications...) but by far the best is these photographs. I purchased this set of prints on eBay.it last year, from a vendor who did not know the history or provenance of their lot. I've asked around and searched extensively for evidence of these images (by an unknown photographer) in other archives, with no results. If you know anything about these images please do get in touch. I'll be featuring a selection of these scanned prints in my book 'Perimetri Perduti' set for launch on November 4th this year: the 50th anniversary of the flood.

David Hewson: Author of 'The Flood'

In collaboration with The British Institute Florence, I'm putting together an exhibition that looks at the history of Florence's 1966 Great Flood. I've been working on this project for around three years now, and hope that its climax will fall on the month and year that mark the 50th anniversary of this catastrophic event: November 2016. Below, internationally renowned author David Hewson (The Killing) describes his own critically acclaimed response to the flood, in relation to my project:

"In a single night in November 1966 the birthplace of the Renaissance was reduced to a sea of mud as the Arno burst its banks, engulfed some of the most famous and historic buildings and sights in Europe and took the lives of more than thirty people."

"And yet, as I discovered when I came to write a novel partly set during this extraordinary period, the event is now largely forgotten outside Florence itself, overshadowed in the public imagination by the dreadful aqua alta in Venice at the same time. The city, its stalwart people, and the thousands of angeli del fango who flocked to Florence to help the city recover deserve better. During many visits to the city while I was writing The Flood I was astonished to see how the disaster continues be visible on the face of the twenty first century city, from the signs in the street marking the level of the water down to more subtle effects, among them the restoration of the damaged masterpieces in the Brancacci Chapel to remove the prudish additions of earlier centuries."

Four years on from working on The Flood David Cass’s evocative paintings took me straight back to that terrible night in November 1966, a timely reminder of the fragility of beauty against the elements of nature, and the defiant human spirit that swept away the mud and restored Florence to glory. I hope they find a place in the heart of the city fifty years on from the events that inspired them.
— David Hewson

Find out more about David Hewson's The Flood by following this link

www.davidhewson.com