The American Renaissance in Florence: A Four-Part Course with Kate Bolton-Porciatti - Context Travel

The American Renaissance in Florence: A Four-Part Course with Kate Bolton-Porciatti

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Since the heady days of the Grand Tour, Florence has been a magnet for creative Americans. This series of four Context lectures explores how, from the 19th century onwards, the city seduced and inspired painters, sculptors, writers, and collectors from the New World, and how their artistic endeavors created an American Renaissance in the Tuscan capital Ð the impact of which is still felt today.

We explore the affinities between Renaissance Florentines and late 19th-century Americans, many of whom revived traditions of patronage, collecting, and timeless artistic skills. Expats bought up Florentine villas and palazzi which today house precious collections of artworks, manuscripts, and books. The city and its people inspired scenes in American novels, classic texts on Italian villas and gardens, Romantic landscape paintings, portraits, and sculptures that now grace the worldÕs most famous art galleries. Through a selection of readings, photographs of 19th-century Florence, and the artworks it inspired, we see how creative perceptions of reality gave birth to the pervasive "Italian dream".

Lecture 1. Sculptors 

Florence’s celebrated history of sculpture - from Donatello, Verrocchio, Michelangelo and Cellini in the Renaissance to the neo-Classical sculptors of the 19th century - has made the city a magnet for subsequent generations of artists. Today, we trace the impact of this tradition on the ideologies and techniques of a coterie of American sculptors who made the city their home: Hiram Powers, whose statue The Greek Slave - with its alluring fusion of purity and eroticism -  launched him to international fame and became a powerful symbol for abolitionists and women’s rights’ movements;  Horatio Greenough – renowned for his monumental toga-clad statue of George Washington, similarly inspired by Classical sculpture – and Thomas Ball, whose passion for music led him to sculpt portrait busts of some of Europe’s most celebrated musicians, including soprano Jenny Lind (‘the Swedish nightingale’) and the virtuoso pianist-composer Franz Liszt.

Lecture 2.  The Painters

Today’s lecture explores a quartet of American painters who made Florence their home.  John Singer Sargent evokes the decadence of Italy’s Gilded Age in his sensual paintings of expat “glitterati” in their Florentine villas and gardens. His travel studies in watercolor are “sunshine captured and held”, while his late, sober self-portrait for the Uffizi Gallery (which hung in the famous Vasari Corridor alongside self-portraits of Italian Renaissance artists) tells a darker story.  We also explore the work of American painters Frank Duveneck, Egisto Fabbri, and Elihu Vedder, whose work is infused with the light and life of rural Tuscany. 

Lecture 3. Writers & Poets

Today’s lecture revolves around American writers who were seduced by Florence’s voluptuous beauty yet at the same time haunted by its apparently corrupting influence on Puritan values: Henry James, who evokes the city and its romantic villas and cosmopolitan residents in his novels and his travel writing, and Nathaniel Hawthorn, who lived in Florence’s Villa Montauto – its ghosted “moss-grown tower” providing the stimulus for his romance The Marble Faun. We also leaf through the Florentine writings of Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton’s classic text  Italian Villas and their Gardens which echoes Renaissance ideals on the harmony between architecture and nature.

Lecture 4.  Aesthetes and Collectors 

Many of Florence’s Renaissance palazzi and romantic hillside villas were purchased by American expatriates who filled them with art, sculpture, tapestries and books, continuing the collecting traditions of Renaissance Florentine families. In the last lecture of this course, we visit the Acton family’s Villa La Pietra - a house-museum girdled with Renaissance-style gardens - and Bernard and Mary Berenson’s Villa I Tatti - home to an important art collection, library, and the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. We also explore the aesthetic principles of Charles Loeser, who recreated the sober but noble atmosphere of a Florentine Renaissance palace at his villa, Torri di Gattaia. In conclusion, we reflect on the enduring contribution of north Americans to the history and culture of Florence.

Kate Bolton-Porciatti is a professor of Italian cultural history at the Istituto Lorenzo de’Medici in Florence, where she teaches BA and MA courses in the humanities. She also lectures at the British Institute and New York University in Florence. She has published extensively as an academic, a critic and a journalist, and is a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph and BBC Music. Before moving to Italy permanently in 2006, she was a senior producer and broadcaster for BBC Arts & Classical Music in London and has won prestigious Jerusalem and Sony Awards for her programs. Kate spent her early years in Boston, Massachusetts, was then educated in London, England, and did her M.Phil. thesis in Italy, exploring the cultural landscape of early Renaissance Florence.

How does it work?
This is a four-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?
Though the course is open to participants with no background about Florence and American Renaissance history, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?
Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?
The course is $140 for 4 lectures.

Is a recording available?
In general our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages.

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.