Less imposing than Rome and a little dryer than Venice, Florence has attracted foreign tourists for centuries. In the 17th and 18th century, its restrained elegance, gentle countryside, and sparkling social life made it the perfect destination for the European upper-class during the Grand Tour, British aristocracy ahead.
Ever since Milton, writers and artists have been gathering at the doors of the city’s cathedral, following the steps of Dante and Machiavelli, admiring frescoes by Giotto and Fra Angelico, Donatello’s sculptures, and the many other treasures of Quattrocento Fiorentino.
Quite inevitably, cinema too fell under the city’s spell.
According to the different directors who have filmed there, Florence has been portrayed as the most romantic of destinations, a city of dangerous secrets, a place of indolence.
Winner of three Academy awards, James Ivory’s A Room with a View (1985) is a sparkling film adaptation of E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel of the same name.
The movie features the cream of the crop of British acting, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott and Daniel Day-Lewis, starring a 19-year-old Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman torn between her intimate passions and family expectations.
Ivory manages to brilliantly translate the spirit of British aristocrats at the beginning of the 20th century on film, amongst late Pre-Raphaelite preciosities and agitations Sturm und Drang. Squeezed in unpractical though supremely elegant outfits, constantly bored to death, they would find temporary solace from their social frustration by touring Italy, consulting their Baedeker guides with religious zeal.
A Room with a View gives us priceless views of the city: Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, Santa Croce’s chapels, even a murder scene in Piazza della Signoria. And some old-school advice on how to handle mass-tourism: “Oh, the Britisher abroad” laments Judi Dench’s character about her compatriots: “It’s very naughty of me, but I would like to set an examination paper at Dover, and turn back every tourist who couldn’t pass it”.
Loosely autobiographical, Franco Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini (1999) tells the story of an Italian boy adopted by the Scorpioni, a historically documented group of hyper-cultured elderly English ladies who lived in Florence in the 1930s and 1940s.
The quiet life of the community of ex-pats, made of recitals of verses by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, afternoon teas at the Uffizi, and aperitifs at the Gran Caffé Doney in Via Tornabuoni is turned upside-down by the events of World War II.
Zeffirelli manages to sugar-coat even some of the darkest moments in the history of his hometown, though that’s not necessarily a fault. The stellar cast feature welcomed comebacks: Judi Dench is the loopy artist; Maggie Smith is the stiff dowager a decade before Dowton Abbey; and Cher plays the unfaltering wealthy American socialite with a taste for modern art. Tea with Mussolini is the epitome of cinematography declaring its love for the city of lilies, and a tribute to the salvific power of art.
Diametrically opposed to Zeffirelli’s romantic light blurbs, the master of Italian neorealism Roberto Rossellini had his go representing Florence during WWII under the harsh contrasts of black and white. The fourth episode of Paisà (Paisan, 1946) is set during the fight to free the city from the Nazi-Fascists. An American nurse and an Italian partisan decide to venture into the still occupied part of the city, desperate for news about their dear ones. They reach Palazzo Pitti, which Rosselini renders as austere as a military fortress, and from there they cross the secret Vasari Corridor, emptied of its precious artworks.
Split into two halves linked by Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge the Germans haven’t blown-up, and obstructed by rubble, Paisà’s Florence looks desperate in its spectral elegance, a shadow of its former self.
To stay on the topic of devastation, the infamous 1966 flood of the river Arno makes the background for several scenes of Marco Tullio Giordana’s family saga La meglio gioventù (The Best of Youth, 2003). The main characters, brothers Nicola and Matteo, reunite in Florence to help rescue the city’s treasures. It is a well-known fact: in the aftermath of the disastrous flood, hundreds of young people came from all over Italy and from abroad to help save the city’s inestimable artworks. The Angeli del Fango, “Mud Angels”, as they called them, were a moving example of solidarity.
Stepping aside from sunny hills and romantic views, the medieval alleys of Florence’s historic centre can make the perfect setting for a thriller. Dark and narrow, they’ve been successfully employed to enhance the sense of mystery and danger.
In Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001) – sequel to the much better The Silence of the Lambs – we learn that fugitive Dr. Hannibal Lecter has started a new life as the curator of the city’s prestigious Capponi Library. His Italian dreams are frustrated when he is forced to flee after accidentally eviscerating and hanging a police inspector from a balcony of Palazzo Vecchio.
Obsession (1976), Brian de Palma’s cult psychological thriller, features the same gloomy tones, culminating in an iconic scene inside the church of San Miniato, while Ron Howard’s Inferno (2016) gives shape to writer Dan Brown’s fervid imagination based on international conspiracies and apocalyptic visions, Renaissance-flavoured.
On a lighter tone, Amici Miei (My Friends, 1975), directed by Mario Monicelli, is a classic of Commedia all’Italiana (Italian-style Comedy). A group of five friends in their 50s, including a disgraced count and a head physician, frolic through Florence making practical jokes at the expense of their fellow citizens. In one of the most famous scenes of the film, the group gathers at Santa Maria Novella station to slap passengers sticking their heads out of a train. In another, the five pretend to be architects and surveyors sent to take measurements in a small village that must be demolished for the construction of a highway, leaving the local population in distress.
Amici Miei’s sense of humour would hardly pass a politically correctness test today, but that’s not the point. The film encapsulates the spirit of goliardia, that need to take life lightly – no matter how bitter it can get – which is rooted in Florence’s popular culture.
Something we could all benefit from, as well.