The Sage Princess
Meet the woman who ‘made Florence’ at Il Fuligno, one of the city’s ‘secret’ gems. By Jane Fortune
Located on the far-too-busy Via Faenza, en route to the train station and just steps from the San Lorenzo district, you’ll find the little-known Il Fuligno complex whose deconsecrated baroque church Sant’Onofrio hosts an engaging theatrebased tribute to Florentine culture. ‘The Medici Dynasty Show’ is a two-actor extravaganza that spans three centuries and spotlights a question particularly close to my heart: Who can we thank for making Florence what it is today?
Michelangelo and Pontormo. Leonardo and Brunelleschi. Donatello. Botticelli. Their art is paramount to the city’s identity. But most do not know is that none of their works would be in the city today if it were not for one woman, known as the Sage Princess, Anna Maria Luisa, the last of the Medici heirs.
Anna Maria Luisa has been at the forefront of my thoughts since February of last year when a distant, modern-day branch of the Medici clan gifted her portrait commissioned in 1745 to Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Because of my work with Advancing Women Artists (AWA), a US foundation that researches, conserves and exhibits art by women in Florence, I was approached by Palazzo Vecchio’s curator who wondered if I’d like to personally sponsor a project that would restore the painting to its original dignity. Once finished, it will be displayed in Palazzo Vecchio’s Receiving Room, where the Mayor welcomes diplomats from all over the world.
The Medici Dynasty Show is set on June 24, 1737, the day on which Anna Maria Luisa entered the Palazzo Pitti through a secret passage, for she had been banned from the palace for 14 years by Gian Gastone, her perennially inebriated brother, remembered almost solely for his wild abandon. As one of the two heirless children of Cosimo III, she insisted they devise a way to keep the Austrians from dismantling all that the Medici had achieved during their 300-year stint as Florence’s leaders.
Anna Maria Luisa was indeed a forward-thinking individual, which may explain why their father had issued a decree that, after her brother’s death, she
It is thanks to Anna Maria Luisa that the city’s art was not sold off piece by piece to support the indebted Austrians. It is purely to her credit that Florence has become the tourist destination it is today
would rule the Grand Duchy despite her gender, a pronouncement that was blatantly ignored by European powers. Though she did not have the power to prevent the Medici patrimony from passing into the hands of the Habsburg-Lorraine, she devised a ‘Family Pact’ making it unlawful to sell or remove any of this property from Tuscany, where it would remain to ‘ornament’ the state, to ‘benefit’ the public and to ‘attract the curiosity of foreigners’. Thus, it is thanks to Anna Maria Luisa that the city’s art was not sold off piece by piece to support the indebted Austrians. It is purely to her credit that Florence has become the tourist destination it is today.
The one-hour play, conceived, produced and acted by a handful of creative personalities from Italy, Australia, England, Argentina and the United States, is not just a form of edutainment, but perfect for both Florence ‘veterans’ and newcomers. It also provides the opportunity to know and love Il Fuligno, the former religious complex that hosts the show and truly steals the heart.
What can Il Fuligno tell us about Renaissance women?
Rediscovering the forgotten women artists of Tuscany and restoring their works is my life’s mission, and while working to recover their stories, the greater context of the history of Florentine women is unveiled. In the Renaissance, over 50 percent of the city’s noblewomen - half of its literate female population - lived in convents such as Il Fuligno, which was known as the ‘Convent of Countesses’ because so many of its sisters were of noble blood.
Contrary to popular belief, early convents in Florence were centres of learning and art production, not solely the repressive religious institutions we are tempted to consider them today. Today, the complex is managed by Montedomini, a religious institution dedicated to providing social services and healthcare. In its heyday, Fuligno was supported by one of Florence’s most enlightened sons, Lorenzo, the Magnificent, the very leader who put the production of cultural treasures before any of the power struggles that plagued Europe during his time. You’ll remember, for example, that it was Il Magnifico who recognized the 14-year-old Michelangelo’s burgeoning talents on a walk through his sculptural works in the San Marco workshops.
Scholars through the ages, particularly Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, recognize Anna Maria Luisa as the true heir to Lorenzo, the Magnificent. Though more than two hundred years separate their lives and legacies, she harboured his same conviction that culture not politics would gain Florence lasting power - the power to inspire the human heart and mind.
Visitors to Il Fuligno will have their share of inspiration, starting with the chance to admire its fifteenth-century architecture. The complex’s greatest kept secret was revealed to the world in the 1800s with the discovery that its dining hall hosts The Last Supper of Pietro Perugino (1493-96). Originally attributed to Raphael it is now one of the best-loved frescos in a city that abounds with renditions of this theme. Perugino’s fresco is a reminder that Florence’s top families - the Medici, the Bardi and the Strozzi - all poured funds into Il Fuligno, making it the treasure trove we enjoy today.
According to Florentine aristocratic traditions, dowries were only prepared for the eldest daughter, while younger female siblings would more often than not be sent into convent life. So, though these women did not have the right to personal money, their families did shower art commissions on their convents, which were held to pray for each dynasty’s well-being, both spiritual and material.
Zeroing in on the heart of Florentine art
Because of my love for restoration, I find Il Fuligno especially exciting. The complex is full of lovely, muted frescos by Neri di Bicci, a painter who worked in Florence during the fifteenth century. He authored the interesting work, Derision of
Christ and his Annunciation with Commissioner is also worthy of mention: a small image of Ginevra de’ Bardi, the aristocrat who founded the convent, is kneeling next to the Madonna. (It is always nice to see a woman represented as art patroness!) The complex was also decorated by Neri’s son Bicci di Lorenzo, often praised for incorporating both ‘modern’ Renaissance trends with tried-and-true medieval flair. I particularly love his Nativity on the first floor which was extensively damaged by Florence’s 1966 flood.
Because this merciless deluge was fundamental to revolutionizing how Florence (and the world) tackled conservation challenges, I find Bicci di Lorenzo’s frescos a true source of reflection. On 4 November 1966, the former convent received
Scholars through the ages... recognize Anna Maria Luisa as the true heir to Lorenzo, the Magnificent. Though more than two hundred years separate their lives and legacies, she harboured his same conviction that culture not politics would gain Florence lasting power - the power to inspire the human heart and mind
Right: Bicci di Lorenzo’s Nativity in Il Fuligno, which was damaged by the flood in 1966 Above: Scene from The MediciDynastyShow with actors Carolina Gamini and Tim Daish and written by Arone, Rosati, Gamini, Garreffa Top: TheLastSupper by Pietro...
Left: Anna Maria Luisa in Portraitof AnnaMariaLuisade’ Mediciwithflowers by Antonio Franchi, c. 1682–1683