Friday, May 17, 2013

Leonetto Mugelli, the building contractor who played a vanishing trick on the Carmine church

"On the façades or other parts of buildings visible from the street, it is forbidden to hang laundry or place objects on window sills and balconies which disturb the public decorum of the building.”

(extract from the regulations of the Municipal Police of Florence)

In the historical center of Florence, you can pick up a variety of anecdotes about objections made by the local authorities to even the slightest change in the appearance or the use of buildings in the historic center.

The Florentine artisans who work in the building trade are allowed to make only very minor changes to the interior of buildings - or they can clean the façades – but are never permitted to construct new buildings!

This is why the term “builder in Oltarno” sounds vaguely like “baker in the church.” (or: merchant in the temple)

Mr. Leonetto Mugelli is an exception. He distinguished himself long ago for arriving in the 197th position in an automobile race (though it is not clear just how this remarkable record was calculated).

In reality, he does not call himself a “builder in the Oltrarno”. To the English speaking world, he presents himself as follows:

But this is how he presents himself to Oltrarno:

In Via della Chiesa, until a few years ago, there was a carpentry workshop, with a large open courtyard where children played when they came out of the Torrigiani Elementary School, located across the street.

There was also one ancient stone and brick building that had survived the centuries, with mosaics and frescoes on the walls and an enormous fireplace in pietra serena, the elegant local gray stone used for architectural details such as stairways and window ledges.

But, above all, it was the one and only place where one could enjoy the back view of the apses of the Carmine Church. (The front of the church looks onto the piazza of the same name - precisely where the city intends to build a gigantic underground parking garage) in front of the entrance to the Brancacci Chapel, visited each year by thousands of discerning tourists.)

Anyway, this musty old stone construction in the courtyard behind the church has since disappeared, replaced by a modern three-storey building, the work of none other than Mr. Leonetto Mugelli.

This is the view at the back of the church that residents in Via della Chiesa previously enjoyed:

Until the summer of 2011.

That’s when the residents, on their return from summer holidays, suddenly found a totally new and more modern sight when they looked into the walled garden:

Mr. Leonetti Mugelli was busy constructing two more buildings in the courtyard behind the Carmine church.

A shining example of entrepreneurship in a time of crisis!! We can’t even question the legality of what was done, for the following reasons:

In the first place, Mr. Leonetto Mugelli "“is the owner of a construction company with specialized builders who has, for the past three generations, been at the service of the Superintendency of Fine Arts.”". Anyone who works for the Soprintendenza must by definition have great respect for the decorum of our city, as the municipal police regulations like to call it.

When Leonetto Mugelli was brought to court in 1994 for having supposedly paid off those in the Superintendency (the kickback was 10% of the total cost of the job), he denied the charges, claiming that, in any case, the court acknowledged that he was a victim of the system
"Six contractors, among whom Leonetto Mugelli, who has long been the preferred builder for the Fine Arts Department, are accused of aiding and abetting a crime: The judge recognized that they were victims of the system, but they were found guilty of perjury for having sworn that this was false.”

Not only, but also the fact that Leonetto Mugelli was a member of the Masonic Lodge, Unione Vittoria, that owed allegiance to Palazzo Giustiniani (as did Bruno Pacciani, who was accused of requesting bribes), makes one think he must have been particular respectful toward the old stonemasons who constructed the palaces of Florence. Even more, if we think that it was Delfo Biagiotti who denounced the bribes – a venerable Master of the Nuova Vita Lodge that owed obedience to Grand Orient Freemasonry.

Our information comes from an article published in the daily Repubblica, and we do not know the outcome of this case, but we would be happy to be able to report that our Contractor has come out clean.

But then, we don't know how another court case, in 1987,turned out, when Leonetto Mugelli and others were brought to court, accused of paying officials of the Superintendency to cover up false accounts - including non existent workmen - to get extra money from the State for restoration work on Florentine monuments.

But it must have turned out well, if we remember that Leonetto Mugelli was one of the contractors called on by the Florence Museum administration to work on the Medici Chapel

We would be glad to publish any reply by Mr Mugelli to this article, and promise to put it into decent English for free.

This is a slightly modified version of an article which first came out in Italian

Monday, February 25, 2013

Salvatore Leggiero, the real estate dealer who took away the children's garden in the Oltrarno

 Oltrarno is the last surviving neighborhood still populated by mixed social classes in the highly gentrified city of Florence; and San Frediano is the informal name of the part clustered around the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, where in a sense the Renaissance began.
A building company with the unlikely name of Amore and Psiche Holding (“Love and Psyche”), belonging to a certain Salvatore Leggiero from Milan, has put up a wall which bars the residents of San Frediano from access to half of the only public garden of the area, in front of the Ludoteca Nidiaci, (Via della Chiesa 44, 46 and 48) the children’s play center, and which has been open to the local residents and their children for the last 90 years.
And while they were at it, Amore and Psiche also took the initiative of privatizing the slides, jungle jims and playhouses of the ludoteca after they took possession of the space a few months ago. Perhaps the managers of the company plan to use the children’s slide to train for some competitive sporting event?
Now in San Frediano people don’t normally go about shooting one another, even though some of the older residents mumble that they should shoot those who are depriving the residents of a public utility. So, different from the Berlin Wall or the wall constructed by the Israelis in the Palestinian Territory, this one is only a wooden fence over 2 metres high. 
And since the Oltrarno is still a vibrant and lively neighborhood, someone quickly sounded the alarm, a little girl climbed up on the wall and snapped a photo, while others called the City Hall and notified the press.
Just think of a neighbourhood pulsating with life but with no space for the children to play other than the traffic-ridden streets or the narrow pavements, so narrow that only one cat at a time can fit - the second has to sit in the street. A neighborhood which has only one dusty square, with a small playground, a few benches and trees: Piazza Tasso, with its unique variety of habitués. 
There are also a few secret gardens, hidden inside the walls of the aristocratic palaces.
In 1923, the owner of one of these palaces, a gentleman by the name of Umberto Nidiaci, opened his garden to the children of the area, even inviting them to use his home as a play area.
For 90 years the residents of San Frediano have used this garden and the Nidiaci ludoteca, squeezed in behind the Carmine church and three buildings that a certain Leonetto Mugelli just put up in an area where, theoretically,  even minor restoration work requires the approval of the City Building Commission. On the other side of the church is the magnificent Piazza del Carmine,where the public-private consortium Firenze Parcheggi is eager to excavate a gigantic hole for an underground parking lot to draw lots of traffic and night life to the area.
The garden and the Nidiaci building were not open to everyone: when I first discovered them there was a Ludoteca run by excellent assistants, but only children and accompanying adults were admitted. On some occasions the elderly were also welcomed.
In this airy protected space with plants and trees, some children climbed the trees while others learned to play the violin with lessons given by an American musician. 
As the children amused themselves, the adults who accompanied them chatted or sat reading a book, knowing the children were safe in the enclosed garden.
In the 1950s, the owners donated half of the garden to the City of Florence and in 2008, they decided to donate the entire space: after all, it had been a public utility for 85 years and classified as such in the CityZoning Plan.
But before the donation was perfected, something happened that has never been clear. The property was put up for auction and was bought for a ridiculously low price by a company called S.a.p.a. Amore & Psiche Holding di Salvatore Leggiero e C. which refurbishes flats and rents them for short terms to well-off foreigners (remember the address of what was the Ludoteca - Via della Chiesa 48).
At the outset nothing appeared to have changed until, last autumn, the new owners began construction work in the space above the ludoteca. Whether intentional or not, the roof caved in and the ludoteca was declared unfit for use. From that moment the City closed it down (although in the afternoons a center for teen-agers remains in operation); when city officials later tried to open it, they found the door had been locked from the inside.
There are no funds for keeping up the Ludoteca. Someone told me that the City of Florence has only 10,000 euro in its budget for the upkeep and maintenance of public parks and spaces - but far more than that has been spent to repair the streets of the historic center on the other side of the Arno, the area where the tourists haunt the designer boutiques.
And this is how we stood by and watched as the Nidiaci was transformed into an empty shell surrounded by scaffolding, with trucks coming in to load or unload building materials – until we discovered the WALL.
The men in gray of Amore and Psiche had moved in. We will say something more about them in the next installment.

(by Miguel Martinez, originally written in Italian)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi takes stand against Oltrarno residents

Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, dropped out of local politics for several months to run in the center-left primary elections, where he came second.

Soon after coming back to Florence, he gave an interview to the local edition of Corriere della Sera (Corriere fiorentino). The interviewer asked him his opinion about the revolt of the Oltrarno district against a proposed underground parking lot in the historic Piazza del Carmine.

The Town Council had unanimously voted to put the project on a back burner while awaiting the outcome of consultations with the citizens. Apparently uninterested in this decision, Renzi comes out clearly on the side of building the parking lot:
"As soon as possible, I want to organize a public meeting to see those who say no in the face, and hear why. This scanty group [sparuto gruppo] of residents evidently does not know that, with 250 places for parking cars on its surface, one of Florence's most beautiful piazze will continue to be spoiled by a carpet of cars. This way, parking time for cars is definitely longer than it would be in an underground parking lot, where residents could enjoy reduced fees. My tongue is itching: the Town does something after forty years of talking, and all I hear are protests".

In other words, the mayor of Florence believes that opposition is limited to a "scanty group" of residents, apparently so ignorant as to be unaware that there are currently cars parked in Piazza del Carmine; and the fact that there are too many cars parked there leads the mayor to say that it is necessary to tear up the whole square and dig an underground parking lot into it, so as to attract more cars.

The "scanty group" are 1.400 residents who put their handwritten names and addresses (no dubious clicks on a website) on a petition against building the underground parking lot.

How scanty a group is that actually? The district directly involved in the parking lot project (between Via del Campuccio, Via de' Serragli and Porta San Frediano), in 2007 had 3.167 inhabitants altogether. Though not all petitioners come from this district, the vast majority certainly do.

In ecologically sensitive times, the mayor tries to make the residents look as if they were selfish people who prefer cars to monuments. 

Actually, on December 12 - the same day Renzi gave his interview - residents submitted no less than three different projects aimed at freeing the piazza from the cars currently occupying it, without however having to dig an enormous pit in the middle of it, which could damage the artistic heritage of the square, unsettle the weak soil below the unsteady foundations of the ancient buildings around, and would certainly block life in the whole district for years.

The issue is not therefore the "carpet of cars".

The issue is a proposal, submitted in May 2012 by Firenze Parcheggi - a company whose chairman just happens to be Matteo Renzi's main sponsor during the recent primary elections - which calls for replacing today's 247 surface parking places, currently reserved to residents, with 209 quickly revolving places designed to attract more traffic into the area and to take a large part of the district out of the restricted traffic zone.

The real issue is the one we have already explained in detail in this blog: the attempt to transform the last popular (and happily multi-ethnic) quarter of old Florence into a show window of banks and luxury boutiques during the day, and noisy pubs and discos during the night.

Oltrarno's residents will be happy to make sacrifices to have less traffic in the area, not more. Which is why they area asking for restricted traffic in the district 24 hours a day, no more large tourist buses roaring up and down the narrow Via de' Serragli and Via Romana, and the installation of pollution monitoring devices.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Cartoonist Sergio Staino supports the Oltrarno

Sergio Staino is one of Italy's best known cartoonists. 

This is his contribution to our struggle against the attempt to build an underground parking lot in Piazza del Carmine, in the heart of the Oltrarno district.

The scene is taken from the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a fresco painted by Masaccio around 1425, in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine church.

"They didn't just drive us out of the Garden of Eden... Now they're even destroying our piazza with the underground parking lot".

Monday, December 10, 2012

Oltrarno, the meaning of NoScav

Visitors these days to the narrow streets of Oltrarno will be struck by banners everywhere hanging from windows, with the words Carmine and NO SCAV written on them.
Carmine refers to the Chiesa del Carmine, the thirteenth-century church which stands at the very heart of the San Frediano district of Oltrarno, where speculators plan to dig a two, or possibly three, storey deep underground parking lot to bring more traffic into the district.

No Scav means "No allo scavo", "No to the dig", but chopped off in such a way as to rhyme with the well-known No TAV movement, opposing the digging of a 57-kilometer long tunnel through the Alps for the High Speed Train (Treno ad alta velocità) line - thus implying a free kinship of spirits with all those who oppose devastating waste of public funds in times like these.

However, the term also has other implications - "don't dig into our lives", "don't dig us out of our quartiere", a feeling strongly shared by the many kinds of people living in this district.

Just before the slogan gets out of hand - it was invented in October 2012 by Concetta, a lady of Oltrarno who has led an adventurous life around the world, especially in India, but has never forgotten her roots.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Oltrarno of Florence: Disneyland of the Renaissance or a Living Community?

Living in Florence's Oltrarno district provides a fascinating opportunity to see the forces at work creating, destroying and recreating community life.

Like most major European cities, Florence has an old district in the centre - the "centro storico" - and a large area of suburbs around which few tourists get to see.

The old district, within walls which were mostly torn down in a rampage of modernization in the late 19th century, is quite large and is mostly located on the north bank of the Arno River, with a smaller part on the south bank, called the Oltrarno, "beyond the Arno".

The north bank, better known to visitors, appears on the surface to be a bustling district: museums and monuments next to lively shop windows, elegant hotels and an endless catering system, ranging from restaurants for VIPs to pizza and kebab sellers.

Visitors are hardly aware that the resident population has almost entirely been driven out during the last three decades; shops catering to residents have almost all closed down, replaced by dealers in made-in-China souvenirs, banks and insurance companies.

Seen from the point of view of the Florentines, the whole north bank has become one divertimentificio, a "fun factory", where discotheques, pubs and night clubs serve a mixed crowd of tourists, non-resident students and visitors from other quarters of Florence. 

One element that has changed the life of the district has been the liberalization of the sale of alcohol, which has led to what they call "pub crawling" - agencies organize tours for young Americans, excited to discover a country where legal restrictions on alcohol consumption seem astonishingly lax. Drinking hard liquor, from pub to pub, many of the crawlers find themselves lying in the street early in the morning wondering why; as everywhere, locals tend to forget that not all Americans are that way, and that the agencies and pubs are run by Florentines.

The Oltrarno is almost the last corner of the old district which still has a resident population and a community structure.
Inhabited first by medieval workmen and craftsmen, then by the labourers who built up the new city a century and a half ago, the population today is very mixed: at the local elementary school, over half the parents were born abroad, a term which includes such diverse places as the USA and Ghana, Lithuania and Brazil, Germany and Albania.

The rest of the population still consists largely of workers and craftsmen, with a sprinkling of respectful intellectuals.

This ethnic diversity is hardly perceptible to those living here: living in the same buildings, sending children to the same schools, going to the same shops makes everyone quickly forget cultural differences. And this in turn leads to relationships largely based on sharing: families babysit for each other, plumbers fix the apartments of the English teachers that teach their children.

Though much changed through time, community life has been able to survive due to a range of factors. 

Strict regulations make it difficult to modernize old buildings, and this keep rents down.

A "limited traffic area" keeps non-resident traffic largely out of the district at least during the day.

A network of schools and kindergartens, with very committed teachers and staff, and involved parents.

The presence of local health care offices, where the elderly can go for medical visits without having to cross the city.

The survival of small shops, which serve residents at reasonable prices.

And the possibility for residents to park their cars near enough home, in the tight streets of the old town.

Things become more difficult in the evenings, when the area is opened up to general traffic, and the residents, who have no hope of finding a place to park, have to stay at home or move only on foot. Though not yet on the same level as the north bank of the Arno, the area is full of pubs and restaurants which attract a - mainly Italian - public of night-time viveurs.

However, things are going to change radically: the public authorities are gradually selling off the local health care offices, and the aging population will have to go directly to hospitals, none of which are near the Oltrarno.

Schools, a crucial place of community integration, have been hit by drastic financial cuts, and are able to provide less and less hours and services. The excellent kindergartens are being abandoned by the town government and handed over to improvised cooperatives.

Having killed the golden goose which made many a fortune on the north bank, speculators have decided to take on the south bank.

All at once, residents have woken up to find themselves the target of various interlocking projects.

The first concerns an unusual item of industrial archaeology, the Gasometer, located just outside the old city walls.

The town government has decided to make it a private fitness center and restaurant. The feasibility project speaks of bringing more tourists into the district, and gives a frank explanation of what is going on:

“A geographical analysis of the distribution of catering activities [...] shows that most are concentrated in the centro storico [actually the north bank of the Arno], while the market area involved in the project of recovery of the former gasometer [...] is less saturated and can be better exploited, both by people residing in the same area and by those residing in neighbouring towns, who find it hard to reach the centro storico".

At the same time, a large building just within the walls, in Piazza de' Nerli, has been bought by the city's richest hotel owner.

In September, Confesercenti, the powerful shopkeepers' lobby (which many small shopkeepers feel unrepresentative), launched "Progetto Oltrarno", to "bring out the soul of fiorentinità".

According to newspaper reports, the first problem, they said, was that Oltrarno is the only district of the old town where the majority of shop customers are local residents.

Tourist buses - which roar by the hundreds every day up and down the narrow Via de' Serragli and Via Romana, making coffee cups dance each time in the overlooking flats - must also be allowed to park and load and unload their customers in the district.

Hence the solution:
"A recipe for Florence's «rive gauche». More parking lots and wider kerbs, planning quality events and identifying places to board tourist buses  in piazza Tasso and Porta Romana."

The words "Rive Gauche", applied to the Oltrarno, sound sinister in view of what has happened to Paris, a city where the old popular communities have been almost entirely expelled into the outskirts.

Local residents fear a "Borgo dei Greci effect" - the name refers to an area of the Santa Croce district in the old town which has been completely abandoned by its residents and taken over by the tourist business.

The mayor, Matteo Renzi, sees it differently: he says the "Borgo dei Greci" effect 

"would not be negative. The proposal by these shopkeepers of the Oltrarno come from a difference with those of Santa Croce, who over the years have been more able to attract tourists".

The deputy mayor, Dario Nardella, adds that the town government aims at bringing in rich tourists and involving "luxury hotels and antiquarians" in the colonization of the Oltrarno.

This summer, a place was identified to fit all the new traffic expected to come to Oltrarno.

An underground parking lot to be dug into the medieval remains and underlying mud and water of Piazza del Carmine, replacing the current 250 free parking places for residents with 209 places for transitory clients paying three Euros an hour.

A costly work in times of crisis, which will make the area unlivable at least for the three officially scheduled years it will take to dig and build. In an swampy area of ancient buildings, many built without true foundations, even the feasibility plan for the parking lot admits that there are dangers, not only to neighbouring houses, but also to the thirteenth-century Carmine church, with its annexed Brancacci Chapel and cycle of frescoes, considered by many to be the cradle of the Renaissance.

Though perhaps some shops will profit in the long run by adapting to the new tourist market, many others will be forced to close during the works; and residents will be left without any possibility of parking their cars during the works (the project generously sets aside 35 parking places for residents at 65.000 euros each, more than most residents of Oltrarno earn in several years).

Firenze Parcheggi, the company which drew up the plan for making the parking lot on public soil, is officially private, but 49% of the capital belongs to the town government of Florence. And the chairman of the company, Marco Carrai, is a businessman who organized both election campaigns of Matteo Renzi: first his successful one to become mayor, then his more ambitious but failed bid to become the premier of Italy through the primary elections of the center-left coalition.

The banking institute of the Florence local government, Ente Cassa di Risparmio del Comune di Firenze, on whose board Marco Carrai also sits, recently decided to invest 10 million Euros of local government funds in Algebris Investments, a company initially established in the Cayman Islands and calling itself a “boutique assets management company”. A few days after pocketing the amount, the founder of Algebris Investments, Davide Serra, officially joined Matteo Renzi's political campaign.

It is interesting how the idea of opening the Oltrarno up to traffic is in a way the opposite of what is happening in the already-dead part of Florence, where large areas have been turned into pedestrian zones serving the great fashion shops along the streets.

The Piazza del Carmine parking lot, though it seems to be a mere local traffic measure, will sound the death knell for the last community within the walls of old Florence.

Residents will go elsewhere, splitting up according to their financial possibilities: some will move to what we might call "all white" districts, others to ethnic ghettos, with all that this means in terms of stunted cultural growth and costs to society.

Local residents are mobilizing and putting all the pressure they can on institutions to save the Oltrarno.

However, we strongly hope for solidarity from all who know and love Florence around the world.

At the very least, please get this article around and give us a link!