The Nidiaci in San Frediano, Florence
The Nidiaci is the modern name, used only from the 1950s on, for a garden hidden behind the Carmine church where the Renaissance began. It lies behind a gate on the narrow Via d’Ardiglione, where Filippo Lippi was born.
Today it is a unique experiment in “commoning”, being kept open by the families of the Oltrarno, who have made this small place the heart of the community of the historic district of the Green Dragon (Gonfalone del Drago Verde).
Apparently the gift of a widow, Monna Ermellina, to the Carmelite friars in 1273 – an order freshly arrived from England – it was for centuries an orchard and garden.
In 1838, it was bought by Emilio Santarelli, the son of Giovanni Antonio Santarelli: Giovanni Antonio had started life as an illiterate shepherd in the mountain village of Manoppello in Abruzzo (known for its shroud, a small competitor of the better-known Turin shroud), where he often left the sheep untended to model little figures in clay. A Franciscan noticed his skills, sent him to study, and Giovanni Antonio Santarelli became the most important gem engraver in Europe and a member of the Florentine academy (a plaque, hidden by a window shutter which is always open, commemorates him in Borgo Ognissanti).
In Florence he enjoyed the protection of General Menou, the French military governor who was also the only Muslim to have ever governed Tuscany; and then of Napoleon’s sister, Elisa.
At Elisa’s court, G.A. Santarelli met the French painter François-Xavier Fabre, who was a close friend of the Countess of Albany: the Countess was the wife of Bonny Prince Charlie, who after having failed to win the British throne, had fallen into drunken depression. The Countess, with the complicity of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, escaped from her husband; and then eloped with the greatest Italian poet of the time, Vittorio Alfieri.
Alfieri made the Countess his universal heir; and the Countess herself later made Fabre her universal heir.
Fabre himself made the young son of G.A. Santarelli his own universal heir (gossip has it that Emilio was Fabre’s son).
It was with this background and financial resources that Emilio Santarelli bought what we now call the Nidiaci, and built an elegant palazzo on it which he used as a home and a studio to make sculptures (including the first on the right when one enters Santo Spirito, the Michelangelo in the loggia of the Uffizi and even exporting sculptures to the USA).
In the garden, Santarelli raised no less than 400 different varieties of camelias, two of which today still bear the names of “Giardino Santarelli” and “Bella d’Ardiglione”.
We know his wife was named Sofia, and we also know that a mysterious Sofia Santarelli, in the late 19th century, translated a spate of books from English into Italian: though we have not been able to identify her with certainty, it is quite likely that it was the same person, so the Nidiaci may have played an important role in Italian involvement in Anglo-Saxon culture.
Emilio Santarelli made a donation of his collection of prints and works of art to the Uffizi – he is the most important single donor to the gallery in history.
A few months before his death, he sold the building and garden to an aristocrat from Provence, Achille Baille, a mysterious person of whose life we have a few fascinating glimpses.
We know that as a very young man, he was in the revolutionary French government of 1848; he was the secretary of Adolphe Crémieux, famous both for his active role in Jewish emancipation and for having abolished slavery, abolished the death penalty and introduced the eight hour working day in his short period as minister.
We then know that Achille Baille was on the run, sought for by Napoleon III’s police; four decades later, we see he purchased the Nidiaci; and on his death in 1913, we read in the French press that he made the single largest financial donation in its history to the Louvre gallery, while at the same time giving his properties in France to charitable institutions: the Catholic press stressed how the last survivor of the 1848 government had become a devout Catholic.
Strangely, Baille gave the Nidiaci to a Carmelite friar who was in charge of a small church in Marseilles: we suspect that here too, Achille Baille had some charitable intention, and in fact two years later, the building was rented to the Florence Municipality as a kindergarten.
The twentieth century
In those times, San Frediano was the poorest district of all Florence, the inhabitants of its dark and unhygienic houses were afflicted by tuberculosis: the garden played a vital role in the health of the children.
During WWI, Florence took in thousands of refugees, and in this the American Red Cross played a key role: the ARC in Italy was the first example of what would become a constant feature of US policy – gigantic fund raising, a humanitarian cause involving thousands of well-intentioned (and somewhat patronising) individuals, a great deal of propaganda and publicity and much good work.
The war having ended, the Commissioner of the Red Cross, Edward Otis Bartlett, decided to purchase the Nidiaci area with funds left over, to make it an “entity for popular education in the district of San Frediano, with special attention to children”.
The actual establishment of this “entity” was entrusted to two Italians: Umberto Nidiaci, a lawyer who had been deeply involved in organising relief activities during the war, and Carlo-Matteo Girard, who had married the daughter of a Marshall Cutler, an American craftsman in Florence.
Together, Girard and Cutler played a key role in turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau decorations and furniture. At some point, Girard decorated Mussolini’s apartments in Palazzo Venezia, then he moved to the USA, where his son, Alexander Girard, became the most famous industrial designer of the twentieth century.
What happened later is hard to make out: Umberto Nidiaci appears to have sought seriously to establish the “entity”, setting up a sports gym and a public kindergarten, run by the Municipality, but he died only a few years later, without the “entity” having been formally set up; at a certain point, Girard simply disappears from the documents.
Though the whole area was used exclusively for public purposes from 1915 to 2012, legal ownership seems to have slipped into the hands of the Nidiaci family: in 1954, they donated most of the garden to the Municipality, while keeping ownership of the building and a part of the garden.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Nidiaci became the heart of initiatives by an unusual group of individuals, the so-called cattocomunisti, intensely religious but very practical social activists, clustering around Florence’s mayor Giorgio La Pira, the noblewoman Fioretta Mazzei who had chosen a life of saintlypoverty and a priest known as “Don Cuba”. These three left a deep trace on the Oltrarno and are still fondly remembered.
Speculators and a Commons
In 2008, the part kept by the Nidiaci, who were in deep financial trouble, was taken over by the tax authorities. A former assistant electrician from Naples mysteriously paid the Nidiaci’s debts and bought the building and part of the garden – he also bought a dozen or so of the most historic buildings in Florence at the same time.
In 2012, the workmen of the new property broke the roof of the kindergarten, which was flooded with water and closed by the Municipality. The building was sold off as luxury flats, while the private part of the garden became a parking lot.
The people of San Frediano organised a series of demonstrations, and in 2013, the association of families of the district was given the keys to the part of the garden which was still public: since then, with permission (but no support) from the Municipality, the area has been run as a Commons by the families, who organise a wide range of activities for free – violin, singing, painting, English language courses, district feasts and tours for children to discover the history they were born amidst.
A specially important role is played by the Lebowski team, a football team democratically self-managed by fans and players, which has opened a free football school for children on the broken down ground of the garden.
The families are becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues: a little sensor measures the pollutants in the garden, waste collection is self-managed, birthday parties and picnics in the garden require those taking part to wash their own dishes.
The special feature of this Commons is its cross-sectional nature: people from every social class, every level of education and dozens of different national backgrounds come together, simply as parents, and discover how to share, build together, find healthier ways to feed their children, avoid producing disastrous amounts of waste, begin to “stand up, look around and scale that down too”.
Behind this lies an important idea. Florence, in history, has been the ultimate city, and the Oltrarno is the last part of this city, where community life still survives, despite enormous pressure in terms of evictions, B&Bs, traffic, tourism and night life.
In times when we are living on the brink of ecological and social catastrophe, in a very small community – the San Frediano district has some four thousand inhabitants – can something be done bottom-up to make a more resilient society?