Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

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Old Florence in Photo-Quality Oil Paintings by Fabio Borbottoni (1820-1902)









Here's a report on the exhibit by SeeTen, an English-language television produced for Florentine hotels.  Clink on their link to view what is showing right now.



Fabio Borbottoni (1820-1902) was an artist in his spare time, but by profession, he was an accountant for a railway company.

He painted Florence just before she was revamped to take her place as the new capital of a unified (partially at that point) Italy, a project named Il Risanamento.

He painted Florence with accountant-like attention to detail, and with a native's attention to mood and emotion, sanitizing the settings to create the romance of a city he could see was about to change.

Many of his subjects were being photographed by the Alinari Brothers as part of their Florence series, and by other photographers.  But Borbottoni was able to gain perspectives and convey emotions that the stark black and white images could never convey.

His paintings are now owned by an Italian bank and were put on show at their headquarters in 2007 (see the YouTube video in the left column for a news report on the show).  The show was free, and very popular with Florentine natives.

Places and buildings they had read of in the Old Market and Old Ghetto areas, but which had long since been destroyed, were brought to life before their eyes.  The area was destroyed in the 1880s to make way for the Piazza della Repubblica.

The Old Market area and the Old Ghetto evolved from the ancient Roman Forum area of Florentie, the Roman colony on the banks of the Arno.  Much of the medieval part of Renaissance Florence was destroyed at that time.

I link, via the titles, to wonderful descriptions of the locations at Wikipedia Italia (in Italian). 

And there was an art book with prints of the paintings and photos of the sites, but it is, sadly, no longer available.  Also out of print is Piero Bargellini's Com'era Firenze 100 anni fa, Bonechi editore, Firenze 1998.

If you are in Florence, try to visit the Museum Firenze com'era in via Oriuolo in the old Oblate Convent.  They have a model of the areas of the city that were torn down, as well as a model of the Roman town Florentie.


Il Carcere delle Stinche

This was a privately run prison in the center of Florence on Via Ghibellina from roughly 1300 to the early 1800s.  The only entrance was the small door Borbottoni shows on the right side, dubbed The Door of Miseries by Florentines.  The more a prisoner could pay the prison-masters, the better his treatment inside.


Church della Palla

Later, this church was christened The Church of Santa Maria in Campidoglio.

The origins of this church are so old that no one really knows how old it was before it was despoiled of it's art and precious metal in 1785 by the then Grand Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo (the Austrians took over the title when the Medici died out).

It was in an area called the Old Market (Mercato Vecchio) that was torn down in 1888 to make the monumental square Piazza della Repubblica, to honor a newly unified Italy.


The Church of San Pier Buonconsiglio

This church, too, was in the Old Market area of Florence.  It, too, dates back to before 1000, was deconsecrated and despoiled by the Grand Duke Leopold, and it was torn down to make way for the new Piazza and her surrounding buildings.

It seems that the double stairway was typical of many churches in the Old Market area.  Monumental front steps are a luxury of wide open spaces.  The truth was, that the Old Market area consisted of many poorly maintained, old buildings, lived in by Florence's down-and-outs, and was full of dark, narrow, medieval alleyways.

If you compare Borbottoni's painting to the black and white photograph taken in the 1880s, and reproduced below, you'll see that Borbottoni gives the impression that the street is much wider than it is, and full of light.  Messy details, like store signs, are removed.



Old Market - Mercato Vecchio

Church of San Tommaso

The Church of San Tommaso was situated in a corner of the Piazzetta del mercato, the Old Market of Florence that was the commercial center of the city from the year 1000. 

It was near this square that the patriarch of the Medici family, Giovanni de' Medici set up his home and money-lending business, in the Jewish district (Ghetto).  While the de' Medici were not Jewish, their business was considered a Jewish business, so that is where they had to live and work.

Visit this page at the Wikipedia Commons for more images of the Old Market and the surrounding areas.  The last 100 years of the Old Market area's life saw much degradation and decay.  It became the red-light district of Florence.



In this photograph taken in the 1880s, you can see the church in the corner, directly under the Cathedral's dome.  The square was torn down to create wide roads and the impressive Piazza della Repubblica (Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II, at the time).


Church of Sant'Andrea

This church was in the Old Market area, too, and torn down.  Here I show Borbottoni's version, and a photograph that was taken in the 1880s just before the church was torn down.



Borbottoni painted the Church of Sant'Andrea from another pespective.  Here we are on the church steps, looking down into the medieval alley below the church, complete with old walkways and buttresses between the buildings.


Piazza della Luna is another square in the Old Market district that shows the classic medieval architecture of the area.


Church of Santa Maria degli Ughi

The church sits in the near right of this painting in what was then Piazza delle cipolle (Onion Square).  Like many of the churches that were in Florence at that time, this was a church paid for by a family, this one by the Ughi, and old and influential Florentine family. 

It was later taken over by the Strozzi family as their private chapel.  People were required to pray often in those days, and attend mass daily, so having a church on your doorstep was a wonderful convenience for the wealthy.


The church sat opposite Palazzo Strozzi, which is better visible in the second painting of the square.  Oddly, in this painting, the building at the end of the square is altered, and unrecognizable in the square today.


Today, the square is called Piazza Strozzi.  The church was long ago torn down, and replaced by a palazzo, Palazzo Mattei.