Dear fellow travellers
Fiesole is the perfect retreat from Florence. The Tuscan city extolled by Elizabeth Barrett Browning as “the most beautiful of the cities devised by man” (sic!) can be wretched in summer heat, but Fiesole – perched so scenically on the hills just outside Florence – has a more amiable climate. So generations of artists, scholars, writers and literati have put Fiesole on our mental map of Tuscany.
With its handsome villas, lavish gardens and sweeping views over the valley of the River Arno, Fiesole developed as a fabled spot. Not all literary visitors were totally impressed. Aldous Huxley had his doubts, rather acerbically dismissing Fiesole as ‘villadom’.
Fiesole was a place for political intrigue, a retreat to be creative and a spot to just relax. It was in and around Fiesole that Dante Alighieri passed long summer days with Beatrice Portinari. Hermann Hesse, EM Forster and Henry James all had productive stays at Fiesole. Particular villas were especially favoured by writers merely on account of talented former occupants. Who wouldn’t want to go to the Villa il Palmerino, on the hillside below Fiesole, knowing that Thomas Mann, André Gide and Edith Wharton had all previously been guests at the villa?
A place apart: beyond the city
Fiesole is interesting as an example of a community which at first sight relies on its connection with metropolitan sophistication. Just as Semmering in the hills south-west of Vienna is often seen as a mountain extension of Viennese salon society, so Fiesole thrives on its symbiotic link with the Tuscan capital in the valley below.
Yet Fiesole is more than merely an appendage of Florence. It is a city in its own right, a place which has often rivalled and challenged Florence. It’s a mark of Fiesole’s status that it was elevated early to a bishopric and the community’s small cathedral today pulls a steady stream of visitors.
A striking aspect of Fiesole in recent years, perhaps no longer so evident in these pandemic days, has been the number of young voices from across Europe and beyond. Fiesole has developed as a favoured spot for summer schools and research seminars. The European University Institute, a major hub for policy-related scholarship, has been based in Fiesole since its creation in 1972, its professors and students doing all they can (in EUI’s words) “to shape social progress and the advancement of the European spirit.”
Academics have a natural tendency to cluster, and many North American universities have established study centres in Fiesole, where students come for a semester to learn about Renaissance art and history, study Italian or just have fun. Georgetown University has its base in the Villa Le Balze, while Harvard is not far away at the Villa I Tatti – both properties have lavish gardens.
The American presence in particular gives a certain feel to Fiesole, shaping the community into a sort of Italian version of the Colorado town of Aspen. And it adds to the mix of what is essentially a place for gathering, ideas and conversation – commodities of which we have been so deprived during the COVID interregnum.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)