Giovanni Fanelli. Florence Lost: As Seen in the 120 Paintings by Fabio Bortottoni. Translated by Forrest Selvig. Introduction by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver. Milan: Franco Maria Ricci, 1985.
The silence entered the city in the early afternoon. It slipped through the turreted, battlemented gates, occupied the loggias arch by arch, flowed along the streets grazing the walls, huddled against the embankments, filled the ramparts.
Italo Calvino’s short essay, “Silence and the City”, is included in the work on the paintings of Fabio Bortottoni (1820-1901). The sentence quoted above opens both the essay and the larger work. After a passage describing the fall of silence across the city, Calvino describes the material of silence. He writes:
Silence is made of stone; it is something that is inside walls, in building materials. It is the living of a masonry world, all facades, rough and smooth, rusticated, stuccoed. Silence is a solid: it speaks through volumes, edges, outcrops, and niches in the surfaces, through tympana and apses. It expresses itself in the multiple facets of those opaque crystals, the concretions of buildings in the taciturn cities. Those who attempt to make walls talk by sticking written words onto them have missed the whole point of walls: walls express themselves in the long silences of light and shadow that fall on their uniform surfaces, in the blind stare of rows of windows. (pg 14-15)
Through the lens of Calvino, the reader comes to the paintings of Borbottoni. One cannot help but feel that Calvino’s silence has befallen the city of Florence. Borbottoni included figures in many of his paintings; however, it is the mass of the buildings, the light and shadow that dominate the paintings. Even in the busy markets, there is a quietness among the people.
According to Fanelli, Borbottoni hoped to document the lost and changing fabric of the city of Florence with his 120 paintings. Fanelli argues, however, that these images are not accurate representations of the city. Borbottoni used various documents to create paintings for the no longer extant structures. Even with those buildings or parts of the city that he would have known first hand, Borbottoni used artistic license. Fanelli concludes, “Together the pictures in the collection constitute a long tale of lights and shadows.” (pg 19-26)
For those interested in the architecture and the city fabric of Florence, the two volume set would be most useful so long as one follows Fanelli’s cautionary remarks. And for those that are not, Borbottoni’s works are beautiful studies of light, shadow, and silence.