Mario Gigliucci and his Villino in Piazza Savonarola
In 1886, the Gigliucci family moved to the Villa Romana, well outside the center of Florence on Via Senese. It was during this time at the Villa Romana that Mario Gigliucci began thinking seriously about building his own house in Florence. Several years prior, Mario had acquired a plot of land in Piazza Savonarola, just outside the boundary of the old city walls. Though the medieval walls that once surrounded the city had been demolished in the 1860s as part of Giuseppe Poggi’s grand plan to modernize Florence during its short reign as the capital of Italy (1865-1871), the social stigma attached to the division between urban and rural life marked by those walls persisted in the minds of many Florentines, particularly among the nobility.
1892, the Gigliucci family moved into the Villa Rossa: In fact, some of the Gigliucci’s friends openly criticized this location saying that it was too far away from the center of town, out in the middle of the fields. Though today the area of Piazza Savonarola hardly seems such a removed and rustic environment, in the 1880s and ‘90s it was only sparsely developed, and the piazza itself was little more than a field of poppies isolating the imposing statue of Girolamo Savonarola erected in 1882. Nonetheless, it was in this setting that Mario envisioned the new family residence; and, effectively, this location – which straddled the boundary between urban and rural Florence – allowed Mario Gigliucci and his family to enjoy the best of both worlds. Thus, during the years the Gigliucci stayed at the Villa Romana, Mario Gigliucci conceived, designed and supervised the construction of the Villa Rossa in Piazza Savonarola, or his Villino as he called it. Finally, in the fall of 1892, the Gigliucci family moved into the Villa Rossa.
In fact, even a cursory examination of the Villa’s asymmetrical, three-part exterior reveals how it differs from the unified, monolithic form of the traditional turn-of-the-century Florentine palazzo or villa. The exterior of the Villa Rossa also presents other unorthodox elements that differ from the staid and somber tradition of Florentine palazzo facades, such as the small corner loggiato over the entrance door, the walkway decorated underneath with hanging baskets that wrapped around to a side terrace, and the rooftop garden that looked out over the front of the house.
Unusual as the order of the exterior was, the breakdown of the interior space in many ways followed traditional patterns. The basement level was reserved for practical services such as the kitchen and storage spaces. The ground-floor level was dedicated largely to family life and featured rooms such as two studies (one for Mario Gigliucci and another for his wife), a large sitting room with a billiard room connected to it, and a dining room fitted with beautifully carved wood panels. Between the ground floor and the first floor was a mezzanine level which was used for servants’ quarters. The first floor was reserved for bedrooms and guest rooms. The second floor consisted of a playroom for the children, which opened onto the rooftop terrace, and more servants’ quarters. From top to bottom these four levels were connected by two sets of servants’ stairs, or “secret stairs” as they were called, hidden away on either side of the building, while the ground floor rooms were connected to the first floor by a grand staircase that wrapped around the foyer.
In terms of the decoration of the different rooms in the house, a great deal of time and effort went into creating a beautifully unique environment. Though the second-story and some ground-floor rooms no longer have their original tempera paint designs, the decorations in many of the other rooms still remain. For example, in the first floor bedrooms (today used as administrative offices) one can still see the ceiling borders composed of ribbons, poppies, passion flowers, wild grapevines, and other flower motifs and fanciful patterns, reflecting the immediate rural surroundings.
The Villa Rossa and Syracuse University
In 1906 Mario’s wife Edith died, and he was left to play the roles of both father and mother for his children. Mario himself died in 1937. Both Nerina and Donatello eventually married and left the Villa Rossa to set up their own households elsewhere. Bona, however, never married and continued to live in the Villa Rossa until her death in 1981. For several years, the Gigliucci children tried to sell the house, as they could no longer maintain it.
Spring of 1959: John Clark Adams, the former labor attaché at the US Embassy to Italy and professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, traveled to Italy to work out the logistics of establishing a program for overseas study for Syracuse University students in Italy. By the fall of that year, the first students had arrived by ship for the inaugural year of study.
For four years Syracuse rented the Villa and in that time established a very positive relationship with the Gigliucci family. In 1963, when Nerina, the oldest of the Gigliucci children, died, the need to sell the Villa became more pressing. Thus, that same year the Villa was sold to Syracuse, largely because of the excellent rapport the university had already established with the family as well as the fact that it agreed to allow Bona, then in her early eighties, to continue to live in the Villa as long as she wished. From 1963 to 1981 Bona Gigliucci lived on the top floor of the Villa Rossa while the Syracuse Program in Florence occupied the rest of the house. Those who had the honor of knowing Bona Gigliucci, or “the Contessa,” as she was respectfully called, remember her most for her graceful and jovial presence, her generosity, her admiration and affection for those who came to teach and study here in Florence. Throughout these twenty-two years, Bona Gigliucci regularly descended to meet the new student and faculty arrivals, setting a gracious tone of welcome and elegance that she sustained throughout the school years with occasional teas and meals for directors and faculty. Her cosmopolitan nobility, so characteristic of the Gigliucci, provided an inspiration to the young Americans experiencing Europe and Italy for the first time.
Over the years, Professor John Clark Adams and his colleague from the Maxwell School, Professor Stephen Koff, alternated every two years as directors, forging a program with an entirely different character from any American study abroad program before it. Students with no previous background in Italian were invited to study in the program, and to expand their academic interests from subjects traditionally associated with the Grand Tour in Florence like art history and literature to include contemporary Italian politics, European politics and culture. From the beginning, they engaged with their host society not only in the classroom, but also after hours, residing and sharing meals with host families. Like the Gigliucci before them, the faculty and students of the Villa Rossa have built themselves a place in the Florentine community, even offering extraordinary assistance during the 1966 flood, through which process they forged themselves new identities as world citizens.
Between 1959 and now, the elegant interior and lush garden of the Gigliucci villa has provided ample space for Syracuse University to grow from the first class of 30 students to become one the largest American university programs in Italy of its kind, with 650 undergraduate and graduate students per year, still mostly living with host families. The educational mission has remained the same, of study as well as engagement with both history and the present. Students study under more than thirty professors from Europe and the United States, with courses at the Villa Rossa in Humanities and Social Sciences, Fine Arts, Italian Language and Literature, Women’s and Gender Studies, and with studio classes in Architecture and Studio Arts at other facilities nearby.
Though very few of the Gigliucci family’s furnishings and effects have remained in the Villa and some changes have been made to the structure to accommodate the practical needs of the school, the spirit of the house as the Gigliucci knew it lives on. For the Gigliucci family the Villa was the focus of everyday life and in many ways defined their ties to their adoptive city of Florence, just as it has done for Syracuse students. It is, in a sense, a place whose mission extends far beyond the boundaries of its walls as it unites the students, faculty and staff of Syracuse University in Florence with the Florentine community and the diverse foreign communities – such as the German artists at the Villa Romana – within Florence itself. Though the growth of Florence has made it more an urban villa than one straddling city and country, the Villa Rossa continues to negotiate between two worlds, uniting generations of students and their European hosts across the Atlantic.