Reimagining American Community

[An update from our friend Miguel Martinez, an activist for the commons currently living in Florence Italy.]

On June 7th, a small event—hopefully a symbolic one for everyone dismayed at watching Europe’s historic centres being turned into Disneylands–took place in Florence, when the children of the city’s Oltrarno district planted forty rhizomes of iris about one hundred metres from the famous Brancacci Chapel, where Masaccio unwittingly unleashed the Renaissance (and also painted an extraordinary allegory of the Commons).

To understand the significance of this gesture, one needs to put several strands together.

The first strand is hard to find: just behind the Carmine church, in Florence’s Oltrarno district, there lies a garden hidden behind a high wall. called the “Nidiaci”, a gift by the American Red Cross in 1920 to the children of what was then the poorest district of the city, riddled with TB and crime.

Today the inhabitants of the centre of Florence–like those of so many other cities–are wrestling with a different scourge. They are being driven out by an Airbnb economy based on evictions, empty houses, craftsmen overwhelmed by taxes, losing their workplaces to pubs and tp people who have no contact with the area they sleep in for a night or two, while bartenders and cooks commute every night for miles, to reach their zoned homes, poisoning everybody’s air with their polluting emissions.

Some Florentines, one suspects, make money by gluing their ancestors’ bones to clothes hangers and putting them up in their shop windows.

However, the hidden Nidiaci garden has become a rallying place for old and new residents–traditional Florentine craftsmen alongside Moldavian house cleaners and American artists–who keep it open as a commons: arts, music, crafts, a vegetable garden, a football school, set up by the legendary Lebowski team (the only Italian soccer club owned by its fans) and guided tours for local children, to remind them that they are the guardians of the rich history of Florence, wherever their parents may have been born.

Children’s concert at the Nidiaci garden.

The second strand concerns the name of Florence, supposedly derived from the Latin flos, “flower”: a city founded, according to legend, during the Roman festival of Floralia, an image which immediately brings to mind Flora in Botticelli’s Primavera, so beautifully imagined in Evelyn De Morgan’s painting Flora, sold to a Scottish patron.

Flora, Evelyn De Morgan

On the bottom right of the painting, a small tag, written in medieval Italian, says,

“I come down from Florence and am Flora,

This city takes its name from flower

Among the flowers I was born and now by a change of home

I have my dwelling among the mountains of Scotia

Welcome me, and let my treasure amid northern mists be dear to you.”

The heraldic symbol of Florence, since before Dante, has always been the fleur-de-lys, as it appears on the town banners.

The fleur-de-lys is actually an iris, the humble giaggiolo which until not so many years ago used to grow everywhere along the banks of the Arno, but has now nearly disappeared.

Next to Piazzale Michelangelo, where tourists enjoy a splendid view over the city, there is another little known garden, kept open only a few weeks a year by a group of enthusiasts and dedicated exclusively to the iris.

The third strand is the University of Florence, where Professor Stefano Mancuso has opened a new field of research, that of plant sensitivity, establishing the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology. Right now, probably the most prominent cultural event in town is an unlikely experiment set up by Mancuso and a German artist, in the courtyard of the Renaissance Palazzo Strozzi, on the relations between plant and human psychology.

The Florence Experiment is a research project where visitors slide down a structure from a height of 20 metres; their emotional reactions will be recorded and compared with those of plants to examine the empathetic possibilities between humans and plant organisms.

The issue of relations between plants and us, is of course enormous, quite simply because without plants, we would cease to exist; and our future therefore depends on how we relate to them.

This takes us to the fourth strand. Professor Mancuso has launched an interdisciplinary master’s degree, called “Plant Future”–Futuro Vegetale–bringing together scholars from very different fields (biology, sociology, architecture, political science) who are seeking a way out of the suicidal course we are currently engaged in.

Then there is the fifth strand, Florence’s Calcio fiorentino, a no-holds-barred form of football developed in Florence in Renaissance times, played between the four historic districts of the old part of Florence,

Though it is a rediscovered tradition (dating back to the 1930s), it is firmly rooted in local culture, and is the strongest source of identity of the Oltrarno district, which is of the “White” colour, and where a hardy group of unpaid bar keepers, electricians and carpenters risk their lives every year for the match dedicated to Saint John, the city patron.

The official matches are a municipal institution, so fans and players have set up an independent organisation, recreating the fourteenth-century fraternity of the “Whites”, the Compagnia dei Bianchi, one of the countless lively community organisations of medieval Italy, to develop local solidarity and work on issues of charity.

The scholars of Plant Future decided that the most symbolic place in Florence to launch new ideas for founding a city was the Nidiaci garden, with its plants, trees and human community. The first irises would be there, then they would be gradually planted wherever people took care of community gardens.

So they went to the Iris Garden, where the organisers immediately understood, and gave forty of their best rhizomes, kept for international competitions, to plant in the Nidiaci.

This represented a minute beginning of a renewal of the whole city, on an entirely different basis.

Then the scholars came over to visit the garden.

An Albanian mother, who sells shirts in the market at San Lorenzo and teaches the children how to grow tomatoes and melons in the Nidiaci garden, decided where the rhizomes should be planted.

Then the organisers got in touch with the Compagnia dei Bianchi, because it was fundamental for them to be present in such a special moment.

All of this is very small, and very concentrated.

And smallness, and concentration, is exactly what we all need.

As Rising Appalachia wonderfully put it,

Stand up, look around and then scale that down too!”



About the Author
A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for Strong Towns, the American Scholar, the New Urbs blog, and the Gary Catholic Worker and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.