Volume 17 • Issue 18 | SEPTEMBER 24 - 30, 2004

Loretta Caponi Emroidery.

A piece of Florence Downtown

By Janel Bladow

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Joyce Acciaioli Rudge spends these days racing from her Broadway office, cell phone in hand, to Federal Hall to uncrate rare works of art, then across Lower Manhattan to the Winter Garden where cartons of handcrafted treasures are being carefully unpacked.

“It all started with a germ of an idea and grew to all this,” says the creator of Splendor of Florence, an 11-day extravaganza of food, crafts, paintings, opera, films and lectures that’s taking over downtown on September 30. Downtown landmarks such as Federal Hall, the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden and even Pace College will get will have an authentic Italian aura.

“I wanted to do a tribute to my grandparents. I saw that my grandfather was happiest on weekends when he was working with his hands. I wanted to preserve this.”

Both of her grandfathers were artisans from the Molise region between Rome and Naples. Her grandfather, Antonio Acciaioli, arrived from Florence, Italy, around 1910 where he met his wife, Antonetta, and settled into the tight Italian community around Charles Street in Providence, Rhode Island.

Her parents married and moved in with his parents until they could afford a home of their own, up the street where Rudge grew up.

“On weekends, my grandfather returned to his roots as a stonemason, building birdbaths, walls, sidewalks, fireplaces and planters. During the week when he went to work he was always so gruff but on weekends, when working with his hands, he was his happiest.”

Her fascination with her grandparents work and her Italian heritage grew as Rudge took off for Europe in the 1960s to seek her fame and fortune as a fashion model in Paris.

“I ended up going to Florence and tracking down my roots. That’s when I realized the important contribution Florentine artisans had made to the world and how dangerously close to obscurity they are.”

That’s one reason why the Florentine artists are a key component of Splendor. Eight actual artisan studios will transform the W.F.C.’s Winter Garden (220 Vesey St.) into a bustling “Piazza Florentina,” turning out works of art in stone, crystal and gold. For example, craftspeople from Gucci will create a classic 120 piece leather Gucci “Bamboo” handbag. And perfumers from Santa Maria Novella, one of the world’s oldest pharmacies and perfumeries started in 1212 by Dominican friars, will blend their famous potpourri from flowers gathered in the hills surrounding Florence.

“It will be an amazing experience and feel like a bit of Florence right here,” says Rudge. “It’s so important for people to see and appreciate these artisans’ work.”

Rudge walked the catwalks of Europe and went on to marry and settle between a home in London, a house in quaint Rhode Island and now an apartment in New York City. “I had a lot of my grandfather’s creations moved to my house. I didn’t want to lose them.”

Pictured top left is a scene from “Pontormo,” one of several films being shown. It focuses on the last months in the life of artist Jacopo Carrucci and his obsession to complete his last great work, “Coro of San Lorenzo.” Joe Montegna stars.

Over the years, Rudge began organizing cultural events and in 1983 was hired by the Aga Khan and the Costa Smeralda Yacht Club in Sardinia to organize Italy’s entry into the America’s Cup race in Newport, The Azzurra. Her fascination with things Italian continued to grow as she put together “Mechanical Marvels:  Invention in the Age of Leonardo” which was exhibited at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden from October 1997 through March 1998.

Around that time, Rudge was in Rhode Island and read that a proposal to give Providence’s downtown artists a tax break was overruled. Upset, she fired off a letter to the editor and soon was meeting with the mayor. She told him of her idea for a cultural festival celebrating the “arti minori” or minor arts of artisans.

Out of that chat grew a meeting with the mayor of Florence, and, as they say, the rest is history. In 1999, Rudge, juggling phones, unpacking fragile paintings and finding places to store hundreds of pounds of perishable Italian cheeses, pulled together her first Splendor of Florence in Providence.

“We had no idea what to expect,” she says today. “On the day we opened, there were lines down the block and it grew like that every day. I had 80 volunteers and police control.”

When Florence’s American sister city got wind of the festivities, it wanted the party there too. Philadelphia played host to the second Splendor of Florence in 2001.

“We were to open three days before 9/11,” recalls Rudge. “I knew we had to come to New York City.

“Where better to celebrate artisans, musicians and great food than downtown in New York City in the Fall?”

This time around several locations will bring a little Italy to New Yorkers.

At Federal Hall, 20 16th and 17th century portraits of the powerful Medici family, who were among the world’s first patrons of artists, will be on loan from the Uffizi Gallery. Included in the exhibit is the recovered and restored Madonna della gatta, which will remain on display until November 12.

Winter Garden will come alive with the sounds of artisans as eight top Florence boutiques set up studios to show their handiwork.

The World Financial Center Courtyard Gallery will have an exhibit of photos by Life Magazine photographer David Lees showing the catastrophic flood of Florence in 1966 that damaged or destroyed much of the city’s coveted works of art.

At Pace University, films and lectures on Florence’s famous architecture and commerce will engage the public.

The Winter Garden’s Mezzanine becomes the Trattoria at the Grill Room as guest chefs from Convivium, one of Florence’s top restaurateurs/caterers partners with the Grill Room’s head chef Armando Cortes and Vittorio Ansuini of Mezzogiorno in Soho.

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