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Cézanne a Firenze

December 25, 2009

My friend Chenxin and I had decided, somewhat randomly, to have a short break in Florence together. Vanni, then not yet of Gli interessi in comune fame, offered us food and shelter. He is the first and only Italian I have ever met that can cook Thai.

We wandered around the town centre nibbling on treats from a nearby Egyptian take-away, took pictures on the Ponte Vecchio. To me, that was Florence at its most familiar and exotic.

It was 2007 and it was then I saw the exhibition Cézanne a Firenze.

It took a while for the significance of the title to actually appear to me in full. It couldn’t have been about Cézanne living in the Tuscan town, but a title celebrating the mere presence of Cézanne’s paintings in the city was too banal to be the case. There has to be another connection.

The connection was, or rather the connections were American-born collectors Egisto Paolo Fabbri and Alexander Loeser. These men made of Cezanne’s art their life interest, at a time when impressionism was still overlooked. The details of how they acquired the Cézannes and how their interest grew now escape me, as do the reasons why they moved to Florence (apologies, but looking it up on the internet is beside the point). But I remember that along the few iconic Cézannes, the exhibition hosted paintings by the collectors themselves. They married their interest in Cézanne with their knowledge of the American tradition: a true eye-opener to see the two elements come together in their art.

Inside Palazzo Strozzi’s Reinaissance walls, the exhibition looked modern and airy, it felt like the artworks and the viewers were allowed to breathe fresh air and inebriate themselves of one another. Almost unique among all the blockbuster exhibitions of this kind that I have seen in Italy so far, Cézanne a Firenze had a special itinerary devised entirely for children. In retrospect, the choice of not including Fabbri and Loeser’s personalities in the children’s interpretation was perhaps a missed opportunity – after all, these collectors could be portrayed as a different kind of explorers. But the mere existence of an itinerary tailored specifically to children was in itself a very pleasant surprise.

The exhibition was so successful in my eyes, and still is almost two years down the line, because as well as showing me artworks, it told me a story. And the story was a simple one with two men at its heart, not some ineffable intellectualised concoction. The looming giant of impressionism did stand in the room, somewhere near the ceiling, but it was the collectors and their paintings that I really took to heart.

To me, that was Cézanne at its most familiar and exotic.

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