BootLeg Betty

Bette, Among Others, Helps Preserve Florence, Italy’s Heritage

BETTE 32.jpg

Time Asia
Novemeber 17, 2003
BY MIMI MURPHY

Photo: Ms. Barbara Sussman

Florence’s art treasures are world-renowned. But you wouldn’t be able to see the masterworks of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and so many others if it weren’t for the contributions of generations of low-profile arts patrons. These days, much of that patronage comes from outside Florence and even outside Italy; walk through the Uffizi and you’ll see restorations paid for by groups of art lovers in locations from Kyoto to Cleveland.

And so when Countess Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, an American who has lived in Florence with her Italian husband for 30 years, saw the need to help protect and preserve the city’s staggering cultural legacy, she thought of her own countrymen. “So many Americans have a special rapport with Florence,” says Brandolini, who sells and rents out luxury Italian properties through her real-estate agency, The Best in Italy. “They come back to Florence all the time.” Thus in 1998 was born Friends of Florence, fashioned after the nonprofit art and architecture preservation foundation, Save Venice. Although based in Washington, D.C., for tax purposes, the group of 140 people raises and spends money to preserve Florence’s artistic legacy. It helps that Brandolini can tap some of her real-estate clients, such as Bette Midler and Mel Gibson. Sting, Franco Zeffirelli and Zubin Mehta all sit on the Advisory Committee. “They are Florence’s best friends,” says Antonio Paolucci, a former Italian Culture Minister who is now Florence’s superintendent of fine arts. “They have already spent more than $3 million helping us conserve the city’s works of art.”

The Friends’ first big project: the restoration in 2002 of all 10 pieces of marble statuary in the Loggia of Piazza della Signoria—an outdoor room of the Uffizi. This year, patrons were allowed to choose their favorite among 22 16th century paintings in the Accademia’s Tribune (home of Michelangelo’s David), and have their names appear on a plaque below the painting as the major donor for its restoration. Mel Gibson and his wife chose Alessandro Allori’s Madonna Enthroned. Says Brandolini: “There was an explosion of color because these are all Mannerist paintings. It was the first time that people walked in there, and they weren’t looking at the David.”

The price is steep. Founding patrons, who make a onetime gift of $30,000 or more, and patrons, who donate $5,000 annually (all tax deductible), are invited to the yearly unveilings of projects that include insider visits to collections never open to the public, and fêtes at the palatial homes of Florentine aristocrats like the marquises Frescobaldi and Antinori.

The latest project is to help clean David himself, in time for his 500th birthday in 2004. The distilled-water cleaning, during which David will remain visible to the public, is being financed by a Dutch nonprofit foundation. The Friends sponsored the diagnostic testing that will determine how the restoration proceeds, and they’re funding a DVD and website containing all the latest research on the statue. Was it hard to get the money? “The $200,000 for David were gathered literally in 24 hours,” says Brandolini. Information: www.friendsofflorence.org

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