By Andrea Biondi, The University of Florence
Between February and March 2022, as part of the activities of the Deep Cities – Curbatheri project at Novoli in Florence, we decided to involve the local Sassetti-Peruzzi High School.
The school, located in Via di San Donato, was exactly within our study area and, moreover, it is positioned in the space that was part of the garden of the ancient neoclassical Villa Demidoff at least until the 1950s. The villa, built in 1825-1827 in place of the previous convent of San Donato by the Demidoff, one of the oldest and most renowned Russian noble families, is still present today.
Following the restorations of 2010-2011, in fact, it was completely recovered after almost 70 years of neglect. The villa is located behind the Sassetti-Peruzzi High School and it is visible from the classrooms that overlook the back of the school, being, as we learned in the course of the meetings, constantly part of the landscape that students and professors experience every day.
A further important element that links the institute to the History of the place is the fact that its current entrance corresponds exactly to that of the ancient villa. The entrance is constituted by two slightly curved structures in neoclassical style that were incorporated in the school gate in the 1960s-1970s.
On the doors on the back of these structures, in the fastening nails of the ancient metal letters (which have now disappeared), it is still possible to read the words “Concierge” (from the French for “doorkeeper”).
As is well known, in fact, the use of French in Russian (but also European) nobility was absolutely widespread during the 18th century as it was also the international language of diplomacy.
Starting from these assumptions, and considering the Institute as a fundamental part of the current urban landscape of Novoli and of our study area, also capable to materially communicate the transformations of the neighborhood over the last two centuries, we decided to promote some activities with the full acceptance and interest by professors and students from two classes (for a total of almost 40 participants).
These activities consisted of a few hours in the classrooms to talk about the Deep Cities – Curbatheri project and the History of our study area between Roman times and the Contemporaneity. Subsequently we organized a transect walk with the same classes in the places of the neighborhood between the church of San Donato, the residential areas, the surroundings of the school itself with villa Demidoff and the Odeon (the ancient music room and, later, private chapel of the villa built on the model of the pantheon of Rome and perfectly preserved, the Mall of San Donato, the San Donato Park and the Palace of Justice.
In the latter activity, thanks also to the presence of numerous students and professors residing in Novoli, it was possible to obtain a lot of information on the social and historical aspects of the neighborhood. Finally, as the end of the activity, a participatory mapping was organized in which each student was asked to indicate on a map the best and worst place and a place to change. The result was significant to understand the perception of the neighborhood’s younger generations. Particularly interesting was the common feeling on the part of students and professors to be literally inside the History of the place, due to the fact of studying and working in a building located in the ancient space of the garden of Villa Demidoff and, even, of having the entrance to the institution exactly corresponding to the ancient one of the villa.
In perspective, when the data relating to the activity with the Sassetti Peruzzi High School will be included in the reports and in the project publications, and thanks also to the collaboration with the local public administration made up by the fundamental stakeholders of the Municipality of Florence and the District 5, the goal could be to continue to collaborate with the school and to be able to carry out some small actions, even material ones, that can allow to communicate and testify the role of the school in understanding the urban transformations of our study area in Novoli-San Donato.