At the end of the 19th century, the avenues surrounding the historic center of Florence were built, almost completely destroying the last medieval city walls by Arnolfo di Cambio. Despite this, some evidence still survive in the city gates, that were part of these walls, and that are still visible along the avenues. The south gate, called “Porta Romana” (“Roman Gate”), because it leads to Rome, is also the one that preserves a section of the 14th century walls, and that can give a better idea of how this medieval fortified city was. Each entrance gate welcomed us into Florence, and it was decorated with frescoes, often with religious subjects, and sometimes by the hands of important artists. Unfortunately, not many original examples reached us, due to problems of external preservation of these artworks, and so sometimes they were painted again centuries later.
Porta Romana (formerly Porta San Pier Gattolino, from the name of the nearby church) has become an entryway to Florence that contains more than one “welcome artwork”: the first and most visible one when arriving from the south, is the contemporary sculpture that decorates the roundabout in front of the gate, by Michelangelo Pistoletto, named “Dietrofront” (“Turn around” 1981-84). This represents a woman that leaves Florence going toward the future, but at the same time coming back into the city, looking toward the past; another meaning is that her soul refuses to leave the magnificent cultural past of Florence. In the gate itself is a fresco with the “Virgin Mary and Saints” (including the patron saint of the city, St. John the Baptist), a 16th century work by Franciabigio, that probably replaced a fresco of the 14th century. After walking through the gate, immediately in front of us, the façade of a building located in the crossroad between via Romana and via dei Serragli houses another contemporary artwork: a fresco.
Here again, today’s fresco replaces a 17th century one by Giovanni da San Giovanni, one of the main Florentine painters of the time, commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo II. Giovanni da San Giovanni’s fresco represented the allegory of Florence sitting on a throne, next to it Siena and Pisa, symbol of the Medici Grand Duchy of Tuscany, with Florence as the main city, and the others “annexed” to it, both conquered by Cosimo I. This 17th century work, unfortunately, crumbled over time, and at some point it was detached, though we don’t exactly know where it was placed, since it is no longer preserved. A legend about this fresco tells that, while the artist was working on it, the Florentines, who could see it while passing by, congratulated him: it was then appreciated. Giovanni, on the contrary, destroyed this fresco, because he considered it not worthy, creating a new one, that stayed here until it was damaged.
In 1953, the City of Florence, with mayor Giorgio La Pira, and with Piero Bargellini promoting it, held a competition to restore these entrances to the city. Mario Romoli was the winner, and in the same year he painted the fresco “La vita a Firenze” (“Life in Florence”). The painting has a schematic, almost geometric composition, that takes inspirations from Romoli’s studies of the Italian classicism and of Cezanne; the window of the building is used as a “watershed” separating the two groups of figures, and, so, the two different historical periods: on the right there are illustrious figures of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, such as Dante, Giotto, Masaccio, Leonardo da Vinci or Lorenzo the Magnificent; on the left, instead, those of the 20th century, with Romoli himself, Papini, Ottone Rosai, Primo Conti, Ardengo Soffici… so: the Florentine culture, so important in the past, that continues in the present. Above the window, the patron saints of the city, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, dominate the scene, present today as they were in the past.
Mario Romoli (1908-1978) was a 20th century Florentine artist, not one of the best known, perhaps due to his argumentative nature that made him a “thorny” personality, as Marco Romoli states. In 2013 a museum dedicated to him was inaugurated, however not in his hometown, but in Rufina. In Florence he also painted the restaurant hall of Santa Maria Novella train station, and a fresco cycle in the Banca Toscana in via Por Santa Maria.
After the war, that upset everything, his style changed, as it happened to many artists , and he took an interest in Picasso. Trend among the artists of the 20th century, was to study different periods and artists, and to experiment with new techniques and subjects: so does Romoli, and after Cezanne and the Impressionists, he studies also Italian classicism, abstract art, Picasso..Among his depictions, we can find still lives, landscapes, portraits, religious scenes (especially toward the end of his career), symbolic representations.. An artist with multiple interests and anxieties, who was able to enrich his artistic repertoire, and not only that: besides his writings, he devoted himself to science and technology, experimenting with some inventions (aircraft brakes, airbags for motorcycles, rotary internal combustion engine..), a real contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, the idea of the complete Renaissance artist, who was supposed to have a total knowledge of the world, and that will stay in the eternity of times, as in the fresco we just saw.
We also want to remember an important historical-artistic event in which Romoli participated: he locked himself, together with other two artists, in the Arnolfo Tower of Palazzo Vecchio , in order to block the export of the Uffizi’s paintings, some of the Gallery’s masterpieces that were supposed to fly to the United States to become part of a temporary exhibition. The efforts of these artists were rewarded, and the artworks stayed in Florence.