Students on FSU’s International Program in Florence this year are continuing a tradition of art conservation partnership that dates back to the beginning of the Florence program in 1966. In that inaugural year of the study abroad program—one of the very first American university resident programs in Florence—FSU students joined the volunteer “Mud Angels” in art rescue efforts after the devastating flood of the Arno River. In 2019, FSU students are assisting in a program focussed on identifying, restoring, researching, and exhibiting works of art by women artists in the museum collections of Florence, thanks to a partnership between FSU Florence and Advancing Women Artists (AWA), an American nonprofit organization.
Paintings and sculptures by groundbreaking women artists were often overlooked in history, and many of these works are in need of restoration. AWA is committed to uncovering this undiscovered part of our artistic heritage and sharing it through lectures, books, conferences, and exhibitions. The 2019 pilot project with the FSU Florence Program allows interested students abroad to participate in AWA’s Art Angels fundraising and advocacy program. AWA also collaborates with visiting professors, faculty, and staff members to develop educational and research programs focused on art by women.
The paintings of Violante Ferroni are the first works to be researched and restored in this new partnership. Ferroni was born into the Italian aristocracy in 1720 and proved to have strong artistic talent. Enrolled at 16 in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (an unusually young age for admission to the prestigious institute), Ferroni was able to study with several notable artists of her time, including Violante Siries Cerroti. While women of that era were occasionally able to carve out careers as artists, their work was usually relegated to small-scale portraits and landscapes. Yet in the 1740s, Ferroni was selected to create two 8 by 11.5′ ovals depicting full-length figures and historic scenes with strong spiritual undertones that would hang in the renovated atrium of the San Giovanni di Dio hospital. In the summer of 2019, FSU students designed and sold t-shirts to raise funds, matched by local businesses, for the restoration of one of these large murals, Saint John of God Healing Plague Victims. New discoveries on Ferroni’s life are sure to ensue in the conservation studio, where under-drawing, ripensamenti and signs of the artist’s hand may be revealed.
Frank Nero, Director of the FSU Florence Program and FSU Art History alumnus, points out that these volunteer Art Angels follow in the footsteps of their Mud Angel alumni. When the Arno River rose 11 meters in 1966, covering the city in 600,000 tons of mud and water, FSU students had just arrived for the university’s new study abroad program. Offered the opportunity to return home after the flood, most of the students elected to stay and participate in emergency restoration efforts to save flooded paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts. Local citizens and international students and professors worked together in an exhausting effort to salvage Florence’s treasures, earning the nickname “Mud Angels.” FSU alumna Breanna Bruner, who double majored in Art History and Digital Media Production, developed a mini documentary about the experience, Mud Angels Recovered: FSU’s First Year in Florence, which premiered at the 50th anniversary celebration of the FSU Florence Program in 2016.