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In March of 2010, Mary Rose returned to Florence and took a walk up an old familiar way...

Here's her account & photos...

My first full day in Florence was warm and clear after the rains, and by early afternoon I was scaling the steps from the San Niccolo’ neighborhood up to the Piazzale Michelangelo – which remains as stunningly beautiful as ever. I made my way down the gently curving viale, turned into the familiar gravel driveway, followed it along past the gatekeeper’s house, and came to the twin signs: “Torri Gattaia” and “The International School of Florence”. Relieved that the villa was no longer a youth hostel, I hiked up the terraced steps to the next switchback of the driveway. I was met by a flood of boisterous students in uniforms pouring down the path. They seemed to be middle and high school age, mostly American. As I reached the final stretch of the driveway, the school loomed up before me and I was heartened to see that the buildings and the lay of the land were basically unchanged.

The first thing I noticed was that the openings at the top of the tower had been filled in with windows, and rather artlessly, in my opinion. It was dismissal time and cars were sweeping around what (I think) used to be the little well in the center, picking up children. I slipped through the entrance underneath the tower to find the floor plan inside startlingly different.  The main hallway which led to the Salon was sealed off by a wall. The dining room had been bisected into a several small classrooms, and the biggest shock was that the patio, now serving as a dining hall, was completely enclosed by a slatted awning and thick plastic side curtains, creating what felt like an airless cavern with a blurred view of the surrounding panorama. Several very long rows of tables and chairs (see photo) completed the institutional look. After the initial shock wore off, I realized that the patio could be opened up as spring progressed – at least I hoped it would be! Helping myself to some water from a cooler (great addition), I looped around as if to enter the old reception office from the rear. Here the remodel became confusing (and, come to think of it, I never saw where the library used to be, or was it downstairs?) but after passing through a rabbit’s warren of small closet-size rooms, I emerged into the nerve center/receptionist area, which occupied the space at the top of the stairs leading down to the Salon. But again, a wall had sprung up, sealing the area off from the stairs.

At this point, I thought I should identify myself to the pleasant-looking woman behind the desk, as we had made eye contact and I was beginning to feel like an interloper. She was very cordial, but explained, in no uncertain terms, that I would have to leave and that taking photographs of the school was strictly prohibited. I was disappointed, but had to comply.  Outside, I wandered around just a few more minutes, and wound up taking some poorly composed pictures on the sly from behind trees and bushes. I walked up to the swimming pool, and found the area overgrown with weeds. The teatro was in need of a facelift. I had seen enough and headed down the driveway.

My overwhelming sentiment upon leaving was a flood of gratitude for the entirely charmed existence we enjoyed there in the 70’s. There were some who felt that there was an over-emphasis on appearances, but I now truly appreciate how very special and important all that effort was – the assiduous cleaning and constant maintenance, the fine furniture, the gardeners, the landscaping, the attention to detail, and, not least of all, Mrs. Fleming’s successful efforts to retain a feel for the original building – all of which made it a very polished, welcoming home, one that lent a grace and dignity to our activities there. Today, that distinctive flair has vanished. The interior of the villa (at least what I saw) is unadorned and utilitarian, and the landscape appears untended. A sad lack of regard for the soul of the place pervades. 

Back in the viale, I considered waiting with a few of the students for the #13 to go downtown. Two of the older ones were making out underneath the bus sign and I decided to just keep walking.






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