Innovation in Historic Florence

Florens2012: International Biennial of Cultural and Landscape Heritage is taking place this week in Florence, Italy, and I am honored to be attending. The themes of the biennial are broad and include preserving culture, promoting the arts, and using landscape sustainably. I am investigating the importance of preserving cultural heritage not only for future projects in my classes–my students from around the world will explore this theme–but also in my role as a blogger and lover of culture and Italy.


One of the most obvious results of the innovative work of the Florens Foundation is the outdoor installations in two of historic Florence’s most important spaces.

Contemporary art meets Medieval Florence:

A perfect example of the potential for culture to impact the daily lives of people is the art installation by contemporary Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. It takes up the entire space in front of one of historic Florence’s icons, the church of Santa Croce.


Not by coincidence, Paladino’s installation forms the shape of a cross in honor of the church’s name, but for the average person walking around those tall marble blocks, it may be just something really cool that has suddenly popped up there, beckoning the public to explore it.

public art

The two times I visited the installation, people were walking all around it, tourists and locals were photographing it, children were climbing on it, people had written and drawn on it–all in his or her own way interacting with it.

Piazza Santa Croce

Photo credit: Filippo Taccetti

Suddenly, this once drab open space had become a place that attracts people, flirts with their imaginations and makes people think, at least by beckoning the question, “What is it?” For me, it was also an excellent example of how the new plays with the old in Florence, one of the reasons this city has always been so attractive to me.

Santa Croce

Green space that honors Italy’s landscape:

Around Florence’s most recognizable image, the Duomo, a grove of olive trees was installed. The beautiful curves of the centuries-old olive trees and the squares they sit in create flowing geometric space for Florentines and tourists alike.

Piazza Duomo

In a city like Florence that lacks green space, adding this burst of nature is a refreshing way to use the space in front of its cultural monuments. It also connects the city to the region’s landscape heritage–olive trees are characteristic of the centuries of agriculture that has existed here in Tuscany and the pride that the region takes in its products and delicious food.

olive trees Tuscany

What do you think? Does adding installations such as these improve the quality of life for a city’s people?


  • Cathy Carson says:

    I remember the plaza in front of Sana Croce. We use to see it when coming from the train station. It was not an attractive space as I remember it. Now it looks wonderful and a great public space. How are the Italians embrassing it? Look forward to more posts and pictures.

  • Wow! What is the white on the ground at Sta Croce? It’s really striking! What can people write on? And the olive trees? Gorgeous! Thanks for sharing!

    • Jenna says:

      The white stuff on the ground is little tiny white rocks, I think marble. People were actually writing on the blocks of marble! It was quite an engaging installation. I loved it.

  • How fascinating! The sculptures at Santa Croce are amazing and how interesting that people are writing and drawing on them. LOVE LOVE LOVE the Olive grove surrounding the Baptistery! What a wonderful way to “spruce” up the cold-stone facades and pavement. Great write up once again Jenna!

  • I like that there are benches in the square, so many cities these days discourage ‘loitering’. The installations are lovely and renew the city for its citizenry; it’s good to see that Florence is a living city and not just an open-air museum for us tourists.
    I love Jeff’s comment about the olive trees sprucing up the stone! Given the age of the trees and their limited rootboxes, it’s apparent these trees were at the end of their productive lifespan on a farm, were cut out and are spending their last days in the glorious piazza. Much as cut Christmas trees would. It’s so strange to see these pictures and note that where the trees were, I walked through on my way to exchange some of my books at an English-language used book store. I wonder if that shop is still there? Sure was a useful address to have.

    • Jenna says:

      I completely agree, and it was so great to see Florentine families enjoying the installation in front of Santa Croce on a Sunday evening. The olive trees were a fantastic addition to the city, and it was fun to watch people look at them and try to figure out what they were doing there (there was information posted from Florens2012 explaining it).

  • I dont remember the olive trees near the duomo in May, so this must be a brand new installation. I like it! Green space, in general, is hard to come by in Italy , especially in Northern Italy (in comparison to what we are used to in North America) so I like the idea.

    • Jenna says:

      You’re right, they were not there until around Nov. 1 when they were set up for the Florens2012 events.

  • It must have been an exciting time for the city – especially for its people! These festivals are a great way to promote local artists so they can showcase their work to bigger audiences. I love any kind of event that pushes culture and art, so even if it’s not to my taste I still appreciate it for that reason. I went to the Venice Art Biennale last year, and Marrakech’s Art Biennale at the beginning of this year, and I thought the festivals completely enhanced two already very vibrant cities.

    I hope you had a fabulous time attending! Florence is such a lovely city – especially for Boboli Gardens and Mercato Centrale …. mmmmmm I drool when I think of that market.

    • Jenna says:

      How cool that you got to go to those two art biennials. Must have been very interesting to see how those cities took on those events. Yes, I had a fabulous time, and Florence was better than ever!

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