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Hats off! One of the gems of the Bernini Palace in Florence

Hats off! One of the gems of the Bernini Palace in Florence

Lifestyle

Fri, 04/02/2021 - 11:00

A detail of the frieze in the hall of the hotel

At the Bernini Palace, if you pay attention to the details, you’ll find out a lot about the city’s past. Sniff out the “clues” and you’ll come across fascinating little stories and curiosities. Today, for example, we intend to find out more about the extravagant female heads on display in the lounge. It’s the start of a journey back in time through a flurry of hats, a traditional product of Florence. 

A nineteenth-century cult accessory: the hat 

Once upon a time there were Florentine hats, locally manufactured straw boaters like the ones we can see in the paintings of Renoir – such as the celebrated Luncheon of the Boating Party – and other Impressionists, and the fashionable headgear of Paris and Vienna, a source of inspiration for fashionable milliners. They were cult accessories for the city’s burgeoning middle classes. The Florentine straw hat is the symbol of a craft typical of the local area. At the start of the eighteenth century, the small farmers of the surrounding countryside used to grow a special kind of wheat that produced high-quality straw, which was then woven by an army of braiders (at least 80,000 in the golden years). In the windows of the workshops of the city centre, straw boaters were displayed alongside fashionable men’s and women’s hats. Remember that Florence was a city that had a centuries-old artisan tradition of guilds and trade associations: in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the hatters of Florence belonged to the Arte della Seta, or Silk Guild, together with silk weavers, bonnet makers, doublet makers, cap makers, mattress makers and the like.

A detail of the frieze in the hall of the hotel

The Bernini heads

In Florence the art of straw hat-making was so entrenched its flourishing economy was driven by the workshops in which models were displayed. Hats also appear in the most unexpected places – in the hall of the Bernini Palace, for example This little-known chapter in the history of the hotel is told by the historian Cristina Sirigatti in the first volume of her L’artista. Critica delle Arti in Toscana. (The Artist. A critique of arts and crafts in Tuscany). Entering the hotel and looking up at the point where the walls meet the ceiling, you can admire a frieze from which 13 female heads and one male one, all dressed in curious headgear, stare down at you. Each head has a physiognomy and features of its own. Stepping backwards to where the hall now is, in the second half of the nineteenth century there was a café, referred to in some guides from the period in which Florence was capital of the Kingdom of Italy as Stupani del Parlamento, and subsequently as Gran Locanda. The frieze dates from the same period, when its purpose was to decorate either the café itself or, according to some oral sources, a milliner’s workshop, or was part of the décor for a hat exhibition. It’s a corner typical of a “new Florence” that was aspiring to a European-style model of elegance.
 
The heads are made of polychrome plaster and reveal a variety of styles that may also be found in the paintings of the Macchiaioli school, also of that period: from a marquise-style toque with a pointed feather reminiscent of the ones in Giovanni Fattori’s Rotonda dei Bagni Palmieri, to three-cornered hats with low brims and soft plumes or stuffed birds, like the ones worn by Alida Valli in Luchino Visconti’s Senso. There is also a “boater”, which might have been made in Florence – or, equally, in Britain or Brussels – a bonnet that looks as if it is knitted, a fur-edged beret and a vaguely colonial stiff crown with a high fabric band. Today the heads frame an elegant ambience with a pleasant atmosphere adjoining the lounge bar with its fine wines and spirits and the recently restructured grey sandstone grand staircase. 

 

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