Fabio Borbottoni: Railroad Employee, Amateur Painter, Unrepentant Romantic
George R. Bent
Fabio Borbottoni (1823-1901), a minor official in the Italian Railroad system, practiced painting as a hobby. The Florentine native produced over 120 small, square pictures of the city’s medieval structures as they appeared to him during the years of the Risorgimento – the period of Italian unification and statehood that arose during the decade of the 1860s and the latter decades of the nineteenth century when a national identity began to formulate.
It was precisely during this period that the city’s built environment changed dramatically. Medieval walls that ringed the ancient urban core were demolished, with only a few of the major gateways preserved for posterity’s sake. Laborers attached marble facades to the Duomo and the basilica of S. Croce to create a kind of harmony in keeping with original facings on the Baptistery of S. Giovanni, the friary of S. Maria Novella, and the monastic church of S. Miniato al Monte. Old structures along the river, like the old mills run by the city mint, were torn down and replaced by wide avenues that cut along both sides of the Arno. Most importantly, the very heart of the Florentine commercial district – that which contained the ancient Mercato Vecchio, a dozen of the city’s medieval guild headquarters, and the adjacent Jewish Ghetto formed in the 15th century – was completely demolished and replaced with newer boutiques, public buildings, and a square dubbed the Piazza della Republica, all of which was inspired by a Parisian style of urban planning then popular in Europe. The social and architectural character of Old Florence was quickly dying.
Borbottoni lamented the destruction of the medieval city and intentionally placed his easel at strategic locations that allowed him to capture these areas before they disappeared forever. The churches of S. Tommaso and S. Maria in Campidoglio, for example, appear in multiple compositions, as do the famous oratory of S. Maria della Tromba and the Fish Loggia that now stands in the eastern portion of the city: all of these formed important monumental landmarks in the Mercato Vecchio that were earmarked for destruction or removal in the 1880s. Buildings that featured prominently in his paintings include palaces once owned and occupied by famous protagonists of the Renaissance, as well as major ecclesiastical institutions once packed with art works that, then as well as now, are considered to be major monuments of western culture. Indeed, despite the presence of miniscule figures who sit, stand, and walk about in the spaces he creates, Borbottoni’s subject matter revolved primarily around the built environment rather than the people who occupied it: those figures appearing in his paintings serve only as scale measurements to help viewers understand the dimensions of the structures in each painting.
Borbottoni knew that the design sensibility of the medieval city, still visible to him at the end of the nineteenth century, was doomed to oblivion. He took great pains to capture the earth tones of exterior walls, the marble balustrades on staircases leading to main portals, and the colorful fabrics that sometimes hung from windows or niches of buildings. The dusty roads of the center that he painted often jar with the tram lines that supplanted the city walls, reputedly designed and constructed under the supervision of Arnolfo di Cambio. And the bridges that connect the ancient Roman urban core to the north of the city with the medieval and early modern structures in the Oltr’Arno to the south were carefully studied and reproduced – and thankfully so, as these paintings became important documents during their reconstruction after their demolition by Nazi forces in the summer of 1944.
Still, the painter’s vision of his city was not completely accurate. Borbottoni often took liberties with the actual appearance of the spaces he reproduced in paint. Two versions of the famous Piazza della Signoria, for example, offer divergent heights of the same buildings, suggesting that the Railway officer took some artistic license when his compositions demanded some assistance. He romanticized a number of his landscape vistas, turning the run-down Zecca Vecchia and the deeply problematic Debtor’s Prison (called the Stinche) into a lovely vestiges of the medieval past, and the dank, dark, and dangerous Jewish Ghetto as an antiseptically clean and enticingly attractive neighborhood fit for any upstanding bourgeois homeowner. The few figures that appear in these visions make the city seem open, airy, and relaxed, when in fact Florence had already become a tourist attraction and bustling urban center in the middle of the economically thriving province of Tuscany. Indeed, Florence had served as the first capital city of the new Italian Republic from 1865 to 1870, and all the benefits that had come to it with this important status made it one of the country’s wealthiest and most modern cities. Fabio Borbottoni was a one-man Office of Tourism who nostalgically exaggerated the features of his home town in order to celebrate a notion of a city that didn’t really exist, all the while lamenting the gradual demolition of the urban environment that was happening before his eyes during the decades of the 1880s and 1890s.
Fabio Borbottoni was not a great painter by contemporary standards. He offered no new way of seeing his world, suggested no actual opinion on the very real issue of urban renewal in a city with a storied past, and sought neither fame nor fortune with the works he produced. But Borbottoni, along with the contemporary critic and Historian Guido Carocci, performed the important task of preserving for posterity the appearance of Florence as it appeared before the violent and permanent reconfigurations of individual structures, entire neighborhoods, and city-wide traffic patterns – albeit with a keenly apologetic and subjectively promotional eye. To them we are indebted for their staunch support of Florentine history, the physical spaces in which so many important events transpired, and the socio-cultural environment in which was born the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century. But of them we also must question the accuracy of their representations, the motives behind their nostalgic romanticism, and the veracity of their vision of the old city.