Street Levels Gallery meets Emiliano Anselmo, co-founder of the project ilPrisma, a new cultural entity inside the Le Piagge district dedicated to research and artistic experimentation. With Emiliano, we investigated the socio-cultural framework of the neighborhood, tracing truths, mystifications and future scenarios. The stylistic framework of the article recalls the five floors of the ‘vessel’ that hosted the first exhibition, entitled The Raft of Géricault.
I floor – Urban emergencies and cultural silence
Over the past 20 years, the Le Piagge neighborhood has seen a peak in recreational, educational and social initiatives. Although the residential area still lacks appropriate services and infrastructures to free the neighborhood from a state of subordination, mistrust and perceived levels of vulnerability have been positively reconsidered. Today, the quality of life of Le Piagge enjoys a rehabilitated reputation thanks to the progressive empowerment of citizens: the self-organization of residents and the significant intervention of Don Alessandro Santoro, a key figure for the community itself, have supported the establishment of virtuous neighborhood relations.
However, Emiliano Anselmo notes a period of “creative depression” in the last decade. The latency of public services absorbs and exhausts the resources of citizens, who are forced to shape their list of priorities according to the most urgent principles, namely social and welfare. This vicious circle, then, jeopardizes the turning on of another switch, the cultural one. For Emiliano, on the other hand, the notion of Le Piagge as an incubator for a new tourist attraction is the trigger for the artistic ferment that seems to have been unleashed just this year.
The ilPrisma project is the plug, Emiliano’s apartment block the socket.
But how did this fateful and undoubtedly decisive encounter for the future of the Florentine suburbs come about? To complete an initial reading of the complex picture of Le Piagge, it is necessary to address the causes of this cultural silence.
II floor – Do the suburbs have to look alike?
To cope with the worrying data of school dropouts, the inefficiency of transport services, the high unemployment rate, the lack of infrastructure and street furniture, solidarity networks have been activated: the La Prua toy library, the veterans’ kindergarten, the ethical and social microcredit fund, the L’approdo bar, the outdoor gym, the L’Isola Youth Center, the after-school and summer centers are some of the combinations that solve the combination of “social needs and administrative voids”.
The artistic humus thus remains on the margins of an already marginalized neighborhood. This cultural silence – at times latent, at times deafening – represents for Emiliano Anselmo an absence to be filled with a reconversion project that constitutes a high regenerative potential for the entire neighborhood. “My encounter with painting,” he says, “was decisive in making me aware of the great spectrum of opportunities and experiences available. The practice of painting becomes for Emiliano, born and raised in Le Piagge, a driving force of curiosity, investigation, discovery. A year working at Runner Pizza allowed him to save the money he needed to go to Asia, where he stayed for about 8 years. Emiliano returned to Le Piagge with the ambition to rehabilitate the neighborhood where he had lived and to reclaim the “let’s go to the ghetto” that he used to say as a boy with pride and naivety together with his group of friends.
The proactive nature of Emiliano Anselmo met the openness and commitment of Sebastiano Benegiamo, a friend, colleague and co-founder of the project. The two met a few years earlier at Elettro+, a former social center in Isolotto, where they began to share the same artistic inclination. Their biographies continued to intertwine until the creation of ilPrisma, the first cultural project dedicated exclusively to contemporary art and an unprecedented precedent in the field.
With ilPrisma, Emiliano and Sebastiano managed to get the green light for their first exhibition in the apartment block where Emiliano currently lives. The building is part of the public housing complex built between 1980 and 1985 on behalf of the city of Florence, which later gave the building its name: “le navi” (the ships). In addition to the aesthetic reference that recalls its physiognomy, Emiliano points out that “it is no coincidence that ‘the vessels’ of Le Piagge resemble ‘the sails’ of Scampia”. Two suburbs that have a lowest common denominator, the infected social frame, and that are embedded in the same frame, the nautical reference. What does this parallelism mean?
III floor – The sea, the virus, the sea
The naval metaphor is not about investigating the responsibilities of municipal administrations but, rather, suggests their involvement.
The similar architectural configuration is only a pretext to highlight another unequivocal link: the politics of ‘decorum’ (or ‘regeneration’) has nothing transformative about it, it is not a resolving process, indeed, it is not even a process. It is an act of removal.
The “ships” were built in the 1980s, a historic moment of housing shortage in the city. Responding to the pressure of immigration from southern Italy – and, in the following decades, from North Africa and neighboring Balkan countries – the city of Florence resettled without having an effective plan for social, cultural and political integration. The excluded, the marginalized, the outcasts of society are thus liquidated with an operation that is as profitable as it is short-sighted, aimed at a short-term vision. In the long run, it is clear that the “fight against degradation” is carried out on the basis of temporary measures, palliatives and tricks to make oneself look good by sweeping the dust under the carpet. And over time, this deep contradiction ends up on all sides, in Le Piagge as in Scampia.
In spite of the reservations, the maritime metaphor establishes a relationship of familiarity with the population, becoming dear to the projects – such as La Prua, L’approdo, L’Isola, mentioned before – which, in the course of the last decade, have rediscovered its rhetorical allusions with creativity. Emiliano and Sebastiano also understand its symbolic value, not only for the neighborhood but, more generally, for the contingencies characterizing the last two years, with particular reference to the pandemic crisis. And here the analogy between the sea and the virus returns: pathology and shipwreck, health and salvation, emergency and high tide, raft and isolation. A port or a safe door, in the end, are equivalent and in front of critical situations there is a crossroads: close them or open them?
Emiliano and Sebastiano choose to open the door of ‘la nave’ in via Sala n. 2H because they firmly believe that a new cultural flow can emancipate the condition of their own community.
With ilPrisma‘s first exhibition, entitled Géricault’s Raft, the project’s founders stage the risk of civilization’s imminent drift. The castaways miraculously land on a first, iconic beach: the etymology of the latter word goes back to the Latin derivation of piaggia, which in turn comes from the cross between the Latin plaga, “coasts, sides,” and the Greek noun πλάγιος, “across.” Piagge has its lexical origin in words such as “beach, lido, slope of a mountain”; piaggia is therefore defined as a strip of land between a watercourse and another part of the territory. This object of chance is contrasted with the correlation between the castaway of the sea and the citizen of West Florence, both of whom have escaped the precariat. In this sense, the perfectly successful synthesis between locality and globality brings us back to the well-known concept of the global village coined by McLuhan. The cultural void of Le Piagge and the Covid-19 raging around the world unite in the premise of those who have survived in the face of their respective crises: the survivors. This presupposition can be interpreted in two ways: according to a fatalistic analysis in which survival is the result of chance, or if one adheres to an anthropocentric perspective as suggested by Géricault’s raft exhibition. In fact, Emiliano and his colleagues argue that the individual’s possibility of redemption lies in resilience and good risk management skills; a perspective necessary to accept the coexistence between political disengagement and the ‘state of the art’ of a society in constant emergency.
IV floor – The curator(ship) of the city
The exhibition, which opened on June 17, 2021, was housed in one of the “ships” in Via Sala n. 2H; the corridor on each floor of the building housed the emotional vocabulary of five local artists: Andrea Ornani, Giambaccio and Debora Piccinini exhibited alongside Emiliano Anselmo and Sebastiano Benegiamo. In an article in the Venerdì di Repubblica of July 2021, the well-known art critic Tommaso Montanari called it “the most beautiful exhibition in Florence”; from February 26 to March 4. March 2022, the cultural association Artiglieria organized a second edition under the name I battellieri delle (s)piagge (The Boatmen of the (s)piagge); the project Amir (Reception, museums, inclusion, relationship), together with ilPrisma, will launch a museum education project involving young people from Le Piagge from families with an immigrant background. This brief review of feedback received from the public in recent months testifies to the socio-cultural relevance of what is happening at Le Piagge.
Emiliano shares some advance information with us about the new series of exhibitions planned for 2022. Opening in April with Bomberz!, an interlude to the Florentine urban art scenario that will feature the works of Bue2530, Mìles, Ero, RMOGRL8120, Moradi Il Sedicente and Exit Enter; after that, the focus will be on emerging artists from the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts; and finally, a new cultural event will be dedicated to multimedia and performance art. The exhibition program is just a preparatory measure to create and integrate an interest in contemporary art in the neighborhood.
“Through workshops, educational activities, festivals and participatory art interventions, we aim to invite competent professionals to give the community the tools, determination and confidence to create something of their own. Participating in the co-creation and execution of a wall on the street means awakening a sense of belonging: The work is not a foreign body, but the result of a collective process,” explains Emiliano. Painting saved me, it saves me, in every way. It is a therapy,” he began at the beginning of the meeting. Alluding to artistic practice as a therapeutic and palliative tool, the co-founder of ilPrisma recalls the analogy between medical treatment and the curation of urban development.
V floor – Le Piagge: “thin city”
Urban development is a fluid process that moves on multiple levels of layering, much like the different floors of the building that inhabited The Gèricault’s Raft. Or like the building of Zenobia – the second subtle city that Italo Calvino presents in Invisible Cities (Turin: Einaudi, 1972) which, “grown by successive superimpositions from the first and now indecipherable design”, has developed in height and no inhabitant would be able to think of a city other than the one now known. The gist of the story comes at the end, when we realize how “useless it is to establish whether Zenobia is to be classified among the happy cities or among the unhappy ones. It is not into these two species that it makes sense to divide the city, but into two others: those that continue through the years and mutations to give their shape to desires, and those in which desires either succeed in erasing the city or are erased from it.”
Fragile and marginal urban contexts fall victim to a system of “renewal” that most often resembles an even more unequal gentrification. With ilPrisma, Emiliano and Sebastiano want to propose a fluid system of care, protection and satisfaction of collective interests based on culture. Awareness raising, empowerment and the transfer of new expertise are paradigmatic vectors for the conversion of the circuits of attractiveness and sociality in the Le Piagge district.
Will a new community consciousness be able to initiate a positive cycle of social, educational, and cultural empowerment? It is certainly too early to answer. But even in Invisible Cities, the speech Italo Calvino entrusts to Marco Polo at the book’s conclusion contains an emblematic call to consciously live together in our cities and to repopulate latent spaces. “The hell of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is the one that is already here, the hell that we inhabit every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways not to suffer from it. The first is easy for many: accepting hell and becoming part of it to the point of no longer seeing it. The second is risky and requires constant attention and learning: to seek out and know how to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, is not hell, and to make it last, and to give it space.”