FLORENCE — The Italian city of Florence is known for its art and beauty. Its immigrant community is less well known. But following a series of attacks on African migrants in Florence, a group of artists is highlighting the contribution of foreigners to Florentine culture, past and present.
With its stunning architecture and countless galleries, Florence has long been at the heart of Western art. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance, the flowering of Western artistic endeavor that began in the 14th century.
Now a group of artists is reflecting on what it means to be Florentine in the 21st century. They're re-creating Renaissance paintings using photographs of the city’s immigrants - complete with costumes, props and period hairstyles.
American-Lebanese photographer Mark Abouzeid, who lives in Florence, is one of the curators of the exhibition, titled "The New New World."
He says the project took a dramatic turn when a far-right gunman opened fire on Senegalese immigrants in December 2011, killing two people.
“We decided instead of being angry and saying everything that’s wrong, why don’t we for once just show everything that’s right, from the Renaissance when we reached out to culture, to create something so beautiful the world has never forgotten, to today when thanks to the immigrant community we have a cultural renaissance taking place again," he said.
Florence resident Elhadji Sall - from Senegal - sits patiently as a team of hair stylists, costume designers and lighting engineers prepare the final shoot.
Sall explains that in Senegal, he had worked for the public water utility. He says he had everything: a job, a wife, two children, a home. While on vacation, he met another Senegalese who lived in Florence and insisted he visit, and he says he found the most beautiful city he has ever seen.
The curators say they were not looking simply for physical resemblance to the Renaissance portraits - but also similarities in their roles in society. Sall was chosen as the model for the Botticelli painting "Portrait of a Youth With a Medal." Like the boy in the painting, Elhadji is little known but, as a handyman, his work is felt everywhere.
The exhibition received the backing of Cristina Giacchi, Florence’s Minister of Universities and Culture.
Giacchi says a city like Florence attracts many people and, as a result can experience problems of integration. She says the most complex aspect has been to get Florentines comfortable with diversity.
At the height of the Arab Spring, thousands of Africans came to Italy in boats. Latest figures show many migrants are now leaving Italy to return to their home countries because of Italy’s economic crisis.
Elhhadji Sall is considering a return to Senegal. “Everything is changed‚ it is truly hard,” says Sall. “I have lost my job two or three times recently. As I speak to you, I do not have any work," he said.
The exhibition has been on display at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The curators plan to take it on tour across Italy.