Giardino Nidiaci Oltrarno Area by Miguel Martinez
We are parents living in the Oltrarno, of very mixed origins, who work together to keep the only garden for children in the district open. A garden facing the normally unseen side of the Carmine church, and which, we have recently discovered, was given to the children of our district by the American Red Cross nearly a century ago. Which means we have a very special relationship with families from the USA.
Unless it rains or is too cold, we open after school hours (5 p.m.) Monday through Friday, in Via D’Ardiglione, a tiny bending street in San Frediano: in case of doubt, you can call 349-1575238 first.
Oltrarno is the last surviving neighborhood of the center of Florence still populated by mixed social classes and not yet completely overwhelmed by pubcrawling, banks and fashion shops; and San Frediano is the name of the district or region clustering around the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, where in a sense the Renaissance began.
It’s easy to forget that Florence is people, not just monuments and shop windows, until you have children. Yet, it was the people living in San Frediano, who largely built the better-known parts of the city.
The only place in the area where children can play on the sidewalks which are so narrow that just one cat at a time can fit – the second has to sit in the street.
However, right behind the apse of Santa Maria del Carmine, there lies an enclosed area. Invisible from the outside, is a large garden, overlooked by buildings dating back to the nineteenth century.
This is what local residents call “Il Nidiaci”. It’s where all the children of the area, generation after generation, used to play and grew up. The eighty-year old hat maker who sells her wares in the market at Santo Spirito told us she went to kindergarten and later met her fiancé there.
Everybody thought that this precious oasis in a desert of stone had been opened to the children by a generous lawyer, named Umberto Nidiaci, in 1923. However, there was always something elusive and garbled about the matter. Though our kids played in the whole area, only part of the garden was actually public property. The buildings and about one-third of the garden was private.
Just last spring, we made an exciting discovery in the Florence Notarial Archive and under a wonderful and completely forgotten fourteenth century fresco. A bored employee handed us an old bound folder, where we found a document showing that the Nidiaci was really a gift from the American Red Cross to the people of San Frediano.
We discovered that the American Red Cross involvement in Italy in WWI had been enormous. Though today it is only remembered thanks to Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Throughout the country, the ARC had set up initiatives to help refugees, widows, orphans and the families of Italian children. It was in this context that the New England patrician, Edward Otis Bartlett Jr of Providence, Rhode Island, commissioner of the American Red Cross, decided to make a major gift to the children of the city where the ARC had its Italian base.
In 1920, Colonel Bartlett appointed businessman Carlo-Matteo Girard and lawyer Umberto Nidiaci to sell goods belonging to the American Red Cross. They devolved the income “to an Entity which, in the district of San Frediano of this city, should deal with popular instruction and education, with special attention to children”. The sum was invested in the purchase of the garden which would later be called “Il Nidiaci” and all the buildings around it. Umberto Nidiaci was simply the lawyer appointed to carry out the task, on an equal footing with Girard whose name later silently disappeared from the record.
Going through dusty archives, we discovered how the property had been let slip into the hands of the Nidiaci family (a similar fate was apparently shared by many other ARC initiatives around the country), and in 2008, the last Nidiaci sold the property to a building company with the unlikely name of Amore e Psiche Holding, which we soon discovered wanted to turn the buildings into luxury apartments, and the garden into a parking lot.
In 2011, 1.400 people of our small district signed a petition asking the town government to save the Nidiaci. Mayor Matteo Renzi promptly responded, announcing that saving the Nidiaci was an “absolute and irrevocable priority” for the town government.
One year later, the ludoteca in the area was closed down and the new owners started work in earnest, refurbishing the buildings and using their part of the garden as a construction site. The only sign of interest on the part of the local government was when they granted permission to the company’s trucks to drive through the garden.
Some families have been living in San Frediano for centuries, others have come recently from places as various as the UK, Naples, Moldavia, Nigeria and Japan. They were parents seeing each other every day in front of school and their differences became irrelevant. These parents decided to take matters firmly in hand. They set up an association which pressured the town government into giving them the keys of the public part of the garden, with a four-year commitment on their part to keep the garden open for children,volunteering their time.
The outdoor play equipment had been mostly ripped up and carted off, the day before we opened the garden water was cut off too, and we had no roof over our heads. On Halloween, we had a wonderful party, because the place is safe and walled off, but there was no electricity, so the girls dressed up as black witches were able to play hide and seek for the first time in their lives in real darkness.
Everybody did their part to keep the garden running. There were carpenters and architects, restaurant owners, cleaning women, bricklayers and harpists. But one person that gave a very important contribution, was an American, Wendy Yates, a professional violist, born in Colorado, mother of two girls. She was married to an Italian, but she had always felt out of place. That was until she started teaching violin for free to the kids of San Frediano at the Nidiaci. Then she suddenly ceased being the expat mom, and became a key figure for all the area.
To pressure the town administration into finally doing something, in January we organized a march through San Frediano. A seamstress born in Sardinia made a beautiful banner with the Green Dragon, the medieval symbol of San Frediano. Duccio, a lively eighty-year old bronze craftsman who as a boy had saved the tools of his shop in Via de’ Serragli from the Nazis, made the metal work on the flagstaff.
San Frediano is Bianco means that all the historic residents here support the “Bianchi di Santo Spirito” in the Florentine “Calcio Storico”. The Bianchi for the first time in history decided to take part in a public demonstration for their district. The families of San Frediano marched through the streets, led by two very active seven-year olds. They are Samuele whose family comes from Sardinia, and Abduh, whose family comes from Senegal. Abduh’s mother won the competition we made at the garden for the best cake, and we are still arguing about it. She actually cooked a kind of salty fried rolls that made everybody forget the sweet stuff.
By the way, would anybody be interested in helping out with unpaid English lessons for the kids at the Nidiaci?
tel.: 349-1575238 (we answer in English, too)