Saturday 13 April 2019

Villas of Florence and the 19th century photographer Longworth Powers

When I have a free hour or two - an increasingly rare event - I like to wander the byways of Florence in search of less known corners of beauty and history. Viale Poggio Imperiale, starting at Porta Romana and running uphill all the way to Arcetri is one productive hunting ground, lined as it is with beautiful villas, each with a story to tell. The avenue leads to the Medicean Villa del Poggio Imperiale which belonged to the Medici Grand Ducal family from 1565 until 1738, but which reached its architectural peak under the Habsburg Lorraines, the successors to the Ducal Medici as rulers of Florence and owners of the villa. It later became, and still is, an exclusive girls' boarding school, the Istituto Statale della Ss. Annunziata, but the magnificent imperial rooms are open to the public one day a week.

Villa Poggio Imperiale in Florence, Italy
One of the imperial rooms of Villa Poggio Imperiale in Florence, Italy

A more modest but in some ways much more attractive villa on Poggio Imperiale belonged to Longworth Powers, a sculptor and photographer. Longworth was the son of Hiram Powers (1805 - 1873) who was an extremely successful American neoclassical sculptor, Swedenborgian and spiritualist, who moved to Florence in 1837 and settled on the Via Fornace, where he had access to good supplies of marble and to traditions of stone-cutting and bronze casting. He remained in Florence until his death, turning out marble busts and statues that were often reproduced in large numbers by his workmen and which sometimes fetched thousands of dollars. His studio was a fashionable stop on any American's grand tour. One of Longworth's brothers, Preston Powers, followed in his father's footsteps, first in America and then in Florence, but without success, and he died penniless in Florence in 1931.

The Longworth family in Florence
The Longworth family in Florence - Hiram top centre.

Longworth Powers was eventually more successful than his brother Preston. He was the eldest son of Hiram and in his early life he struggled to establish a career, failing to persevere at any task for long, a fact that continually frustrated his successful father. Longworth enrolled at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his family hoped that the education and discipline would would have beneficial effects, but he was "asked to leave" after only one semester. He then attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, but failed to stay long enough to earn a degree. His father thought Longworth might do better in Florence and so put him to work as bookkeeper in his studio while teaching him the basics of sculpture. Longworth created portrait busts and idealised pieces in a softer more romantic neoclassical style than his father, but his interest soon waned, and Hiram sent him back to America.

Flora a sculpture by Longworth Powers
Flora (1880) is clearly indebted to Hiram Powers's allegorical busts but in a more romantic style

By 1860, Longworth was back in Florence and began working as a photographer. He was a great success, creating portraits of the prominent men and women in the city, as well as selling photographs of Florentine landmarks and works of art. He created a great many plaster busts of the famous and not so famous visitors and residents in Florence and bought himself a villino on Viale Poggio Imperiale, with an annex which he turned into a photographic studio.

The villa of Longworth Powers on Viale Poggio Imperiale
The villa and studio of Longworth Powers on Viale Poggio Imperiale

The Powers Villa in Florence - living room
The living room of the Powers villa in Florence - high Victorian!
Photographs and plaster busts by Longworth Powers still come up on the market. His photographic portfolio in preserved in the Gabinetto Vieusseux. Alas, a search of the Florence white pages suggests that the Powers family is extinct here.

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Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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