Have you ever considered, while you’re enjoying your aperitif in Piazza Demidoff in Florence (“Demidoff Square”) what the monument you're looking at could represent?
The square and the monument, which is by Lorenzo Bartolini, are both dedicated to the Demidov family. The statues portray Nikolaj Nikiti Demidov with his son, Anatolij Nikolaevi, and various allegories. Nikolaj was part of this dynasty of incredibly wealthy aristocrats, factory owners and landowners originating from Ural Mountains, who then left Russia and moved to Florence due to their precarious lung conditions.
Do you like this monument..? There's an entire hall devoted to this sculptor at the Accademia Gallery, where the statue of David by Michelangelo is to be found as well..!
It is surprising to know that Nikolaj Demidov, in 1822, decided to establish his princely residence in Novoli (North-West suburbs of Florence), close to the San Donato in Polverosa church, nowadays a diamond in the rough of the traffic and construction work.
The aptly named “Via della Villa Demidoff” reminds us of the fairy-tale mansion that once stood here, home to a collection of now-extinct works of art (this is where the monument in the Piazza Demidoff originated from). We know about the "Tapestry Room", the "Silver Room" and the "Weaponry Room". We have also heard of the "Ivory Room", and of the "Statues Room"; we know about entire rooms dedicated to Dutch and Flemish art, and one dedicated to Spanish art, other rooms which were reserved for works by Greuze, Boucher, and Giordano. The villa was also home to a "Turkish Room", an "Arabic Room", an "Indian Room" and a "Chinese Room". It would appear that the “wealth, and the abundance of malachite” (which was not appreciated by the sombre Florentines), of which the Demidovs owned enormous mines, was “such that could never be found among us elsewhere (De Prato)”. It was present in their doors, their colossal columns, the vases, the furniture.
The Romanesque church of San Donato in Polverosa was taken over, and converted into a library, whilst one of the Russian orthodox chapels was used for religious purposes: this chapel, rounded with a Neoclassical pronao, is still fairly well-conserved, situated at Via San Donato 13/15, and is officiated by the protestant “Church of Christ”.
The huge park – which stretched beyond Via Baracca – was home to a kaffeehaus, a navigable canal, vegetable patches, silk production houses, and other different services..!
Anatolij quickly began to rid the villa of its heritage. His grandson, Pavel II, carried on the project. Five historical auctions, from 1868 to 1960s, dispersed throughout the most important museums and collections around the world, with countless works of art.
It was, in fact, the sale of the villa’s “knick-knacks” that enabled Pavel II to make a significant donation towards the construction of Santa Maria del Fiore’s new façade: as a testimony, the Demidov’s family crest sits to the right of the cathedral’s main entrance..!
Much of the precious furniture, along with the chapel’s iconostasis, was reassembled later in the Russian Orthodox Nativity Church at Via Leone X. Pavel II moved to Pratolino, where he established his new residence – which still stands today – from what remained of the abandoned Medici Villa.
After being passed through a series of different owners, the estate (described in 1888 as a “farm”, it then became a military armoury in 1939) experienced one final tragedy. Following the destruction of the Second World War (and the Florentine raids), the estate was acquired by ruthless industrialists, who turned the land into a building plot. The result? Desolate, unforgiveable, and blatant to anyone today who wanders through the buildings in Via di Novoli, Via de’ Tacchinardi, Via Francesco Corteccia, or Via Alessandro Stradella.
Along the Via San Donato, at numbers 46 and 48, you can still see the columns (or “propylaea”) at the entrance of the villa’s main access street: today, these are incorporated into the gated Sassetti-Peruzzi Institute.
The church has now been recovered and used for its original purposes: the villa has been transformed into luxury apartments.