By Ashley Foreman
FLORENCE, Italy — Le Murate, a complex that once served as a convent, then later became a prison, now flourishes in 2018 as a multipurpose space for socialization, artistic events and residential living. This community is representative of Florence’s effort to modernize, while also respecting and preserving the rich history of the city.
“We have the responsibility to preserve the history in the present but also leave space for the future generations to build their own layer,” said Mario Pittalis, the architect responsible for Le Murate, through a translator. “With the new, you add meaning . . . with the ancient you have to create something to offer. . . . You’re offering something to this older element.”
Pittalis, an architect with the City of Florence, said he wanted to incorporate the site’s historic aspects into his design for the renovation, but that he wanted Le Murate to be more open and welcoming. The result, which opened in 2011, is a design The Florentine news magazine called “one of Florence’s major architectural success stories of the past 20 years”.
For most of its existence, Le Murate has been used to contain people within its walls, first nuns as a convent and later male prisoners as a prison. Pittalis re-imagined the space as a chic, modern complex that mixes commercial, residential, cultural, artistic and social.
Le Murate, meaning “the walled,” was opened as a convent in 1424 for nuns that were relocated due to flooding, said Deirdre Pirro, a writer for The Florentine. When it closed in the early 1800s, Le Murate remained abandoned until 1845, when it re-opened as a prison. After 140 years as a prison, the complex closed in 1985 due to poor conditions and overcrowding, Pirros said. Neglected for nearly 25 years, renovations began anew in 2009. As it is configured today, Le Murate opened in 2011.
Le Murate Interactive Timeline
Pittalis described the new Le Murate as combining layers of history built upon and incorporating each previous redesign.
“You have to think of all these different elements of history,” Pittalis said.
For example, Le Murate’s courtyard, Piazza delle Murate, where previously nuns prayed, today is used by high school students as a place to study for exams, he said.
Renovated areas consist of two square courtyards surrounded by residential apartments. In fact, low-cost residential was a priority for the project from the city’s perspective, according to Marco Toccafondi, a city officer for social housing programs who worked on finances and design approval on the Le Murate project.
Also a goal was reviving the surrounding neighborhood, Toccafondi said.
A pedestrian walkway lined with stores, an art gallery and offices connect the apartments and is one of the elements of Le Murate that best exemplifies Pittalis’s efforts to integrate history and modern design.
“This was the most important corridor of the prison and (it) was absolutely closed,” Pittalis said. “Now it is a pedestrian street.”
He described how the only source of light in the hallway came from two small windows at the ends of the walkway. Pittalis’s redesign opened the walkway to the public by removing most of the ceiling and allowing air and sunlight to permeate the space.
Thriving as social, cultural space
Since its opening, Le Murate has become a popular meeting place and social and recreational hub for a neighborhood that is but a short distance from the Basilica di Santa Croce, according to Pirro. Anchoring the space’s social life is Caffè Letterario, which serves food and drinks, hosts artistic and literary events that are free to the public, and puts on concerts, dance recitals and sporting events.
Another contributor to the artistic culture at Le Murate is Le Murate Progetti Arte Contemporanea, an organization that plans artistic events at Le Murate, according to Ennio Bazzoni, a publisher who works at the Nardini Editore bookstore at Le Murate.
Recently, the organization hosted a short film festival that brought over 500 short films and their creators to Florence and, more specifically, Le Murate, according to Bazzoni.
Le Murate is a space that is different from the rest of Florence in that visitors can enjoy the space without feeling obligated to pay for it, he said.
Revival of area
Prior to 2009, “Le Murate was a huge black hole in the town center, historically closed for the people,” Toccafondi said. Today it is an economic and social facilitator. Le Murate has given life back to the complex and the surrounding neighborhood as a whole, said Pirro. She credited the Le Murate’s new-found popularity for helping restaurants and other businesses in the area to open up and see good traffic.
“Le Murate is now a cultural hub of the town,” Toccafondi said.
Reading Florence’s as text
The renovation of Le Murate is just one example of how architecture is used to help define negotiate its relationship with its past.
“You’re living in a museum, you’re not living in a city,” Pirro said. “No matter where you look is history. You eat and breathe it every day of your life. And that’s what makes (Florence) so fascinating for so many people.”