Florence … Peace with Self First

Florence … Peace with Self First

Talk about the relations which the historic city of Florence established is especially interesting as it carries a number of profound implications and meanings which helped open wider horizons in the history and concept of international relations as a distinct discipline. Florence is still a key centre for the meeting of civilizations and dialogues that had set up a unique network before the introduction of modern communications and information technologies. Florence's success in this respect is attributed to a major reason which reflects its early mission, namely the promotion of tolerance, dialogue and cooperation. One may enquire about the significance of such noble ideals which Florence lived up to seven centuries ago. What was it striving for then? Answers to these good questions are extremely important to understand the strong desire to get out of the Dark Ages and herald the Renaissance and the age of the enlightenment and human progress.

Since its opening on the world, Florence has adopted a unique, unwavering approach: it began self-dialogue before engaging in dialogue with others and has thus become the first city in the world to find peace with self before with others. In this way it set clear-cut objectives and provided effective and flexible mechanisms for implementation. It realized that the prosperity of its foreign trade and its proceeds should be efficiently employed to protect it through transfer of its experiment abroad. It also called for the removal of all barriers between nations and put the "laissez passer, laissez faire" policy into practice a long time ago. Moreover, Florence was very interested in investigating religious and cultural heritage and ethnic differences in Europe and the Mediterranean region. It also encouraged translation into Latin and thus learned a lot about Islamic and Arabic culture in Andalusia, then the Greek and other civilizations.

During the Medici family's era, a number of Florentine thinkers, intellectuals and artists were patronized to establish Florence's political, intellectual and cultural framework and ushered in an era of diplomatic relations with different countries and principalities and sent consuls and missions to all Mediterranean and Adriatic ports in an attempt to foster ties of cooperation and friendship. The countries diplomatic missions were sent to included Egypt, Algeria, Cyprus, Constantinople, Persia, India and China in addition to some European countries, such as Britain, with whose monarch King Edward III Florence had a special relationship and lent him 600 million lire (the equivalent to billions of dollars) to deal with the effects of the war which France waged against him. Florence did not make the same mistakes committed by previous and subsequent empires alike. It distanced itself from territorial expansionism and domination over weaker countries and instead adopted a policy of détente and cooperation rather then conflict.

In their manuscripts Florentine historians reported that the first high-level contact with the Arab world was in 1478 when the Mameluke sultan Gaitby sent an emissary to King Lorenzo the Magnificent of Florence carrying expensive gifts in a drive to open a new page in their relations after the consequences of the Crusades were eliminated. These bilateral relations continued to resolve a number of key issues, such as the release of Muslim POWs and struggle with the Portuguese. Florence's relations with the world in general and the Arab world in particular were an excellent model as they were based on tolerance, dialogue and cooperation.

Florence's historical role after it became part of united Italy in 1859 remained unchanged but became more active indeed, thanks to modern communications and information technologies. Florence occasionally launches humanitarian initiatives in solidarity with the countries hit by natural disasters and offers relief supplies and emergency medical aid, thus being an international centre for solidarity with others, regardless of colour, race or religion.

In the following pages I'll give an account of the experiments of three eminent Florentine figures who are keen to maintain Florence's leading role: president of the European University, who represents the concept of tolerance; former mayor of Florence who expresses the concept of dialogue, and an Italian MP, who represents a young force for wider international cooperation.

The European University

With scenes of the past in mind, and scenes of the present in sight, and for a deeper understanding, I went to an area in Tuscany famous for its archaeological sites to see the president of the European University, Professor Gianfranco Varvesi in his office in San Marco Palace, which was built in the 14th century as a hospital, then became a nunnery and ultimately the University campus after its foundation in 1976. He categorically rejects the idea of clash of civilizations which has been promoted since the end of last century as a philosophical framework for the interpretation of international relations in today's world. He described this idea as "ridiculous and unrealistic". In his interview with Al-Arabi he said that with civilization, clash was presumed to cease to exist; we therefore had to work hard to create favourable conditions for establishing channels of dialogue and cooperation, understanding and exchange of ideas among nations rather than resorting to military force. The world is looking forward to a state of international balance where cooperation, rather than conflict, domination and spheres of influence, prevail, and refuses to go back to the logic of the Cold War. This international balance helps underpin the principles of peace and security and fosters joint action, particularly in the light of a unified Europe which is currently qualified to achieve such a balance with China, Japan and other countries. Florence is still playing this pioneering role as a bridge between the West and the East, he said, stressing the importance of European-Arab dialogue, especially in view of the fact that modern Europe had benefited from the Arab scientific and cultural heritage through the Andalusian civilization.

About the university's role and message he said: "The main objective of the university is to graduate European PhD holders in four key area of social sciences and humanities: law, history, political science and economics. The European countries which laid the foundation stone of the European Union in 1956 established this university which is funded by the European Commission to train a number of European graduates to carry the results and dimensions of this experiments to their respective countries even if the number of member states goes up to over 25.

Only excellent students are enrolled in the university. 150 out of 1500 students are selected on merit. The medium of instruction is English, the global language of communication and exchange of information. These rigorous admission requirements are designed to select the most brilliant students to enable them after graduation to support the joint European project. The university's president, who had previously worked as a diplomat in a number of Arab countries over 40 years ago, commended the Italian government's initiative to award 20 scholarships to students from Arab Mediterranean countries to foster relations with the Arab world. Each student receives a monthly stipend of 1000 euros and their tuition fees are paid by the government. Students from Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Jordan are enrolled on postgraduate programmes, with the possibility of including Arab Gulf students in the future.

Furthermore, the university arranges a high-level annual conference which brings together 200 experts in a variety of fields-political, economic, historical and legal in round table discussions behind closed doors, at the end of which the participants come up with a number of recommendations related to controversial issues in particular. The idea of the European constitution itself was born at the university's 1998 conference. The participants drafted 94 articles which were ratified at the Nice (France) summit. At the end of the interview, Professor Varvesi said. "Let's work together all the time for the sake of development, freedom and social work" in order to preserve these sublime values in the future.

Kuwait City and Florence twin cities

Florence attaches considerable importance to the concept of twinning with other cities. One of the earliest of such experiments was the twinning pact with Kuwait City announced unilaterally by Florence during the Iraqi occupation in August 1990. This story is worth being told away from propaganda. The former mayor of Florence, Giorgo Morales, the one who launched the twinning initiative, said: "This is a unique, unprecedented experiment for over 2000 years," describing the pact as: "a milestone in the history of Florence and a gesture of solidarity with the peoples who are subject to oppression due to the use of military force to resolve political issues." He himself announced the initiative which was unanimously approved by Florence's municipality members and was intended to send a clear message to the international community that "Kuwait will be free again." The whole world feels proud of this twinning in spite of the differences between the history of the twin cities. The mayor added that Florence's humanitarian initiative was never politically oriented, particularly in view of the fact that the world had not then been aware of the response of the international community represented by the United Nations or of the measures taken to end the occupation. Twining with Kuwait City was an expression of human solidarity with an unarmed people who suffered all kinds of oppression and torture and his basic rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, foremost of which is living in peace-were violated. He said he was still proud of launching such a humanitarian initiative even though many years have passed since he left has job, describing this as "one of the most important things I did in over twenty years in the service of the city". Currently working as a civil rights advocate for a number of institutions, Mr. Morales added:" The people and leadership of Kuwait expressed deep gratitude towards me", adding that during his visit to Kuwait he was warmly received by the Amir of Kuwait H.H. Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, wishing this copperation to continue in the interest of both countries and the principles of international peace and security.

It's worth mentioning that over-2000-year-old Florence has concluded 20 twinning pacts with foreign cities, with Fez being the first Arab city in the early 1960s, in recognition of its key role in culture and history. These cities include Philadelphia (US), Kassel (Germany), Turko (Finland). (China), Kyoto (Japan), Sydney (Australia), and Salvador (Brazil), which introduced an initiative to put an end to violations of children's rights and support UNICEF's world campaign in this respect. Concluding his talk, Mr Morales said that he was totally convinced more than ever before that "men go, but Florence continues as an observer of history", thanks to its classic experiments.

The importance of dialogue

Italian MP, Monica Baldi, of Florence, says: "However different the views and analyses of the momentous events, that can't deny that we are living in a world which looks like a small village affecting and is affected by the events taking place around it." She is chairperson of the Italian-Turkish Friendship Committee and of the Italian Parliamentary Committee on Women's Support in Afghanistan. She is also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. In all these roles she calls for dialogue and cooperation and understanding of the backgrounds to differences objectively. She also calls for the renunciation of all forms of extremism and narrow domestic interests. She stresses the cultural aspect as an approach to dialogue, without interference in the internal affairs of other countries, with due respect for human rights and enhancing of individuals' living, cultural and educational conditions. She says Italy has strong relations with the Arab countries, especially those lying on the Mediterranean. In the meantime, she recognizes Kuwait's status and its achievements as a modern state and in the civil society, thus becoming a model for other countries to follow. She does not ignore the strategic importance of Turkey and its great contribution to civilization.

Florence and the Renaissance

Florence has always been termed an open museum, as evidence of its long history during which it played a pioneering role which introduced enlightenment and helped put an end to the Dark Ages which were dominated by ignorance, disease, wars and suppression by ambitious clerics with conflicting interests. Hence Florence's leading role which developed over the years for a number of key reasons, mainly its prosperous trade and the presence of enlightened merchants, later called "the Florentine class, who paved the way for the Medici family to rule Florence, making use of the Arab cultural heritage in Andalusia through encouraging translation. For the first time in history the Medici family formed a pact between the political, ruling elite on the one hand, and the intellectual and artistic elite, on the other, thus marking the real starting point for the Renaissance, whose implications are still felt to date. During that period Machiavelli wrote his well-known, controversial book "The Prince", which laid down the basics of rule for political systems, which, though apparently different, are similar in essence: "the end justifies the means". This approach is still affecting international relations, despite the progress made over the ages and formulation of new rules for the contemporary world order: " There are no permanent friends or enemies, only common interests". The Medici family, who had strong relations with the French ruling family, completed the pillars of rule. They built Palaso Vecchio, as the first royal palace and drew up the first written constitution in history.

The circle of light expanded as led by an intellectual elite, including the great poet Dante Alighieri, the author of "the Divine Comedy", who laid down the rules of Italian grammar and derived its vocabulary from Latin, replacing it as the language of science and knowledge in the stage of change.

At the end of last century, Florence was chosen as the historical capital of Europe, in recognition of its role which combines deep explorations of science and knowledge on the one hand, and characteristic modesty about its achievements, on the other.

Due to limitations of space talk about the Renaissance can't be done justice to. I'll therefore focus on two established schools which reflected that age, as represented by Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, which split the city under the Medici family into two camps supporting the two greatest geniuses of the Renaissance.

Medici family's patronage of art, culture and politics was crowned with the choice of one of its members to be the leader of the Catholic church: Pope Paul II, who commissioned Michelangdo to paint the ceiling of Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo spent long hours every day for many years lying on his back on a scaffold to complete the job, something reported in the Guinness Book of Records. He laid down the foundations of modern art and architecture, and his works inspired many generations of artists and combined art and politics.

His works were wonderfully expressive of the incidents and battles during the Renaissance which he transformed into lasting symbols. Michelangelo, who died in 1564, was a genuinely modest person. There is a special museum for his life and works, including his early ones which are in display for the first time. The five hundredth anniversary of his famous statue David, the most photographed work of art worldwide, was celebrated in September 2004. Twentieth-century historians described the role he played centuries after his death as "a man who woke up very early one night when everybody else was fast asleep." This early wake-up left a considerable impact on a variety of fields, including philosophy, painting, sculpture, music, mathematics, optics, astronomy, zoology and anatomy.

Leonardo da Vinci's style was primarily analytical, depicting such events that inspired a school of Renaissance artists later. His masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, which he gave as a gift to the French King Francois I, came in the context of that school. This painting has fascinated the whole world over the ages and its enigmatic smile is still a mystery. He was a versatile artist and a learned person indeed.

In the context of this analytical approach President of the state university of Florence, Professor Augusts Marinelli, affirmed that "Florence as a city remains in touch with the cultural heritage of the Renaissance, representing the values of that age, promoting the principles of peace, justice and freedom. In an exclusive interview with Al-Arabi he said these principles were still Florence's DNA, keeping it in touch with the world despite the serious events and developments it is witnessing. He pointed out that the world had radically changed since the 9/11 events despite their negative implications; however, there were undeniably positive dimensions, namely desire worldwide to find radical solutions to a number of long overdue current issues. He said those events led Europe, including Florence of course, to shoulder its responsibility as a bridge and mediator for dialogue among those extremist movements. He attributed the rise of those movements in many parts of the world to the wide disparity between rich and poor countries. He described that phenomenon as short-lived "emergency cases" which could be dealt with through dialogue and cooperation as shown by the deep sympathy of the Muslim world on the death of Pope John Paul earlier this year.

He recalled that Florence played host to the late Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Menh in the late 1960s despite the international isolation imposed on him, which paved the way for peace negotiations which ended the war in 1975.

He said the university, whose student population was 60,000, launched a peace initiative in November 2001 to establish a place of worship for the three revealed religions in an area on campus carrying the motto "Love yourself first, then love others." Architecture students have designed an area for everybody to meet and engage in dialogue then go for prayer in special rooms, pointing out that the project would see the light of day once all designs had been completed and the budget allocated. He added that the university entered into 300 agreements for academic cooperation with international universities in the context of its support for such lofty ideals. To foster relations with the Arab world the university was in the process of signing agreements with Al-Azhar University in Cairo and King Muhammad V University in Rabat. He also pointed out that the latter agreements would arrange for awarding scholarships for Arab and Italian students to establish direct contacts in the future. A department of Islamic Studies will be opened once all academic requirements are met. A master's degree will be awarded after four years of study. Concluding his interview, Professor Marinelli gave a pledge that Florence would remain faithful to the spirit of the Renaissance and enlightenment, continuing its prominent role, affirming that each of the city's districts would be in touch with the outside world and adhere to the principles of peace, dialogue, cooperation and respect for human rights.

A cultural character

Florentine rulers created a unique cultural atmosphere which led all people to be involved in its cultural activities which set the first standard for social mobility and climbing the political ladder, in addition to opening the door for innovation. The Latin world is indebted to Florence and its cultural and political elite for encouraging and patronizing a number of thinkers, artists and scientists, including the astronomer Galileo, who proved that the earth is circular rather than flat, thus leading to further geographical explorations round the world. But for this scientific discovery, which aroused bitter controversy, the Genovese navigator Christopher Columbus wouldn't have got the inspiration to set on his expedition which led to the discovery of the New World.

It's difficult to give a full account of Florence's cultural, scientific and intellectual achievements during that era; however, all the indications are that Florence is synonymous with culture, in spite of the emergence of other international capitals and cities which support various cultural activities.

To understand the impact and results of this unique phenomenon, I'll focus on three main aspects: the history of culture as represented by the largest art museum in the world: Uffizi Gallery; the Museums of Marble Works of Arts and Restoration; Florence's cultural future and its position on the world's cultural map in the age of the Internet and globalization.

Uffizi Gallery

In an exclusive interview with Al-Arabi, Director of the Uffizi Gallery, Professor Antonio Baluci, said "Florence and culture are interrelated", adding that culture officials in Italy were doing their best to make northern Tuscany an open museum in the light of the limited capacity of Florentine museums and archaeological sites in terms of hotels and the ever-increasing number of visitors reaching millions annually who queue for long hours. Mr. Baluci, who was minister of culture in the mid-1990s, said this cultural project would shortly see the light of day, in addition to extensions to the existing museum exhibition halls to display all collections, including an extension to the second floor of the Uffizi Gallery, whose visitors exceed 1.5m annually, to be added later this year.

He also said Florence organized exhibitions of Florentine collections in major capitals, including Moscow and Beijing every year and planned joint exhibitions with the Arab world to display Arab and Islamic works of art in Florence and other Italian cities.

Opposite the Uffizi Gallery stands the Museum of Marble Works of Art and Restoration whose director, Christina Luchinat, told Al-Arabi the Museum was opened in 1966 to preserve Florentine priceless archaeological and artistic treasures following the Arno River flood disaster which hit the city that year and led to the start of an extensive restoration campaign to be completed early next year. To celebrate that event the main Florentine restored archeological and marble pieces will be on public display for the first time in an international exhibition. This project was carried out by the High Institute of Restoration, which forms part of the Museum, using state-of-the-art technology, including laser. The Institute is looking forward to awarding scholarships to Arab students to benefit from Italian expertise in this field.

Concerning Italian-Arab cultural relations, the Museum director called for wider bilateral relations as "global language which knows no borders or barriers" and a pressing need to cater for the changes which the world has witnessed in recent years, referring to a number of forthcoming joint cultural projects in the area of restoration work with some Arab countries, mainly Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia and Iraq. She added the Museum wanted to restore one of the treasures of Baghdad Museum which has been damaged in the recent war, but the current security situation made that impossible so far. She also expressed her hope that the Museum would contribute to the reconstruction of the Kuwait National Museum from the damage it suffered as a result of the Iraqi occupation in 1990.

President of the Council of Culture and Arts in Florence, Gunio Giani said Florence "didn't want to be prey to its Renaissance enlightenment heritage, in spite of its historical importance", but wanted to rise to the challenge which today's cultural and political developments are posing. Florence is therefore planning an ambitious cultural and artistic programme in the coming two years to put it in the forefront of key cultural cities in the world. Designed to be a bridge between historical and today's Florence, the phased programme is jointly funded by the private and public sectors and includes building a new complex for international conferences. He added that by 2007 a number of historical palaces and government buildings would have been evacuated and transformed into new museums and cultural institutions, as only 30% of the city's treasures were on display for lack of space. All of the city's streets and squares will be pedestrian precincts.

Having his 1859 office in Palaso Vecchio, Mr. Giani said the historical city was visited by seven million people every year spending one night at least each, but day visitors were ten million, adding that it would still play a leading role in the third millennium.

Concluding his talk to Al-Arabi, he stressed that Florence would continue fostering its relations with the world's cities, particularly those it had twinning pacts with, saying it still boasted concluding a twinning pact with Kuwait City, whose name is widely heard in world news bulletins, affirming that "Florence will affect and be affected by the signs of cultural life, as it has lived and will live to achieve this noble aim."

As all the above shows, Florence's role as a city which embraced the Renaissance can't be separated from its current role in the support of all forms of culture in order to enhance the progress of humans and help them have a critical view of the events and developments taking place around them.


Yahia Matar


Scenes from Florence

Scenes from Florence

Florence is the capital of northern Tuscany, one of the eighteen provinces making up the Italian Republic. The population of the former is 10 million; the latter 58 million

During the Middle Ages, Florence witnessed growing calls for joining the Reformation. Its population then was 30,000 which paved the way for the Medici family to rule this principality for over four centuries

The university is one of the biggest European graduate universities with 550 students doing PhD's and a faculty of 65 in four main departments: law, history, political science and economics

Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge), one of the oldest and most important in the world, was built in the ninth century, when Florence was two states separated by the famous Arno River each levying taxes on commerce

President of the European University, Professor Varvesi, who at the same time is commissioned by the Italian Foreign Ministry to do diplomatic functions. He has wide experience in Middle Eastern affairs

Santa Maria Novella, a celebrated square since the Renaissance, in the centre of Florence which Caesar founded in 59 BC and made it one of his fortresses worldwide. Christianity spread in Florence in the third century

The former mayor of Florence, Giorgo Morales, signs a twinning pact with Kuwait City in 1991, with former Kuwaiti Minister for Municipality Affairs Dr. Ibrahim Alshaheen in attendance

Statue of the famous military leader Fernando II which Kuwait reconstructed in 1996

The former mayor of Florence, Giorgo Morales

Princess Maria de Medici, a leading feminine figure during the Renaissance

Italian MP Monica Baldi

Statue of the eminent Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini

On the fence round Cellini's statue people put locks as a token of their love of this Renaissance city

A bust of the famous poet Dante, the author of "the Divine Comedy", a masterpiece of man's heritage

The house of the Italian poet and philosopher Dante, who laid down the vocabulary and rules of grammar of modern Italian

Leonardo da Vinci, the most eminent of Renaissance artists

Artists are everywhere in the city's squares drawing pictures of its visitors are landmarks

Open spaces for all types of arts: painting music and singing, even caricature

Artist Giotto's statue

Artist Michelangelo's statue

Touches of art are felt everywhere in the city

Antonio Baluci, Divector of Uffizi Gallery and former minister of culture

The facade of the historical building of the state university which has been preserved despite the extensive renovations

University of Florence's logo

Professor Augusto Marinelli in his office during his interview with Al-Arabi

Different scenes from the old city. Bicycles are widely used to prevent environmental pollution by noise and car exhaust fumes / emissions

Different scenes from the old city. Bicycles are widely used to prevent environmental pollution by noise and car exhaust fumes / emissions

Different scenes from the old city. Bicycles are widely used to prevent environmental pollution by noise and car exhaust fumes / emissions

Different scenes from the old city. Bicycles are widely used to prevent environmental pollution by noise and car exhaust fumes / emissions

The famous David statue in Signorina Square, one of the works of Michalangelo. The five hundredth anniversary of the statue was celebrated in September 2004

A Florentine custom to celebrate new marriages going round one of the city's main squares

A marble work of art in the Museum of Marble Works of Art

Director of the Museum of Marble Works of Art, Christina Luchinat

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