IO – Who would not wish to be born in a palazzo in Florence, that great Italian centre of the arts where people gather from all over the world to immerse themselves in the enlightenment of culture? Idanna Pucci belongs to a noble Florentine family which has had an active role in the political and economic life of the city for centuries. And yet it seems as in all good fairy tales the great Hindu kalpataru tree of wishes never grants good luck without problems of equal measure.
When she was a child Idanna’s parents separated and her mother left Florence to live in South Africa. So, the little girl grew up without a mother which is probably one of the heaviest burdens a child can be made to bare. Of her father, Idanna remembers that he was not very present.
In the second half of the 16th century the Pucci family hired the eminent Tuscan architect, Bernardo Buontalenti to design Palazzo Pucci. Her uncle Emilio, and also her grandmother occupied one large part of the palazzo, while her father lived in the remaining most ancient part. After the Second World War, her grandparents placed the burden of the palace on her father’s shoulders with the responsibility of restoring and maintaining it. Idanna says that her father was a dynamic and active person with regard to this – and very positive – but when it came to his two children he was very strict.
“We were extremely disciplined. As a child I could not be one minute late. My bath was precisely at 7 pm every evening. And every day, I had to polish my shoes and do my homework alone. And we had a very strict governess to oversee our daily life. At times, I would lock myself in my room to try and protect myself …”
Her grandmother was a lovely lady. She had been struck by polio as a child and there was a certain sadness to her. She was a very devout Catholic and went to church every day. She loved Idanna and her brother but could not provide a joyful nurturing. Idanna says, “I knew I had to fend for myself and that I could not depend upon the cosiness of a warm family life but this was my grace! If I had had the normal family life of the children in my circle, I would never have left and seen the world. I would not change my life now with many of my childhood friends. They see Florence as the centre of the world because in a sense the world comes to Florence. They feel they have everything because people want to visit from everywhere and dream of spending time in their city. So Florentines in a way are very spoiled, with little curiosity for the big wide world outside.”
However, there was a special presence in the palace: her uncle Emilio. He was a fashion designer, who was making his name internationally, and whose colourful patterns were ground breaking after the War. He invented colours, such as “hot pink” and “lime green” and fabrics like silk jersey.
He was also the first who brought Indonesia to Idanna’s attention. He travelled the world and would regale his niece and nephew with magical stories. In the late 1950s, he stayed in Bali as a guest of the Tjokorda of Ubud. One of his first fashion collections, which brought him success and fame, was heavily inspired by arts and nature of Java and Bali. He gave his different designs Balinese and Javanese names. This of course, fascinated Idanna very early on, and inflamed her imagination. Later she found a copy of National Geographic on Bali and Java which she managed to read completely. She was nine years old then.
Sometimes, during the fashion season in Florence, she would help out the photographers. She would also give a hand to dress the models for the fashion shoots in an open loggia on the rooftop of the palace. “It was all surreal and yet so real for me. It was all a fantastic spectacle, and I was lucky to have a front row seat!” remarks Idanna.
However, she says that slowly she realized that the world of fashion did not really interest her. “And yet,” Idanna muses “I knew that I was so lucky to be confronted with beauty and creativity at a very young age. Even if I did not have the comfort of a loving family life, this forced me to be curious and open.”
At the age of 12 she was sent to boarding school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Florence as her father could not have the children around for he had to do major restorations of the palace. Her life was again a very disciplined life, with morning prayers and little heating in the winter. It was not easy but she had no alternative but to accept it. Perhaps a symbol of her loneliness and sadness is that every year from the age of 7 till 17, she wrote a will, and yet strangely she did not succumb to melancholy or depression. Idanna says, “I had a sad childhood but it did not affect me psychologically. I was able to turn the negative to positive and that is a gift from the sky! I was aided of course by my basic curiosity.”
At 17 Idanna graduated from high school and was finally free. She went to work for her uncle Emilio Pucci in New York. He was known as the “Prince of Prints” and she learnt and experienced a lot during that time. But then, when she felt that there would be a change in fashion and that it would become corporate, she knew she had to leave and continue with her own journey of exploration in another way, following the pull of her saving graces: curiosity, and a passion for writing
“At that time especially young people in central Europe liked to travel to Asia overland, through former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan and then the Far East.
The Beetles were amongst the first to tell young people that they must head east. It was only in the 1960s and 70s, after war broke out between Israel and Egypt, that it began to be difficult to go overland.
“Many of my friends left for Asia and Australia. Myself, with my first husband, Hugues de Montalembert, I travelled through Southeast Asia, writing for French and Italian publications about whatever struck our interest,” observed Idanna, describing a different age when the planet was open and still not polluted, and reasonably safe.”
Idanna first arrived in Bali in January of 1973. The airport had a small bamboo hut like those seen in the rice fields and there was no paved road to Sanur. Idanna recollects, “A full moon and a white sand road with silhouettes of the palm trees. I saw a pristine island when I arrived. There were only two hotels in Sanur. One belonged to Wija Wawo-Runtu and his Tanjung Sari Hotel and the other to Donald Friend, an Australian artist and diarist living in Bali at the time. The only other hotel was the Campuhan in Ubud while the Hyatt was just being built. The Balinese arts and crafts were still for self-consumption. When Queen Elizabeth arrived on the QE II in Benoa they built a jetty for her and Donald sent his car to pick her up and they made the road to Pengosekan for her. Before that we always had to walk through the rice fields. So, I have such vivid memories of the end of an era.”
Idanna remained for a year in Bali and was then based in Singapore for another couple of years. She explored on her own many islands in the Archipelago, recording for a Singapore publisher, the living traditions of Indonesia, hitch hiking and travelling with small fishing boats, always alone but perfectly safe in a way she would not have dared to have done in Italy. “It was incredible. Everyone treated me with enormous respect and care.”
After leaving Bali Idanna returned again in 1984 and took over the studio in Iseh, near Sidemen, that had originally been built by Walter Spies, the foreign artist who had so much influence on Balinese art and theatre. His studio had later been taken over by Theo Meyer, and when Theo moved to Thailand, Idanna rented it from its owner, the Tjokorda Gede Dangin of Sidemen. It was in a terrible condition, with a leaking roof and beautifully carved poles filled with termites. She destroyed it, placed the poles in the river to rid them of the termites, and then rebuilt it as it was before, and lived there until 1994. In 1996, she bought a piece of land nearby, and with her current husband, Terence Ward, built a new house. Idanna then traveled back and forth from Florence to Bali. The house was sold two years ago but she remains attached to Bali, in part because of the deep friendships she has made over the years.
It was during her time in Sidemen that Idanna met Dr Djelantik, who helped to further open Balinese and Indonesian cultures for her. In her interview with Susan Forrest Castle she says, “Traveling throughout the archipelago, observing different beliefs, customs, and traditions, and later living among the Balinese people, immersed in the culture, provided me with a whole new frame of reference — a less emotional, less impulsive, less Mediterranean way of being… It gave me an education for life!”
With her great curiosity about the world, about diverse people, and ultimately about life itself, Idanna Pucci became a writer and a filmmaker. Many of her books and films are not about Bali or Italy. The Lady of Sing Sing is about her American great-grandmother, who started the first campaign against the death penalty in 1895 to save the first woman sentenced to the electric chair, an Italian immigrant who killed the man who had raped her. Among the documentaries, she directed and produced was Eugenia of Patagonia which is about her legendary aunt who became the mayor of a vast region at the end of the world in Southern Chile. Idanna says that the presence of her husband Terence, also a writer and filmmaker, “transforms even the most strenuous task into a poetic experience”. Together they have produced documentaries such as Black Africa White Marble, based on Idanna’s book Brazza in Congo: A Life and Legacy (Umbrage, 2009). It tells the extraordinary story of Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà after whom Brazzaville is named. Another is Talk Radio Tehran about Iranian women who manage to fulfil their aspirations in spite of the gender apartheid practised in their country.
While pursing her studies in New York at Columbia University, Idanna immersed herself in Balinese myths and oral traditions, and researched the ceiling paintings of the Kertha Gosa or court of justice in the ancient royal palace of Klungkung. Her book, The Epic of Life, depicts the story of Bhima Swarga where the Hindu hero Bhima from the Mahabharata journeys to rescue his parents from hell and bring them to heaven. It shows the gruesome punishments of hell and the sweet rewards of heaven. It reminded Idanna of Dante’s journey into the afterlife. Her latest book is The World Odyssey of a Balinese Prince, which recounts the adventures around the world of Dr. A.A. Made Djelantik, whose father was the last Raja of Karangasam.
“In life, we may experience distress from a broken heart, grief, betrayal of a friend or great injustice. It happens to all of us sooner or later,” Idanna says, returning to her central theme. “But if you are curious about life and people, then stories will come to find you. They will lead you to do research, which is always a challenging kind of ‘treasure hunt’. In times of grief or distress, this will distract you and lift you to another plane. You will then forget for a while your own personal story or ego and you will feel as part of a larger world and this will help to heal your heart…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)
If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about Idanna Pucci by the same writer:
Part I : https://observerid.com/idanna-pucci-an-italian-marchesa-in-bali-part-i-a-new-edition-of-the-world-odyssey-of-a-balinese-prince/
Part III: https://observerid.com/idanna-pucci-from-florence-to-bali-part-iii-vagando-aquiro/
Part IV : https://observerid.com/idanna-pucci-from-florence-to-bali-part-iv-the-twinning-of-two-towns-and-emilio-ambron/