IO – “Florence is an hermetic city. It is a city that conceals secrets. One should never stop searching and looking beyond the appearance. Then, when you least expect it something unpredictable emerges,” said Idanna Pucci, a Florentine writer and filmmaker, who has been connected to Bali for many years, studying its culture, myths, and oral tradition.
Shortly after she arrived in Bali, in the early seventies, Idanna came across a strange but fascinating stone carving of a “man” riding a bicycle on the low wall around the Pura Meduwe Karang in the village of Kubutambahan. Situated east of Singaraja, the temple is a marvelous example of the intricate flowery decorations typical of North Bali. No one there knew the origins of that image carved in stone. Pointing in the direction of Java, the answer was simply a “foreigner”. So she assumed that the cyclist may have been Dutch. But the question remained in her mind.
Some years later, Idanna’s book, The Epic of Life, was published in a beautiful volume that soon became a classic on Balinese culture. And she sent a copy to her father in Florence. On a visit back to Florence in 1987, her father told her that he had lent the book to a friend, a known rare books dealer, and he wished to speak with her. The gentleman greatly praised the book, and then spoke about the Villa dei Vescovi – meaning “of the Bishops”, situated at the foot hill of Fiesole, overlooking Florence. But why was he mentioning this? The reason was astonishing: he said that the villa was a treasure trove of Indonesian artworks, particularly from Bali.
“And who are the owners of the villa?” Idanna asked.
“A wonderful Dutch artist, called W.O.J. Nieuwemkamp, who purchased it and settle there in 1927. He died in 1950 and is buried in the small cemetery of San Domenico,” replied the book dealer.
Now, like many times before, Idanna was faced with the hermetic face of Florence. It was Bali which had led her to discover yet another secret of her own city, bringing her back to where her passion for Bali had begun as a little girl through her uncle, Emilio Pucci, and his 1960 fashions inspired by Bali and Java.
Apparently, Nieuwenkamp’s daughter, Fernanda was still alive and living at the villa. She had married an Italian painter, Bruno Bramanti. Surprisingly, Idanna received a call from Fernanda Nieuwenkamp inviting her for tea. She then realized that when she was discovering “Indonesia” for the first time as a 9 year old girl, she would sometimes play with the Bramanti children in their enchanted gardens that gently sloped down towards the city. At that time, the garden with its high cypresses, oaks, and linden trees hid a labyrinth of secrets like all very large gardens, so Idanna never noticed the statues and details from far distant cultures she could not even imagine.
Y e t , as Idanna entered the garden years later, her eyes fell on an ancient Balinese gong hanging under a small tiled roof. Donato Bramanti, Nieuwenkamp’s grandson and Idanna’s childhood friend, now a physicist, welcomed her. He led her inside the villa through an intricately carved Javanese door.
Nieuwenkamp’s extraordinary paintings decorated the walls. Statues, carvings, gorgeous textiles appeared from every corner or shelf. The world of Indonesian art had magnificently taken hold of the house. No one, neither Fernanda nor her offspring had ever been to Indonesia, and had little idea what the objects represented.
But, suddenly, Idanna noticed an image emerging from a terracotta tile decorating the fireplace, and recognized the stone carving of the man on the bicycle in the temple of north Bali. Amused at her utter surprise, Donato said: “That’s my grandfather. He went around Bali on a bicycle that he had brought from Holland. The Balinese had never seen such an invention before, and were fascinated.”
W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp was not only an artist but also an explorer, a mapmaker, an ethnologist, and a wonderful diarist. He was a traveler at heart and visited many parts of the Netherlands Indies. Nieuwenkamp’s motto was vagando aquiro which in Latin means “while I wander, I learn” (and enrich my inner self). His motto echoes Idanna’s own philosophy of life.
Nieuwenkamp did not travel as a “colonial merchant” but as an artist who “portrayed the world around him in minute detail and in its complex natural grandness… He recorded the cultural diversity of Indonesia as well as traditions caught in the integrity of the last hour before the advent of modernity,” Idanna says. “He was forever trying to prove to his Dutch compatriots that the local cultures with their arts and crafts of the Indies were rich and intricate, and had great beauty and meaning. He wrote and published. He made illustrations and painted masterpieces. He organized exhibitions in Paris and Rome. He worked tirelessly to bring the high art of the Indies to viewers in Europe.”
Later he retired in Italy, far away from his homeland. He found in Florence a cradle of artists and artisans. It was the perfect place to preserve his art collections and express his love for Balinese culture and the beauty of the powerful nature of the vast archipelago that continued to inspire him until the end of his life.
“Florence is a peculiar city,” muses Idanna. “The more layered a society is the more difficult it is penetrate its core. Florence is like that. A visitor needs a guide to peel back the layers that hide the truth of the past. In The Divine Comedy, Dante has a noble guide, the classic poet Virgil, who accompanies him into the afterlife. It is a journey filled with meaning and mystery. In the same way, if someone wants to go deeper in my city, he or she must find their Virgil.”
Idanna recounts another secret of Florence, the Tuscan explorer, Elio Modigliani with his deep connection to Sumatra. She had heard and read about him as an anthropologist. But in 1995, when she met Mohua, his only daughter, another hermetic world of her city opened before her eyes.
Elio Modigliani was born in 1860 in Florence, just a few months before the unification of Italy, when the city was named the nation’s first capital. Raised in an affluent family, he studied law. But his destiny took him far away from the legal profession, and he followed his passion to become a natural scientist. He traveled first to the island of Nias, off the coast of the southern coast of Sumatra where he studied and photographed the only known Neolithic culture still thriving on earth. Idanna describes: “…like the humanists of the Renaissance, Modigliani was not satisfied with a provincial image of man. By going back in time to ancient uncharted animistic societies, he embarked on a pilgrimage to the source of civilization, a dream he had nurtured since childhood.”
Modigliani also explored the islands of Mentawai and Enggano and, contrary to Dutch wishes, he settled among the Bataks who lived around Lake Toba in Sumatra. His loyal and erudite guide was a Batak chieftain who had founded a new faith based on traditional Batak beliefs. His name was Somalaing.
Modigliani wrote extensively and his books are among the most fascinating and informative accounts of 19th century explorations in Sumatra and its archipelago. His book, Journey to Nias, is a landmark testimony of the culture and beliefs of that unique island.
Modigliani was a scholar and received help and support from the University of Florence to embark on his explorations. He was an avid collector, not for himself but to increase public knowledge. His entire collection formed the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in Florence which he helped to found.
“The museum is in the heart of the city,” Idanna explains. “Two minutes by foot from the Duomo and its immense cupola. A few years ago, I helped curate the first exhibition exclusively on Modigliani and Sumatra. It opened in September 2002 and it was a great surprise for most Florentines, and Mohua was quite over- whelmed at the way the memory of her father was brought back to life.”
Modigliani, like Nieuwenkamp, was not blinded by colonial prejudices. They both stared in wonder at these worlds, and remarkably shared the same vision. His amazing photography, like W.O.J’s drawings, captured dramatically the architecture, everyday tools, rituals and dress of the people.
“Both knew these worlds would soon be lost. Modigliani was trying to bring Sumatra to Florence in the same way that W.O.J. was trying to do with Bali and Java. Nieuwenkamp’s oil paintings capture the forces of the invisible world, and the spiritual dimension woven in the fabric of communities in South East Asia. In his travels, W.O.J. used his pen, ink and oils, while Modigliani used his camera lens and the objects he collected,” describes Idanna.
“Florence hides many other treasures waiting to be unveiled,” Idanna reflects. “Life can be a marvelous sequence of coincidences and surprises that surface unexpectedly and, if pursued, can take you on a journey full of mystery and meaning: vagando aquiro.” (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 II : https://observerid.com/idanna-pucci-from-florence-to-bali-part-ii-lifes-journey/
Part IV : https://observerid.com/idanna-pucci-from-florence-to-bali-part-iv-the-twinning-of-two-towns-and-emilio-ambron/