A lowered shoulder strap, the daring weave of a tight dress on that wasp waist, that amber shade of skin so much wanted, the suggestive brush strokes of the artist Giovanni Boldini which depicted this way the Sicilian goddess that Franca was.
It is said that the jealous husband had asked for some intervention to the original artwork: a woman of such a high lineage could not be represented in such a provocative way to strangers eyes, longing for her bright essence. For this reason he had to cover her up with a more chaste damask dress, starting the rumour about the many versions of the paintings that Boldini had made of her.
Below: “Painting of woman Franca Florio” by Giovanni Boldini
A new indiscretion has risen up after recent studied of the painting. It seems that Boldini didn’t make multiple copies of the same painting but he had instead intervened directly to the same one with specific arrangements. He had chopped off some fragments of the royal dress omitting part of the rich embroidery, leaving arms and ankles uncovered. The readaptation turned the outfit of the woman completely in sync with the fashion of the roaring 20’s. The result was an overlapping of three artworks all in one.
Below: the 2 versions of the painting, the final one and the one from the 1901 exposed to the Biennale of Venice in 1903
Madonna Franca, if there was more loved queen in that far away Italy, that was certainly her
Aristocratic yet not queen, or at least not officially. But she was the spiritual queen of that population who had crowned her to that place and memory where only the great ones belong, the ones who have been loved for their deeds and heart.
Below: picture of the original version
Heroine of the “belle èpoque“ of the city of Palermo in its maximum glory, Franca Jacona of San Giuliano was born there in 1873.
In front of her emperors and artists would bow with dedication
Smart, sage but mostly gifted by a good heart. When she was 24 she was given in marriage to the ship owner Ignazio Florio Junior, a non royal man but one of the richest in the island. His holdings would include banks, shipyards, foundry, salt mines, tuna fisheries, wine cellars, the Aegadian islands and most of all the biggest fleet in Europe, the “Società di Navigazione Italiana” (literally Italian navigation Society). A bright businessman able to turn into gold whatever he would put his mind to.
Below: picture of Franca Florio when she was around 20 years old
Thanks to his passion for cars he had started a car race named “Targa Florio”, the first one ever happened in Sicily. The race had populated the Madonie circuit with the most popular pilots in the world as well as fostering new investments and enhancement of their territory.
The prosperous union was hiding some thorns though. Madonna Franca had always honoured that marriage although she was aware that by her side there was an unfaithful husband. He was used to gifting the woman as if that gesture would absolve him from his faults.
Below: image of Franca Florio when she was around her 30’s
Even though the eyes of the world were on her young body, so sinuous and of refined taste, able to draw attentions of the most powerful men in the international scenario, she had never given up to new passions.
Classy woman who would wear only Charles Worth’s garments, Franca had a creative and attentive mind and was into arts and jewels. The best goldsmiths would run to create precious creations for her to wear.
Below: two photographies of Franca for European magazines. She was described as “the best looking woman of Italy”
Invaluable objects would pop up in her wealthy dwelling. She was used to wearing with pride a necklace with more of 365 pearls joined together, renamed “pear necklace of Madonna Florio”, information coming from the painting of Boldini. A piece of extraordinary beauty that not many people could afford.
There is a rumour saying that the Decadentist writer Gabriele D’Annunzio convinced the woman to stop wearing earrings: apparently the writer thought that the miraculous face of the dame should have not been altered by nonsensical decorations, as her intense and uncommon beauty was at its most when kept with no frills.
Below: picture of the Kaiser Guglielmo II and Franca Florio
But in the fate of the woman there were not just embellishments, feasts and sparkling jewels; those green eyes which charmed sovereigns, artists and poets were destined to a greater fate, a love which goes beyond the limit of time and that imprinted into history.
The partnership of the couple was about to realise a secret dream that the woman had always had
giving to Palermo city and all its Sicily a central role in the political and strategic arrangement of Europe
which means attracting funds hence giving back to Palermo and Sicily wealth and hope.
The dream did not take much time to be fulfilled: thanks to a rich network of useful acquaintances, Palermo became avantgarde promotor of the Art Nouveau, named Liberty in Italy, way before the movement would appear in the rest of Europe. Mesmerizing palaces started to arise in the city centre, in a spectacular triumph of art and beauty.
Below: Franca Florio in adulthood
Nothing in this society was not affected by Franca: the land quickly filled up with personalities of all types, leading to an artistic, cultural and social explosion, halfway between art and entrepreneurship. The Kaiser Guglielmo II, the Queen of England, the Tzar Nicholas II, Rothschild, Maupassant, Caruso, Wagner, Puccini, Leoncavallo and Oscar Wilde were only a few of the well known guests part of the social and cultural life made up by the Florio’s.
Under the Florio dynasty the new forms of opera found a place where to stage their shows in the Politeama theatre and the theater Massimo of Ernesto Basile, the biggest opera theatre in all Europe.
But besides all the opulence of their public life, Franca hid deep scars caused by far more serious questions. Their first child Giovanna had died in her 9 years old of meningitis. Ignazio, called “baby boy”, the only male heir, died when he was 5 instead. Lastly Giacobbina, born nine months afterwards, had lived only for an hour.
there were only 2 daughters left: Igea e Giulia
The unthinkable torture that the couple must have undergone in their private life was hidden behind the beauty of their capital, where any dream seemed to be able to be realised. But the bigger the success looked like, the more bitter the defeat felt.
Below: autographed picture
The 20’s saw the collapse of the Florio empire, the one which had left a profound sign to its urban structure and which had given work to more than 16 thousand people.
For political reasons the Italian state had cut off the agreement with the Florio Navigation Society, deciding to focus on the harbour of Genoa. Despite the difficulties, Ignazio was committed to look for other routes. Further loss had worsened the situation, pushing the banks to take over part of the management of the capital. In the end the Florio’s had nothing left but their name, linked to a past fortune at that point long gone. The couple had to leave the kingdom that with much love they had built up.
It was the 1950 when the “Italian Star”, as the Kaiser Guglielmo II had renamed her, shut her green eyes for good. She was 77 years old and by then she was leading a silent life surrounded by her nephews and nieces who were the only joy left in that life between lack and sad oblivion.
The cheerful soul of Franca once had welcomed with joy the gift of the Austrian Emperor Francesco Giuseppe, when he had bought her a car trumpet; an odd present, yet appreciated by the woman. It is beautiful to remember her this way, happy on the car while going around the Viennese roads and honking, under the suspicious eyes of those who would have expected the Emperor on board.
Below: picture of Franca in her young age
The woman that Gabriele D’Annunzio defined as “the Unique one. A creature that reveals in each of her movements a divine rhythm”. A woman that had handled difficulties with dignified resignation.
Seven years afterwards even Ignazio, ill, followed her
That’s the story of a shattered dream which had given to Palermo and Sicily a wealth that no one before had ever even dared to hope for.
Below: Bust of Franca Florio in Villa Borghese.Picture by Lalupa shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
The artwork of Boldini, a painting which was a subject to debate. Lost amongst many transfer of ownership up until the auction in which it was been sold for a record amount. Maybe a painting which should come back to Palermo, in that centre where it belongs and that its original owner had so much loved.