Jean Michel Folon in Love for Florence

Folon’s connection with Florence began in his youth, but was no doubt consolidated in 1990 with the staging of an exhibition, a curated by Cristina Taverna, entitled Folon Firenze

Jean-Michel Folon was an illustrator, painter and sculptor who was and born in 1934 in Uccle, near Brussels and died in the Principality of Monaco in 2005. Despite having studied architecture, he soon devoted himself to drawing and moved to Paris, where was influenced by Pablo Picasso and the Surrealists. His illustrations were rapidly published in  numerous magazines and periodicals and his works exhibited in many parts of the world. In 1970, he represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale. He created a world all of his own in which an anonymous figure seems to float in a vague, intangible, sometimes absurd world.  

Folon’s connection with Florence began in his youth, but was no doubt consolidated in 1990 with the staging of an exhibition, a curated by Cristina Taverna, entitled Folon Firenze. In 2005, a large-scale solo exhibition was held at  Forte Belvedere, curated by Marilena Pasquali, where the artist displayed his famous watercolours and sculptures; the exhibition took place shortly before his death, which occurred in October of the same year. In 2011, Folon’s widow decided to donate some of the sculptures on show at that time to the city of Florence, a way of reaffirming the love of the artist and his family for the Tuscan city. Ten of these works were accordingly placed in the stunning Giardino delle Rose and fit in perfectly with the surrounding natural beauty and vistas.

The Rose Garden, which can be visited free of charge, was created in 1865 by the same architect who designed  Piazzale Michelangelo, Giuseppe Poggi, commissioned by Florence City council in anticipation of the moving of the capital of Italy from Turin to Florence. It is reached by climbing up from the San Niccolò district towards Piazzale Michelangelo. In 1998, the garden was enhanced by a space gifted by the Japanese architect Yasuo Kitayama, a Japanese Shorai oasis, donated to Florence by its twin city, Kyōto and the Zen Kōdai-ji Temple. The garden houses a collection of roses, lemons, other plants and botanical rarities; around 400 varieties of roses and a total of 1,200 plants can be admired here, making it an ideal place for displaying Folon’s works, recreating the same magic that he was able to conjure up with his exhibition at Forte Belvedere, in perfect harmony with the city. His enchanting work Partir (“Leaving”) frames the Cathedral and Palazzo Vecchio in the outline of a suitcase in such a way that visitors can take away, in their eyes and hearts, a little piece of Florence, thanks to the imagination of the Belgian artist.  

All Florentines are familiar with the much-loved artwork Pluie (“rain”), renamed “rain man”, gifted by Folon to the city on the occasion of the European Social Forum held in Florence in 2002. The bronze fountain depicts a man in hat and coat holding up an umbrella handle from which water cascades around him, as if, in a dream, the rain has magically become the umbrella and is sheltering the man. If its positioning in the middle of a roundabout has, on one hand, made this work highly public, to be seen and enjoyed by all, including those who never set foot in exhibitions and museums, it has not saved our poor fellow from the carelessness of some motorists who have dented and endangered the statue. It has been newly restored, however, and placed on a higher pedestal, still in the middle of the same roundabout on Lungarno Aldo Moro.

It is strange that Folon’s works in Florence are in different places, the ten sculptures in the peace and quiet of the garden below Piazzale Michelangelo and the other in the midst of busy city traffic. But maybe it is there, amid the everyday hustle and bustle, in contact with the most diverse people rushing past and casting a quick glance at him, that the rain man can magically bring a smile to our faces and remind us of how much love someone felt for this city, with all its beauties and imperfections.