Armies of tourists prowl the labyrinth of medieval streets in Florence every day – hunting for fashions in the finest leathers and silks. Sara Coen bunks down with a group of visitors who have a different mission in mind.
Florence failed to escape the floods, famine, war and Black Death that haunted Italy during the early Renaissance. Its people struggled through without services for the sick, poor, dying and the dead.
Out of this socially and politically bleak situation, Misericordia was born – the largest volunteer-led welfare organisation in Florence – occupying humble headquarters in the grand shadow of Giotto’s Bell Tower, for more than 780 years now.Misericordia provides a range of free services to vulnerable and marginalised people in Florence – including emergency accommodation, food aid, counselling, homecare and ambulance transport – supported by a dedicated troop of volunteers.
As part of the University’s new Core Curriculum – the students are in Florence for three weeks, completing a unit of study through Fairfield University and serving on Misericordia’s frontline.
Living in the centre of the city, students attend class four days a week at Florence University of the Arts (FUA), do shifts with Misericordia, and visit historic towns such as Assisi and Perugia on their days off.
For Angela Carnovale, a social work student from ACU’s Canberra Campus, it’s all about coming to understand the fabric of Italian society.
“Italy has a unique social and political thread quite different to Australia,” she said. “I want to understand how things like the Welfare State directly impact people in Italian society.”
Back home, Angela works as a social researcher at the Women’s Centre for Health Matters (WCHM) in Canberra – implementing research that is used to advise government about women’s policy and services in Australia.
“I analyse data to evaluate gaps in service provision,” she said. “Social research is really important work, but there is little human interaction. Being physically immersed in Florence and actively engaging with people on its fringes can only enrich my future practice as a social worker.
“Italian society is also interesting to me because my father was born here, so getting a grasp on Italian society is also about understanding my dad’s life and weaving together parts of my own family history.”
Language has certainly been no barrier for 19-year-old Oscar Ryan, a Bachelor of Arts student from the Brisbane Campus who last year spent 10 months studying Italian language and culture at L’Università per Stranieri in Perugia.
“After living here I already have a relationship with Italy, so this time it feels like I’m getting to know an old friend in new ways,” he said. “Italy has so many textures, layers and personalities. On my last visit, I was living on a farm in Abruzzo with an Italian family, surrounded by hills clad in olive groves.
“Now I’m in Florence which is so rich in art – with more art per square metres than anywhere else in the world. It is truly awesome to stand before original works like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David. I’ve been getting around to lots of galleries and museums, but because I’m studying and working here as well, I definitely don’t feel like a tourist.
“As part of the European Union, Italy has to get it together with 16 other countries to make things work politically and economically – so being in Italy, and studying ideas about global community, makes a lot of sense.
“Did you know Botticelli’s Venus appears on the Italian 10 cent Euro coin?”
THE CORE SNAPSHOT