A fast tour around the new creative Italy in a new Volvo C70
I’m in a new Volvo C70 T5, driving through Tuscany. Impossibly beautiful hilltop villages, olive groves and vineyards stream past my window, which is down (along with the C70’s clever three-part folding roof). But this isn’t just a pleasure cruise. We’re driving to meet the people who personify modern Italy.
We’re on the road north to Prato, Florence’s little brother. Many of the old Pratese textile merchants’ fantastically ornate palazzos remain, and we draw up the C70 outside one of them – Palazzo Orlandi, belonging to Sabrina Bignami. Sabrina’s an architect who tries to get Italians to look at design from another perspective. “Italians are very good at very old things, and very good at new things, but they don’t like mixing the two together.” Sabrina’s palazzo is an example of how this mix can work – I’m sipping espresso perched on a 1950s voting box but we’re surrounded by 18th century Florentine frescoes on the walls.
Saying arrivederci to Sabrina, we take the C70 to pick up Marco Badiani, who lives in Prato but works in Florence. He’s the editor of The Florentine, an English language newspaper that provides a valuable “what’s on” service for foreign visitors and students. We stop for lunch at Caffe Giubbe Rosse, one of the most famous literary and artistic meeting places in Florence, where fiery Futurists like Marinetti debated (and sometimes came to blows) with their peers. “We really need to drive more young people to Florence. The new mayor is a 34-year-old, Matteo Renzi,” Marco tells me. “He’s issued a list of 100 points he will carry out, including restarting Florence’s nightlife. It doesn’t have one at the moment. It thrills me to think of Florence as the birthplace of a new Renaissance.”
In the evening, we have an appointment with another Tuscan innovator, the chef Fabio Picchi, renowned for reinvigorating Tuscan cuisine when he opened his restaurant Cibreo in Florence in 1979 aged just 25. The great man hurries in, brushing back his flowing white hair and smoothing his white beard, looking a little like God from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. An avid theatre fan, Picchi’s dream was to incorporate theatre and food, and he’s achieved it with Teatro del Sale dalla Cibreo Citta. This is food as performance art, something no visitor to Florence can afford to miss.
After Tuscany, Milan feels more businesslike. Here are smart modern Italians zooming about their espresso-fuelled business. We are due to meet one of Italy’s arbiters of taste and style, the designer Stefano Russo.
Stefano set up Russo Design in 1994 and has worked for many of the big name fashion houses including Prada and Armani. He now divides his time between Milan and Paris where he designs for Louis Vuitton. I ask why he thinks so many Italians have been great fashion designers. He laughs: “I think it’s probably the weather. The fact that people can get out and walk around and observe what everyone is wearing. You can’t do this in a cold country like Sweden and it shows in the design.”
We drive the C70 back to Porta Genova. It’s a warm early Saturday evening and the locals have come out dressed in their best and are parading around. It’s easy to see Stefano’s point. We park ourselves in a canal-side café and watch people checking out the Flamenco Red new C70 that’s conveyed us in comfort, safety and elegance around Italy for the last week. We pour a glass of Rosso di Montalcino and reflect that Italy has lots of new attractions. You’ve just got to know where to look.