From opera to olives: British businessman’s new life in Florence
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Florence’s art, architecture and light have long attracted expats to its cobbled streets. The foreign community made up a quarter of the population of the Italian city by the second half of the 19th century, many of them Britons, including writers and poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is buried in the city’s English Cemetery.
David Aspin, 59, followed in their footsteps when he moved to Florence in 2001. “I came here with my family on a whim,” says Aspin, director of London-based asset management firm Munroe K. “I saw an ad for a Florentine villa in a magazine and suggested to my wife that we visit the house.” The couple travelled to see the property in April, and immediately “fell in love with it”, says Aspin. “By July, we had sold our house in London and were living in Villa Serena.”
In 2009 Aspin sold Villa Serena for €8.3m after deciding to move into the city centre. “We wanted a change and good property here sells quickly,” he says. Aspin now lives in a converted limonaia, a conservatory once used to grow lemon trees on the south side of the river Arno, which forms part of the palace owned by the Frescobaldis, a wealthy family of winemakers.
The house shares a large courtyard garden planted with lush greenery and a large magnolia tree. The neighbourhood is far enough away from attractions such as the Duomo and the Uffizi to be inhabited by Florentines rather than tourists. Its central spot, St Spirito Square, is popular with the city’s art students and there is a bustling market on Saturday mornings.
“I just love this part of the city,” says Aspin. “We knew exactly where to look after living just outside Florence for eight years. Now we rent the limonaia while we wait for the perfect house.”
Aspin continues to manage his firm from Florence, working from a small office in the Palazzo Bardi and flying frequently to London. “When I discovered that the flight from London to Florence was under two hours, it was a revelation . . . I can be in London by 9am. It means I haven’t taken a back step with my business in 10 years.”
The most populated city in Tuscany, Florence is home to about 50 cultural institutions and 25 state museums. “There’s so much going on here – exhibitions, music, films – all in walking distance.” Aspin has become a player in Florence’s cultural scene, taking interest in the Anglican church of Florence, St Mark’s. Since joining the council in 2003, he has helped establish opera seasons and played a role in refurbishing the church by converting the upstairs floors into leased flats.
“We wanted to make the church a multifunctional space,” says Aspin. “St Mark’s is so beautiful, and we are in the process of trying to rebrand and improve it. How do you use an old church? I try to find ways of generating incomes that actually enhance its identity. The opera has become a great success.”
Finding new ways to care for historic buildings has become a critical endeavour as the arts sector has suffered heavy cuts, evidenced by the resignation of cultural minister, Sandro Bondi, in April 2011. In the same year the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, reached out to billionaire investors to fund arts and culture in the city, suggesting that the eurozone crisis has amplified the call for patronage. “There’s always been pressure to be a patron in Florence,” says Aspin. “Nothing’s really changed over the 10 years I’ve been here.”
Aspin has also provided sponsorship through Munroe K to Florence’s fine art school, the Angel Academy, taking an exhibition of paintings to London in 2007. Patronage has its reward, as Aspin reveals: “Michael Angel [of the academy] painted my portrait – it’s life-size. One thing you really have to do in Florence is have your portrait painted.”
One of Italy’s most appealing aspects is its cuisine, and Florence boasts some of the country’s most celebrated restaurants and fresh food markets. “There is a routine here, and each restaurant has its own form,” says Aspin. “The wonderful Cammillo Trattoria, for example, is best on Sundays and best for its carpaccio. While other restaurants shine on various days of the week – knowledge you accumulate by living here.” Markets like the daily Sant’Ambrogio offer local cheeses, fresh ravioli, olives and mushrooms. “There is such wonderful local produce here,” says Aspin. “It makes cooking fantastically easy.”
Like so many Florentines, Aspin produces his own olive oil. He makes it from Villa Serena’s olive groves, which he still owns. “We press our olives every November. In a good year, we can make 400 litres,” he says. “We bottle it, label it, and give it to friends. It’s delicious.”
Wine is provided by Aspin’s neighbours – the Frescobaldi family, who began producing Tuscan wine in 1308, and traded with figures such as Michelangelo. The family now operates the major wine producer Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, which sells to 65 countries around the world. “The Frescobaldi wine is very good,” says Aspin. “I would make olive oil but never wine – you can’t compete with these guys.”
Despite all its plus points, Florence can sometimes feel claustrophobic, says Aspin. “There are lots of British here. Most of whom are my friends . . . It’s a small city and you get to know everybody – Florentine, American and German alike.”
The city has an international school on the south side of the Arno, where Aspin’s 15-year-old son, Logan, is a pupil. “It’s a wonderful, balanced school. One of the reasons I left England was because I got bored of going to parties where I’d be asked: where will your son be going to school, what house will he be in? I am not remotely interested. The way of life here is so different to Britain, it reminds you that life is to be enjoyed, not spent.”
Rarely do Florentines remain in the city during the summer, when temperatures rise to about 30C during July and August.
“Everybody goes to the coast because the heat is unbearable,” says Aspin. “We have a mountain house in Colorado, and we normally spend the summer holidays there.”
After 10 years, the city has not lost its charm, says Aspin. “I have no plans to leave . . . but who knows. I might move to Berkeley, where my son wants to study music. Right at this moment, I feel that there is still so much to discover here.”
● The family-focused Italian way of life has a tempo that is a welcome escape from competitive London
● The local food is excellent, with celebrated restaurants and fresh food markets throughout the city
● Florence airport is only 20 minutes from the city centre, with regular flights to destinations across Europe
● In the summer, the city is full of visitors. Last year more than 47m tourists visited Tuscany
● A number of property-related taxes for foreign buyers make investing in property challenging
● Dog walkers are rife; dog mess is a common sight
What you can buy for . . .
€100,000: A small one-bedroom flat in the city suburbs
€1m: A two-bedroom 153 sq metre top-floor apartment in the historic centre, or a three-bedroom portion of a 13th-century hilltop villa, 12km outside the city
This article has been subject to a correction