Sister, Sister: Providence forges ties abroad

By
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nine years ago, the celebrated Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy lent ten portraits of members of the Medici family to Brown’s David Winton Bell Gallery. The city also sent a delegation of artisans, musicians and restaurateurs to Providence to participate in a week-long festival called “Splendor of Florence.” The chefs set up shop in empty banks, the artists displayed their leather goods and the craftspeople set up workshops.

Florence is one of Providence’s three official sister cities, as recognized by Sister Cities International, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. that promotes what its president, Patrick Madden, calls “citizen diplomacy.”

Building bridges between communities can help to rectify the image of the U.S. abroad, Madden said.

“The reality is, we’re not going to bomb our way into a new image abroad,” he said. “The best ambassadors from America are its citizens. We are a piece of a bigger conversation between America and the world.”

Providence’s other two sister cities are Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, and Praia, the capital of the Republic of Cape Verde, according to Gonzalo Cuervo, director of internal communications for Mayor David Cicilline ’83. The city council signed formal resolutions with their counterparts in Praia in 1994, Florence in 2002 and Santo Domingo in 2004, Cuervo said.

Before these ties were formalized, however, residents of Providence and its sister cities had already formed relationships. True to the idea of citizen diplomacy, “these processes have to be driven by the constituent groups,” Cuervo said.

The Providence-Santo Domingo relationship began “at the request of several constituents,” among them members of local Dominican cultural groups, Cuervo said. The two cities already had trade relations.

Providence also supports the second-largest population of Dominicans in the United States, according to Lynne McCormack, director of the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism. Providence’s relationship with Praia can be attributed to its “significant Cape Verdean population,” Cuervo said.

Founded in 1956 after President Eisenhower proposed a citizen diplomacy initiative at a White House summit, SCI has since helped to connect 700 U.S. cities with over 2000 cities around the globe.

Providence’s relationships with its current sister cities first started without SCI’s help.

The city’s sisterly ties to Florence stemmed from a relationship that started several years ago. Cuervo cited the “Splendor of Florence” festival as one product of what were once informal ties.

Massimo Riva, chair of the Italian studies department, who lived in Florence, said he “kind of knew” about Providence’s bond with that city. Riva, who is also a professor of modern culture and media, said he was “always convinced” that Providence’s sister city was Venice, “because of the canals and the gondola.”

“I guess the whole idea centers on the idea of the Renaissance City,” Riva said, when comparing Providence to Florence, where he attended college. Another similarity between the two cities, he added, was “the idea that Florence was the city of art, but also had an industrial side to it.”

Evelyn Lincoln, associate professor of history of art and architecture and Italian studies, who teaches the course “HIAA0550: Florence and Tuscany in the 15th Century” and co-curated the Bell Gallery’s Medici exhibit in 1999, found a different set of similarities.

Lincoln noted that Florence was a center for goldsmithing during the Renaissance, while Providence was a silversmithing hub. She also cited the “artistic vitality” of both cities, their textile industries and their focus on tourism as similarities.

“There’s a busy-ness, not frenetic-ness,” Lincoln said. “Providence is not New York, just like Florence is not like Milan.”

Riva said schools such as Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design should have a more prominent role in enhancing contact between the cities.

“We should jump at the opportunity for international exchange,” he said. He hopes for the revitalization of a now-defunct Brown-in-Florence program, he said.