Purple permeates the city – Florence in Tuscany – in tribute to the football team that represents it – ACF Fiorentina, aka La Viola. It is said that the colour has no actual connotation but came about fortuitously after the original red-and-white halved shirts of Fiorentina were washed, presumably at too high a temperature, and the colours ran. Most likely apocryphal, and cannot explain the switch from black to white shorts that followed. In any case, such a diffusion would have resulted in pink.
Conversely, the club's badge is informed by the city's heraldry. The roles are transposed, a fleur-de-lis does for both, typically in red mounted on a white background, certainly in the case of Fiorentina and often for the metropolis too. An ordinary state of affairs, except Florence is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site – has been since 1982 – remarkable for its Renaissance architecture. Football is an irrelevance generally for those who visit here and few will make the connection, let alone be aware of it. But the effect is the same: purple seems to suit the environment, just as if some design agency had proposed it as an apposite hue (no doubt for an exorbitant fee).
Stadio Comunale Artemio Franchi is placed well away from the older material that draws in the tourists, probably with intent. Why locate something as utilitarian as a football stadium alongside buildings as venerable as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the Palazzo Vecchio? Yet the Artemio Franchi offers more than mere function and was perhaps as progressive in its day as the Il Duomo di Firenze was in its.
Pier Luigi Nervi was tasked with building the ground: a and renowned for his pioneering appropriation of reinforced concrete, and a progenitor of Italian Modernism. Work began in 1930, was completed in 1932, and the stadium has changed little since. It could be said that Stadio Artemio Franchi kick started Nervi’s career. His portfolio is impressive: he designed the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris; the Torino Esposizioni in – you guessed it – Turin; the Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome; the ‘Hall of the Pontifical Audiences’, which bridges the border between Italy and the Vatican City; and he also had a hand in engineering the Pirelli Tower in Milan. [Built some 25 years later, Nervi’s finest contribution to stadium architecture is actually the Stadio Flaminio in Rome, which the Italian Rugby Federation is supposedly in the process of bastardising whilst their rugby team play out their international fixtures at the capital’s aesthetically flawed Stadio Olimpico.]
The slightly out-of-town location of the Artemio Franchi works to its advantage. It is a very low-rise structure, save for its svelte tower, and would be utterly overwhelmed amongst the grandeur of central Florence. Instead, we have residential tenements to the west, the modest Stadio Luigi Ridolfi to the south (a municipal athletics facility), and unabridged views towards the mountains north and east – the Florentine hills of Fiesole and Settignano. Trees dot the perimeter and a road encircles it. The stadium’s concrete framework can be viewed from all around.
From above, the stadium’s footprint traces a rather awkward ‘D’ shape. This is because the Artemio Franchi once accommodated a 220 metre sprint track – so long to cater for the completion of marathons. In preparation for the 1990 World Cup, the entire running track was removed to allow for a second, shallower tier, requiring that the pitch be lowered by 2.4 metres. This in turn facilitated the extraction of the temporary stands set behind each goal, which stood in isolation and probably didn’t hold that many spectators anyway, as well as freeing up the parterre to function once more as a parterre, rather than the secondary viewing platform it had ineffectually become. Other changes included the replacement of some pretty awful roof extensions with ones more sympathetic – although still far from ideal – and the installation of individual seats in place of the existing wooden benches. The seats of the new lower tier were initially green, which worked, the rest a tasteful shade of grey. Now almost all are grey save for those in the tribuna centrale (grandstand) and the lower tier facing it, which are purple – as is the club’s name spelled out in seats in the tier above; this also works. Since the 1990 renovations, the concrete has been refinished a second time and the stairways have been painted yellow.
Despite the increased capacity, plastic chairs, and the removal of much of the clutter that afflicted the stadium prior to 1990, it is many of Artemio Franchi’s pre-existing features that make it interesting: three helicoid staircases that provide external access to the upper gallery; the tower – streamlined, glass-fronted, almost art-nouveau; the bare concrete underside of the terracing and its gentle curve; the outward facade of the tribuna; the roof. The tower might be considered extraneous, the stairs merely salutary, the façade functional, but the roof is to be greatly admired. It is cantilevered – or not, depending how you interpret the stresses placed on the bifurcating structure supporting it: 24 corbels, the tiers below serving as their counterweight. It is a shame the two (genuinely cantilevered) roof extensions weren’t done away with completely, but the original structure doesn’t provide much coverage.
It’s all very pleasing, yet Fiorentina has plans to construct a new home. Perhaps this is why, contrary to the attention lavished on Artemio Franchi’s interior in recent years, the exterior – the underside of the exposed terraces – is spalled, shabby, and neglected. The ground of arch-rivals Juventus has been cited as an inspiration and probable template, a stadium that was built on the site of the much maligned Stadio delle Alpi, which was too large, had a running track, lacked intimacy and atmosphere: built anew in 1990, things didn’t work out and Juventus ended up again sharing the Stadio Olimpico with Torino, before they knocked the Alpi down and put the Juventus Stadium in its place. Fiorentina does not share a ground, and theirs is listed, comfortable in its surroundings. Does it not seem absurd to move away from a unique and perfectly serviceable structure in Florence only to then mimic a building contrived to address a predicament that had arisen in Turin? Could Il Duomo di Firenze have once been torn down and the Mole Antonelliana replicated in its place?
If only Robur Siena were faced with such a dilemma. Despite sharing a name, Siena’s Artemio Franchi – aka Montepaschi Arena – is shambolic by comparison. But then, Siena have not met with the same success as their more northern cousins, or much success at all.
Siena have been playing football since 1908, which is longer than Fiorentina, who formed in 1926. Siena’s Artemio Franchi is a very low key affair. Little remains of the structure as it was in 1938 when the ground hosted its first game: a friendly against another Tuscan neighbour, Empoli. Initially consisting of just a single grandstand, it wasn’t until 1955 that the stadium grew in size with the construction of an additional stand directly opposite. These two stands remain, and stood alone for a long while, quietly overlooking the athletics’ track, and themselves quietly overlooked by the surrounding tenements and lines of trees. This wouldn’t do for Serie A, but AC Siena had never played in Serie A. Then, in 2003 AC Siena were promoted to Serie A, and they would have to do something about their stadium.
I can find no definitive information as to whether the Artemio Franchi was expanded in stages or all at once. What I can tell you is that the ground as it looks now was pretty much how I came across it when I visited in 2005, so however they went about it, it took less than two years to complete. In any case, the result is a mess, quite frankly, but not without its charm, comprised of – count them – twelve distinct sections with a collective capacity of 15,373.
The Tribuna Danilo Nannini (the original, covered section of the ground) has aged remarkably well. The cantilevered roof resembles a smaller, slightly less daring version of the one seen at the Artemio Franchi in Florence. Its underside is even the same colour: a sort of pale yellow. To its rear, a private road providing access and the Fortezza Medicea obscured by trees; to its side, a small covered section with room enough for 40 wheelchair users. The Danilo Nannini itself holds 1,500 fans, despite not being be much more than 60 metres in length.
If you’ve come to Siena as a tourist, by car or by bus, chances are you’ve approached from its south-western aspect having disembarked along the western edge of the Fortezza Medicea and wandered through the Giardini Pubblici. There in front of you is the entrance to the Curva Ospiti (Guest Curve). Now would be a good time to point out that Siena’s Artemio Franchi is surrounded by higher ground, which means its barely discernible from any angle. If you tore down the fences, cut back the shrubs, chopped down the trees and tilted your head downwards then you’d behold a symmetry of steel: at the curve’s apex, a fairly low-rise structure; either side, two sets of much larger terraces fan diagonally out; at each end, smaller sections. The Curva Ospiti takes up the smaller section closest to the tribuna, two of the larger sections next along, and the wider, shallower terracing directly behind the goal. Collectively, these stands can accommodate 3,000 away supporters. The south-easterly sections constitute the Curva Beneforti (also known as the Curva San Domenico in tribute to the Basilica of San Domenico that stands behind) and can house 2,000 fans.
Next the Gradinata De Luca – capacity: 4,081 – on the ground’s eastern edge facing the tribuna. The stand that was added in 1955 has been extended upon, probably about doubling its capacity. This seems natural, but the façade of the lower tier is now completely hidden. Because of the buildings that line Viale Curtatone it wasn’t particularly visible in the first place, and not everyone will consider that a bad thing. Still, the reinforced concrete supports are one of the few architectural details of interest here, so it is a bit of a shame.
Which leaves the Curva Robur and its little brother squeezed into the corner between the Robur and the Gradinata De Luca. The Curva Robur holds 4,700 and it’s from where the ultras offer their support. The other stands have followed the shape of the athletics track. Not the Robur, which has been built parallel to the goal-line on top of the defunct athletics’ track, almost as if it was never there. Behind, more trees, a large hotel, and the Regione Toscana Genio Civile, which I think is something related to civil engineering.
All these (relatively) recent additions are essentially temporary structures that have become permanent. They are supported by identical steel trusses and are equipped with identical green, plastic seats. Behind them all, either trees or buildings, or both. It is this backdrop, augmented by the fact that the stadium has been built into the ground to maintain a lower profile, that provides a cohesion that is structurally lacking. The ground is so beautifully hemmed in, that those coming to marvel at the Piazza del Campo will probably miss it.
Curva Robur circa 2005
In 2009/2010, AC Siena were relegated to Serie B. They bounced straight back only to be relegated for a second time in 2013. Within a year the club was bankrupt and had to register under a different name – Robur Siena – and begin again in Serie D (although they have since been promoted to Serie C).
Siena had plans to build a new ground, but these have understandably been shelved. The concept looked strong but, as with Fiorentina, it involved moving away from the town centre, sacrificing views and vistas that imbue a sense of identity and create a unique atmosphere. Neither club should mind if such schemes never reach fruition.
[This article also features in The Football Pink.]