The Ideology of Villa Life in Florentine Culture and Society

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1 G. Villani, Cronica, in Croniche storiche di Giovanni, Matteo e Filippo Villani, Milan 1848, III, p. 326.

Left: Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano dominates the grounds.

Below: Two details of a Medicean tapestry of the 16th century in Palazzo Vecchio: Giuliano da Sangallo presents the model of the villa to Lorenzo, while the villa is under construction.

The cultural, artistic and literary contributions accompanying the economic changes we have just mentioned cannot simply be considered as descriptive or celebratory reflections of these events. They signify, instead, a new social awareness, advancement, consolidation and, frequently, far-sightedness. Thus, on the one hand, these additional forms of expression were of major importance in supporting the advancement of the middle-classes and their view of the world, and, on the other, they supplied the very soil which gave rise to the studies of the specialist treatises, an attempt to produce the kind of building that was relevant to their particular ways of life. We shall move on to examine some aspects of these cultural outposts and to trace the thematic variations related to the evolution of the productive and residential role of the extra-urban villa. The movement of middle-class townsmen to the countryside was the most striking event of the time in the Florentine area and it coincided with the city's greatest period of expansion, following Arnolfo's enlargement of the city. The enthusiastic nature of this trend quite understandably amazed outsiders and foreigners, while being commended by contemporary local historians. Giovanni Villani, according to Burckhardt the leading authority on the fashion for building villas around Florence, wrote in his Cronaca, before the mid-14th century: " There was no citizen, high or low, who had not built, or was not in the process of building, a large and expensive property in the surrounding countryside, with a handsome dwelling and fine buildings, much better than in the city. And all were guilty of this and were thought to be mad because of the extravagant expenditure. It was such a magnificent sight that those coming from outside and not familiar with Florence believed that the fine buildings and beautiful palaces in a three-mile band outside the town made it a Roman style city."] Villani's reference to "Roman style" should not lead us astray and suggest a pre-dating of the revival of topoi from the classical world, which was instead a result of the humanist studies of the next century. Rome is cited here in a general sense, in line with the ennobling and celebratory tradition of the city's historical writing (Florence as Rome's daughter and heir, referred to by Dante) and, perhaps more specifically, as an indication of a model of the countryside drawn from current Utopian-symbolic iconography, both lay and religious. There is no doubt, that the move to take possession of the countryside described by Villani was in turn supported and reinforced by motives and ideas that were more typical of feudal times, re-evoked by the literary works of the communal era in the decisive shift from the Latin tongue to Italian. We need only mention the more important writers: the desire to escape to the country is the theme of Petrarch's Vita solitaria, "domum parvam sed delectabilem et honestam struxf, writes Petrarch, "cumque oliveta et aliquot vineas abunde quidem non magna modestaque familia suffecturas"2 ("I built a small but pleasant and respectable house, with some olive-groves and vineyards, large enough for a small and unpretentious family"). In Boccaccio's work the villa symbolizes a refuge from evil and corruption and from the tragic nature of existence, as represented by the plague. If the significance here was one of foreboding and prophecy, it could nevertheless be later re-evoked for other historical conditions. Whatever the case, medieval literature frequently used the theme of nature and the landscape.3

2 There is an excellent essay on the relationship between Petrarch's, and his followers' aspirations for a solitary life and the ideal of the villa by B. Rupprecht, Villa zur Geschicte eines Ideals, in Wandlungen des paradiesischen und utopischen: Studien zum Bild eines Ideals (Probleme der Kunstwissenschaft, II), Berlin 1966, pp. 210-220 from which the quotation from Petrarch is drawn.

3 On the concept of Locus Amoenus in medieval literature, see E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, New York 1963; the chapter The ideal landscape, pp. 183ff. See also La campagna in citta. Letteratura e ideologia nel Rinascimento. Scritti in onore di Michel Plaisance, ed. G. Isotti Rosowsky, Florence 2002.

A detail of the landscape around Florence, from Benozzo Gozzoli Adoration of the Magi, in the Medici Palace, Florence, 1459

A detail of the landscape around Florence, from Benozzo Gozzoli Adoration of the Magi, in the Medici Palace, Florence, 1459

Roanaoke Island

4 The cult of country life, drawn from classical writers, gave rise to a whole genre of literature. Hesiodi Opera et Dies was printed in 1471 by Nicolo de Valle and Greco Conversio, and the Latin Res rusticae scriptores in 1482 in Venice, by Nicolo Jensen.

5 Among the many descriptions of humanist writers, Michele Vieri's letter to Pietro Ridolfi is of particular interest: "Here I am to satisfy your curiosity about how I pass my time in my villa at Lecore, in what way I consume the summer days and what are my literary diversions. I rise early, go for a walk in my dressing-gown in a little garden, where I am refreshed by the cool morning breeze, I retire to my study, glance through some poet, study the precepts of Quintillian, read with wonder the Orations of Cicero. I enjoy the letters of Pliny, my greatest delight, compose epigrams or, more willingly, elegiac verse. After lunch I sleep a little. My father, who is here with me, dedicated as he is to literary pursuits, corrects, adds, adorns and reorders my compositions here and there, as needed. After sleeping I enjoy myself at checkers or the royal board. Near the villa is a vineyard with much fruit and in the middle runs a stream offreshest water full of small fish, the hedges are thick and day and night the nightingales lament past wrongs. Here I read a little and sing some improvised or familiar verses to my lute. When the sun goes down I take some exercise with the ball. This is how I spend the summer, while the spread of diseases in the city continues. I do not cultivate my fields but engage myself with letters. I do not have the library of the Sassetti or the Medici but I have a small shelf of the right books which are dearer to me than the richest possessions." Compare this letter with Pliny the Younger's IX Epistula where he describes a typical summer day at his villa Tusci: " . . . then I sleep a little more, walk, and read a Greek or Latin oration aloud and with emphasis, not so much for my voice as for my stomach, though it strengthens both. I walk again, am oiled, exercise and bathe. Then, if I am dining with my wife or a few friends, a book is read and after dinner a play is performed or the lyre is played. Again I walk a little with members of the household, a number of whom are well educated . . . Friends come from nearby towns, sometimes providing a welcome interruption when I am tired . . . " quoted by B. Patzak, Palast und Villa in Toscana, Leipzig 1913, II, p. 183.

6 Agriculture became a respected and privileged occupation. "La vita in villa" offered the opportunity to create a distance from the city merchants, something which was increasingly important to the wealthy and educated Florentine bourgeoisie. As Vespasiano da Bisticci reports, Agnolo Pandolfini provides a perfect example: " . . . in the summertime he went to his well-ordered villa, a man in the fullness of his

The rediscovery and reading of classical writers in the early days of humanism therefore provided important confirmation of aspirations that were already widespread in Florentine society at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15 th centuries. But the Rei rusticae scriptores who now took the stage - including the Romans, Cato, Varro, Columella, the rusticus Palladio, and the Greek, Hesiod - provided further food for thought, adding value to the literary notion of a house in the country as a refuge, corresponding to the classical topos of the joys of country life, and the practical and educational concept of farming as the purpose and magistra of life. The ideology of the paired words utilitas-delectatio, a humanist concept, dates back to classical times and appears in works of the most authoritative Latin writers, including Cicero, Seneca and Pliny.4

This philosophical and literary position was reflected in works and commentaries by humanist writers at the very time when the particular fashion for suburban villas became part of the larger scene of events and changes in Florentine life and, especially, the waning ofthe climate of civic renewal which had spanned the late 14th and early 15 th centuries. The relationship between politics and culture, made possible at the peak of the communal era, was already crumbling at the very moment when individual contributions of artists and intellectuals were coming to be appreciated. In its increasing estrangement from political and social reality, the humanist debate found in contemplative life an opportunity, and perhaps one of the conditions, for a new moral equilibrium.5 The doubts which troubled humanists during the second half of the 15 th century sought to find appeasement in an ubi consistam, in an idealistic approach, a return to the happy natural life. The fusion of the literary tradition of Petrarch's Vita solitaria and specialized practical and ethical writings, such as de'Crescenzi's treatise, and newly discovered philosophical works from antiquity, gave birth to a literary output that made villa life (la vita in villa) the basis and mirror of a particular ideal of a way of life. In the years following 1460 the finest and more sophisticated literary masters of this school became part of the Arcadian-bucolic inspired stream, bent on showing the advantages of country life as a means both of escaping the commercial world and of realizing a "virtuous life".6 The father of this line of thought was Leon Battista Alberti, the first to set out the ethical principles forming the basis of rural life. In his essay on the villa he writes: "Buy a villa to nourish and sustain your family, not to give pleasure to other people . . . Buy it from one who loved his property, not from one who attempted to sell it many times... The best villa is the one that needs you to improve it with your work, without great expenditure... Having bought your villa, the first aim will be to establish good relations with your neighbours... "7 In Libri della Famiglia too, where in the dialogue between Lionardo, exponent of the culture of the new generation, and Giannozzo, spokesman for the last, both agree that the concept of the villa and living in the country embody the moral bases of existence: " Who would not take pleasure in his villa? The villa is of great, honourable and reliable value. Any other occupation is fraught with a thousand risks, carries with it a mass of suspicions and trouble, and brings numerous losses and regrets. There is trouble in purchasing, fear in transporting, anxiety in selling, apprehension in giving credit, weariness in collecting what is due to you, deceit in exchange. In all other occupations you are beset by a multitude of worries and suffer constant anxiety. The villa alone seems reliable, generous, trustworthy and honest. Managed with diligence and love, it never wearies of repaying you ... You cannot praise the villa half as much as it deserves. It is excellent for our health, helps maintain us and benefits the family. Good men and prudent householders are always interested in the villa and the farm which are both profitable and a source of pleasure and honour. There is no need, as with other occupations, to fear deceit and fraud from debtors or suppliers. Everything is above board, visible and public. You will not be cheated nor need to call upon notaries and witnesses, bring lawsuits or engage in other irritating and depressing matters, most of which are not worth the vexation of the spirit involved in settling them. Consider too that you can retire to the farm and live there in peace, caring for your family, dealing with your own affairs, and chatting pleasantly in the shade about oxen and wool, or wines and seeds. You can live undisturbed by murmurs and tales and by the strife that breaks out periodically in the city. You can be free of the suspicions, fears, slanders, injuries, feuds, and other miseries which are too ugly to mention. Among all the subjects discussed on the estate there is none which can fail to delight you... Everyone teaches and corrects you where you erred in planting or in the manner of sowing. The cultivation and management offields does not give rise to envy, hate, and malevolence. and what is more, while enjoying your estate you can escape the violence, and unrest of the city, marketplace and palace. At the villa you can hide yourself and avoid seeing all the stealing and crime, and the great numbers of evil men who are always in sight in the city, always murmuring in your ear, screaming and bellowing hour after hour like frightful wild beasts. What a blessing to live in a villa, what unheard of happiness. "8

years, with family and horses, escaping the mediocrity that the townsman was obliged to support. There were few citizens who did not want to stay with him and his children at Signa where there was then a beautiful house, equipped with everything a gentleman could wish, dogs, birds and every sort of net for catching birds or fish. Everyone coming to the house was received with honour. He was extremely liberal. . . when his sons appearedfrom Florence on feast days without bringing guests he was very unhappy and reprimanded them . . . When the working day was over and there were no visitors he would send to the road to see if someone was passing by who could be invited to dine with him. When they arrived they were given water to wash their hands and seated at table. When they had eaten, he thanked them and sent them on their way, saying he did not want to inconvenience them further. The sports were those of gentlemen, hunting with hawks and dogs. On these excursions there were never less than twenty on horseback, not counting those on foot with the dogs. They hunted deer and hare and went fishing, so that no time was wasted but spent on healthy pursuits. This is how Agnolo's sons passed their time. . . " Vespasiano da Bisticci, Vite degli uomini illustri del secolo XV, ed. P. D'Ancona and E. Aeschli-mann, Milan 1951, p. 470ff.

7 L. B. Alberti, Villa, in Opere Volgari, ed. C. Grayson, Bari 1960, pp. 359-363. Alberti's work on the villa was discovered, and edited, by Grayson in Cod. Pal. 267 of the National Library of Parma and is an example of the humanistic revival of the didactic tradition of the Rei rusticae scriptores.

8 L. B. Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence, I libri della famiglia, op. cit., p.190.

Giuseppe Zocchi, La Real Villa di Careggi, Florence, 1744

Giuseppe Zocchi, La Real Villa di Careggi, Florence, 1744

9 Ficino's view of nature is, like Poliziano's, "Full of mythical forces and gods: the beauty of the flowers and the silence are themselves muses; wondrous events resound in the sky. The sight of animals, the energy in the air, the murmur of fountains and rustle of leafy branches seemed for these sensitive and myth-filled spirits to hold a welcoming freshness, a grace waiting to be interpreted in allegorical form. Statues, shrines and symbols soon began to appear in the landscape, reminders of the ways man extends and embellishes the natural world". A. Chastel, Arte e Umanesimo a Firenze ai Tempi di Lorenzo il Magnifico, Turin 1964, p. 158. .

10 " When my noble master Pico della Mirandola and I were wandering among the hills of Fiesole we saw all Florence spread out beneath us -fields, houses, and, in the middle, over the Arno, mist, and on the other side, steep mountains. We imagined a house placed on the slopes of the hill in such a manner as to escape the fog of Boreas, but without being in a hollow, to allow it to receive breezes when the weather is warm. We wished in addition that it be situated at equal distance from the fields and the woods, be surrounded by springs and turned towards the south and the east, as Aristotle counsels in his treatise on the administration of the family in respect of the building. While we were giving ourselves up to this imaginary invention, suddenly we had it before our eyes. Pico cried, 'Dear Ficino, is what we see before us not what we were imagining and wishing for so strongly, as in a dream? Perhaps we created the form we were imagining in our minds by the sole power of our imaginations? No less than a sage has erected it according to the correct rules andphysical principles of architecture." 27 October 1489, M. Ficino, letter to Filippo Valori, Opera Omnia, Turin 1959, I, 2, pp. 893-894; translation in P. E. Foster, A Study of Lorenzo de' Medici's Villa at Poggio a Caiano, Yale Univ. Press 1986.

A 1478 letter to Marsilio Ficino from Poliziano ends: " When you are incommoded with the heat of the season in your retreat at Careggi you will perhaps think the shelter of Fiesole not undeserving of your attention. Set between the sloping sides of the mountain, we have water in abundance and since we are constantly refreshed by moderate winds we are little inconvenienced by the burning sun. As you approach the house it appears embosomed in the wood but when you reach it you find it commands a full prospect of the city. Populous as the vicinity is, yet can I enjoy the solitude so gratifying to my disposition. But I shall tempt you with other enticements. Wandering beyond the limits of his own estate, Pico sometimes steals unexpectedly on my retirement and draws me from my shade to partake of supper with him. You well know the kind of supper that, sparing indeed but neat andfavoured by the charm of the conversation. But come and be my guest. Your supper shall be as good and your

From Alberti's right-minded and slightly limited realism we move to Marsilio Ficino's more scholarly and literary escapism.9 In Ficino's treatise De vita, when he advises the literati to take walks in the Tuscan hills as an antidote to melancholy and a restorative tonic for both body and mind, or when he discusses the ideal residence in a letter to Filippo Valori, expanding on the advantages of position and exposure, the places he describes still seem to evoke a religious aura, a sacred quality which evokes a blend of religious and pagan themes. In his letter to Valori, the Pandolfini family's villa and Leonardo Bruni's, glimpsed during a walk in the hills of Fiesole, literally take on the appearance of apparitions, since in this way they appear transformed, the outlines growing blurred here and there, the perfecting of an ideal style. Details concerning the typical, real and ideal character of a villa are overshadowed by its "salutary" and "hallowed" position, sheltered and cool in the summer, "among fields and woods".10

Ficino's descriptions are also drawn from his personal experience as proprietor of a villa at Careggi. This was given to him by Cosimo de' Medici and christened the "Academiola", a name which, with its polite and respectfully modest use of the diminutive, reminds us of the villa's use as a meeting-place for writers and artists in the outskirts of Florence, thanks above all to the Medici, a supplement and complement to the cultural life of the city. As we know, the Medici villa at Careggi became the seat of the Platonic Academy, at the wish of Cosimo the Elder. The founding members gathered here, making it one of the leading Italian centres for intellectuals in the mid-15th century, the cradle and disseminator of the humanist movement. The most important exponents of the cultural and artistic world gathered together here included: Ficino, Niccolo Niccoli, Poliziano, Pico della Mirandola, Brunelleschi, Alberti, Michelozzo, Donatello, Landino, Scala and Marsuppini. It was here, in the summer of 1464, that Cosimo died, expressing as his last wish that Ficino bring him a copy of his most recent translation of one of Plato's works.

The villa at Poggio a Caiano, the favourite residence of Cosimo's successor Lorenzo the Magnificent, came to be considered the most perfect exemplar. This was in part due to its ex novo construction and originality, its importance as a prototype of a particular typology and its fusion of different idioms and symbolic canons. As the temple of the Florentine intelligentsia and of humanist thinking (the "Florentine Trianon", to quote A. Chastel's happy definition) Poggio a Caiano became of central importance to the life and history of the Medici family, as Vasari was to recall a century later when referring, in Ragionamenti, to "highly learned men with whom, when at the villa at Careggi or the one at Poggio a Caiano for their greater peace, (Lorenzo) carried out noble studies".

Of all the grand villas, Poggio a Caiano best reflected the celebratory mythology of Florence's new cultural season, so that its contents and stylistic features became models for other Italian courts.

The Careggi villa was described in laudatory terms in a work of elegiac verse by Avogadro (Alberto da Vercelli) entitled De religione et magnificentia Cosmi Medicis.1 In the literature that flourished at Lorenzo the Magnificent's court references to delightful visits to the villa at Poggio a Caiano and to its splendours occur frequently. Courtiers praised the building, Michele Verino described the Poggio's gardens, parks and aviaries in a letter12 to his friend Canigiani, and Poliziano actually dedicated one of his most elegant elegies to the villa, Ambra mei Laurentis amor. Lorenzo the Magnificent himself dedicated an unusual mythological poem to the villa, Ambra, in which the surroundings forming the villa's natural

Above: Eleonora di Toledo's nuptial train to Poggio a Caiano, painting by Giovanni Stradano, Palazzo Vecchio Florence.

Right: The entrance to the villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano as a temple-like portico.

wine perhaps better, for in the quality of wine I shall contend for superiority even with Pico himself'. A. Poliziano, Angeli Politiani Opera, Basel 1553, p. 559, trans. by W. Roscoe, Life of Lorenzo de' Medici, 2nd ed., London 1891, p. 275. Roscoe tells us that Poliziano was Lorenzo's long-term guest at Fiesole.

11 E. H. Gombrich's essay, Alberto Avogadro's descriptions of the Badia of Fiesole and of the villa of Careggi in Italia Medievale e Umanistica V, 1962 p. 217. "I came to the villa at Careggi not to cultivate my field but my soul. Come to us, Marsilio, as soon as possible. Bring with you our Plato's De summo bono which by now I imagine you have translated from the Greek tongue into Latin as you promised. I desire nothing more ardently than to know the route that leads most conveniently to happiness. Farewell, and come not without your Orphean lyre". This excerpt comes from a letter in Latin from Cosimo to Marsilio Ficino, edited without date or source by A. Fabronio, Magni Cosmi Medicei Vita, I, Pisa 1789, p. 137 (an English translation appeared in J. Ross, Lives of the Early Medici, London 1910, p. 73). J. S. Ackerman, The Villa Form and Ideology of Country Houses, London 1990, p. 289, n.17. Life in the villa at Fiesole, commissioned from Michelozzo by Cosimo the Elder for his son Giovanni shortly before 1455, must have been conducted in the same manner.

12 "Ad Simonem Canisium, Superioribus literis promiseram tibi Caiani Ruris laudes describere, ut libentius ad Agellum nostrum Caiano vicinum accederes. Vicus est celeberrimus, in colle lenitur acclivi. Is distat ab Urbe decem millibuspassuum via est plana et patens, pervia multis simul cur-ribus, sine luto heme, sine lapide, glarea operta. Umbro fluvius ambit, profundus, amoenus; ibi maxima copia Piscium, hinc inde, et supra semper vernantibus Avibus. Ambra Villa dicitur, sive ab Amne, sive a pulchritudine, quam Medices, ut in caeteris mirabilis, Aquaeductu per multa millia, per montes et anfractus derivata irrigat aqua saluberrima, et in colle sicco per necessaria, viatoribus, ut speropotumpreabitura suavem Moles nondum structa, sedjacta sunt Fundamenta. Haec Pistorium, Florentiamque Urbes media insecat. Ceaterum ad Aquilonem iuxta Umbronem Am-nem Planities iacet maxima: Florentissima Prata quae cingit Ager immensus, ne forte auctus imbri-bus Amnis limo oblimetpabula: Rigantur aestate perennibus rivis, ut ter Foeni copia resecetur Stercorantur alternis annis Fimo Vaccarum, ne assiduo foetu sterilescant. In medio, loco paulo editiori, Stabula multa et longissima facta, lapide area stradata, ne fimo et luto vaccae sordescant, moenibus et fossa latissima cincta inter Castelli, quatuor turribus. Vaccarum numerus magnus, faecundissimae quaeque, Cascique pinguissimi in hyeme copia magna fit, qui Urbi Florentiae, et

Agro supersit; neque ut olim ex Gallia Cisalpina necessit sit nunc adportare. Lactentium vitulorum caro suavissima. Est ibi Stabulum Porcorum, qui Sero pingui magnopere crassescunt. Incredibilis est Avium numerus, Aquatilium presertim, et in pratis degentium: inter domesticas Silvestris Anser et Anata pescuntur: Aucypium sine labore uberrimum. Praeterea in silvis vicinis, et id Medicis industria, Phasides Aves, et Phoenicopteri, quas ille usque ex Sicilia devexit. Qui Coturnicum? Quid Hortulanorm? Quid Ficedularum numerum espresserim? Pomeria pulcherrima, et Hortus iuxta ripasfluminum: Mororum Sylva copiosa, ut iam inde speretur utilitas Serici. Se quid Te plura? Veni iam: dicis illud quod Sabaerrum Regina visa gloria Salomonis asserui longe famam minorem, quam esset rei veritas. Vale. " Letter from Michele Verino to Simone Canigiani, in C. von Stegmann, H. von Geymüller, Die Architektur der Renaissance in Toscana, Munich 1885-93, pp. 180-181.

13 B. Rupprecht, L'iconologia della villa veneta, in "Bollettino del Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura A. Palladio" "BCISA", Venice 1968, p. 234.

setting are taken up and celebrated in mythological terms (the current threatens to carry away the remains of the nymph Ambra, Ombrone's beloved, now transformed by Ombrone into an island close by the villa). An important point, and a complementary one here, is the extolling of country life in allegory and myth represented by the symbolism of the seasons of the year portrayed on the majolica frieze ornamenting the villa's entablature with agricultural motifs (the growing of vines and wheat). Furthermore, to give an example of a sequence of elements following a harmonious order, this frieze was used by Ficino as an illustration in a letter to Lorenzo which, according to Rupprecht, represents a document marking the villa's foundation.13 At the beginning of the Cinquecento this enthusiasm for villa life was widespread among the noble, merchant, banking and intellectual élite of Italian society. Time was given to creative activities which, to varying degrees, included residential and farming matters, courtly life and all the necessary for diversion and relaxation, or was reserved for withdrawing into poetic quietude.14 The Medici court's Florentine villas, either

13 B. Rupprecht, L'iconologia della villa veneta, in "Bollettino del Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura A. Palladio" "BCISA", Venice 1968, p. 234.

visited and known personally or reproduced by architects and artists, played a leading role in disseminating this style of life. Giuliano da Maiano and Sangallo went to Naples, and Florentine artists gravitated to Rome, especially when a member of the Medici family rose to the papal throne. L. Puppi has attempted to demonstrate the creation and arrangement of a type of "humanist villa" that bridged the 15th and 16th centuries, before Palladio's great season, modelled on the examples we have described above.15 In the mid-16th century another versatile talent, Anton Francesco Doni, in a work entitled Le Ville, succeeds in giving us a remarkably broad picture of the social and practical characteristics of an out-of-town villa.

Above: Giuseppe Zocchi, La Real Villa di Cafaggiolo, Florence, 1744.

Below: Giuseppe Zocchi, Villa della Magia, Florence, 1744.

Right: Giuseppe Zocchi, La Real Villa dell'Ambrogiana, Florence, 1744.

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