Florence Diary II: The First Few Days

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We spent our free days before the beginning of school getting reacquainted with the layout of the city and visiting churches and piazzas where we were supposed to pontificate.  The first afternoon we walked up to the Mercantino, where they now sell used furniture at what are no longer bargain prices.  This is really the Piazza Ciompi, which commemorates a sans-culotte uprising that took place in connection with the resurgence of the Popolo.  Nearby is the church of St. Ambrogio, which interests me mainly for Roselli’s fresco of  in which the three friends who helped to make Renaissance Florence are depicted: Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Angelo Poliziano.  This is the best image on the internet I could find.

More on these birds later.

Most of our students had arrived a day or two early, and a fairly large group of us go to a pizzeria next to the hotel for a simple cena.  The group included the Culleys and Sam Dickson, Mark Kennedy and Mark Beesley, Tom and Val Piatak—both jet-lagged and weary: Tom did not even have the energy to laugh at my feeble joke, which is not at all like him.  The waitress was pretty and charming, and the dozen people we brought in was probably a week’s business at this time of year.  After gorging myself at Leo’s, I preferred to get a pizza—never a good idea in Florence—which turned out to be not so bad as I feared.  I remember also drinking several bottles (not all by myself) of a Morellino da Scansano, a wine of the Maremma—what used to be a wild and marshy region of Western Tuscany.

After breakfast at the hotel, I win the argument over what to do with the morning.  Instead of dragging our weary bones from church to magnificent church, I plan a meandering walk through the Oltrarno, over hill and dale, until we reached the Porta Romana.  It was a hollow victory, since several friends immediately exercised the right of secession as soon as we reached the corner.  This left only my wife and our friend Sam, and neither was particularly pleased with the walk, except for the coffee we stopped for along the way.  The gate is quite massive, though most of the sculptural ornamentation has been removed. The best part of the walk—bitterly resisted by me—was Sam’s decision to frog-march us all the way up to San Lorenzo to eat at Mario’s.

Although all our friends who ate there exclaimed over how primitive and unspoiled it was, I had eaten at Mario’s about ten years ago and found the place had been tarted up a bit, as I had been warned.  The food had not changed, despite the invasion of foreigners such as ourselves.  Sam insisted on cutting the waiter short, as he was explaining the specials.  All he wanted was a lombatina di vitello with fries.  We had no choice but to follow suit and start by ordering only one course, but even that did not prevent the waiter from being confused.  Sam said we Anglo-Saxons should teach the Italians the blessings of our civilization.  I told him I had a bellyful of Angus beef and baked potatoes.  Besides, as they say, “paese che vai, usanza che trovi.”  The country you go to, the custom you find.  I did not fail to take the opportunity to lecture on that curious word paese (from Latin pagus or rural canton), which can refer either to a country (in the sense of nation) or a village.  Even today an Italian can not quite get out of his head this loyalty to natal place.

Because Gail and I ordered pasta—with the intention of ordering secondi later—he was, nonetheless, confused.  Well, Mario’s is that sort of place where you can get anything you want, so long as you do not mind it when strangers come join you.  Our guest was a local dentist who spoke no English.  Sam had the good taste to ask him if Italian dentists enjoyed the same high suicide rates as their American colleagues, and he assured us they did.  He said he ate at Mario’s several times a week because, even with the tourists, it was still one of the last places in the neighborhood serving real Florentine food.  We never did get our secondi, for which I blame Sam completely.

A few days later, when we returned with Bob Trojan and the Culleys and ran into Chris and Nicholas Check, most of the men ate a fiorentina, exclaiming it was the best steak they can remember.  It was Friday and, pretending to a  piety I do not really possess, I contented myself with tagliatelle with a sauce made of cenci (chickpeas), followed by an unexpectedly delicious polpo bollito (boiled octopus), of which Dr. Rick ate at least half. My wife had ravioli al pommodoro followed by an excellent grilled swordfish.

That afternoon, most of the group were able to take the first walk, up to the Mercantino, where we gawked at Vasari’s loggia that had been dismantled, after the Risorgimento, to allow the revolutionaries to create the ugly Piazza della Repubblica as a monument to the bourgeois state that would prey upon all that had made Italy glorious.  In the 50’s the loggia was reassembled in the Mercantino, where its fish décor—once appropriate for a fish market—is charmingly out of place.

Dr. Fleming lectures on Florentine history

Dr. Fleming lectures on Florentine historyI made a few remarks on the early history of Florence, summarizing the History of Florence for Travelers and Boneheads I had prepared and sent out in advance:

The Florentine Republic lasted roughly 400 years, from the death of Countess Matilda in 1115 to the establishment of the Medici duchy in 1530.  There were interim periods of course, when Florence was ruled by a foreign power like Charles of Anjou or Walter of Brienne.  There were also two  periods of Medici rule: the 60 year benign dictatorship which was inaugurated by Cosimo the Old in 1434 and which ended with the expulsion of his great-grandson Piero; a fifteen year harder regime established by Pope Leo X in 1512, when the Medici returned, only to be expelled again in 1527. The final Medici restoration, though engineered by Clement VII, another Medici Pope, was carried out by the Spanish troops of Emperor Charles V.  Thus the republic, which rose out of the ashes of the HRE in Italy, was eventually buried under a new volcanic eruption of the Empire.


The most prominent feature of Florentine life is the intense competitive spirit, which expressed itself in personal rivalries for wealth or glory but also in the street fights and family feuds that tore the city apart.  This strife was not unique to Florence but is a general feature of Tuscan life.  Think Texas football.  Every city had at least one hereditary enemy.  Pisa was always at war with Lucca, though she later added Genova and Florence to the list.  For Siena, the original enemy was Arezzo, though Florence later headed the list.  Siena and Florence were so competitive that when the Sienese heard that Florence was building the Palazzo della Signoria, they could not be content until they had constructed their own Palazzo Municipale.  The big winners were the architects, sculptors, and painters.

Within cities, the strife was as intense.  Each city was divided into neighborhoods, based originally either on the gates of the city or on important parish churches.  Pisa was originally divided into quarters, Florence into Sesti (or Sestieri), and little Siena into 17 Contrade.  There was fierce competition between the neighborhoods, and community ballgames turned into lethal street fights.  Siena Palio.  As Florence grew, it was divided into 16 vicinanze, each with its own banner or gonfalone, a word that came to designate the neighborhood itself.  Each gonfalone had a gonfaloniere who mustered the neighborhood militia but also served as the political leader who supervised the initial phases of Florence’s incredibly complex methods of election and tax collection.  During most of the time we are looking at, taxes were assessed not on individuals but on the gonfalone, whose leaders then would assess the individual taxpayers.

Florence’s gonfaloni were not so quarrelsome as Siena’s contrade, perhaps, but Florentine chroniclers consistently refer to kinship and neighborhood as the most significant relationships.  Gino Capponi, the Florentine statesman who insulted the defeated Pisans with his moral homily on obedience, told his sons “Stick together above all else with your neighbors and your kinsmen.”  To be a neighbor, was to be sort of fictional kinsman.  When properties were sold for taxes, first the owner’s kin were given the chance to buy, then the neighbors, and if none came forward, only then was it on sale to any Florentine. Craft guilds were headquartered, typically, in a neighborhood, and winfolks lived in same neighborhood, and one had to get their permission to move to another.  When a branch of family was repudiated as too troublesome, they were forced to move, and vice versa.

For Americans today, the neighborhood is a vague concept, defined either by a sense of familiarity or by real estate developers who laid out the streets.  For Florentines and other Tuscans, it was an indispensable reference point for the familial, social, economic, and political lives.  Dante, in the Convivio, puts a slight twist on Aristotle’s definition of man as political animal.  Man must life in a society whose sole purpose is:

a life of happiness, which no one is able to attain by himself without the aid of someone else, since one has need of many things which no single individual is able to provide. Therefore the Philosopher says that man is by nature a social animal.  And just as for his well-being an individual requires the domestic companionship provided by family, so for its well-being a household requires a neighborhood (vicinanza)  for otherwise it would suffer many defects that would hinder happiness.

From the Mercantino, we walk down to Santa Croce, where we spend over an hour, going from famous monument to famous monument.

an image of Santa Croce, courtesy of M. Morow

an image of Santa Croce, courtesy of M. Morow

Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world, and its sixteen chapels commemorate some of Florence’s most important families.  It is the Panthéon of Florence, where many of the greatest Florentines and Italians—Michelangelo, Galileo, Marconi, Rossini, Ugo Foscolo—are buried.  They show a tomb of Dante, but it is a cenotaph.  After his enemy Corso Donati drove Dante into exile, he was never allowed to return.  Ever since his death in Ravenna, the Florentines have been trying by hook and crook to recover his body, but he is still buried in an unlovely tomb in Ravenna.

Surrounded by chapels commemorating so many Florentine families, I take the time—out in the piazza—to expatiate a bit on the Florentine nobility and its bourgeois successors:

Like other Tuscan cities, early Medieval Florence was dominated by the largely Germanic nobility, many of whom—such as the Counts Guidi–preferred to lived on their rural estates. Other families such as the Uberti and the Alberti did not remain exclusively outside of Florence but also established themselves within the city, where they occupied a preeminent position. A ruling elite emerged, often known as the grandi, a mix of noblemen and rich merchants, whose representatives—whether boni homines or (after 1138) called consules (as in Siena and elsewhere) assumed much of the power of the old imperial and ecclesiastical rulers.  In Florence, these titles were also used to designate the leaders of the guilds or arti.

Although the nobles and the grandi in general were essential in war, they were difficult to handle in times of peace, especially since the nobles not only had strongly fortified power bases out in the country but also possessed towers and neighborhoods in the city itself.  In most Tuscan towns, a major task was the subjugation of the country nobility, who were compelled to take up residence during part of the year at least in the town. The conflict did not end. Count Guido “the old” was constantly at war with Florence in the early 12th century, and his decision to cede the border-town of Poggibonsi to Siena helped to precipitate the feud between Siena and Florence.

Once the nobility acquired town houses, they did not immediately settle down, but engaged in wars with each other and with the richer merchant families, who were themselves assuming aristocratic airs.  The nobles were a law unto themselves and only obeyed the government when it suited them or when they were forced to.  In 1177 the Uberti were at constant war with the government of the Consuls for two years. (Villani V.9)

In town, the nobles built their own defensive towers, virtually impregnable during street fights, which served as bastions and fortresses within the neighborhoods they fortified and controlled within the city itself.

Obviously a single family or even an extended family could not defend itself without help, and since within the broader clans, there were also deadly feuds, friendly—often related—families that lived in the same neighborhood formed associations of defense and often cemented their friendship by constructing a common tower of defense.  These tower associations were corporations with rules and meetings and obligations.

Most of these towers were later torn down either by rival factions or by the communes that grew tired of the violence, but tiny Sam Gimignano near Siena still bristles with towers.  Some survived, by being incorporated into other building.

The guests were so impressed by my semi-learned lecture and by Gail’s remarks on the construction of the church and the works of art inside that they rushed out into the piazza, where a chocolate fair was going on.  Losing wife and friends to sinful pleasures of chocolate, I wandered back, despondent, except for the bottles of Chianti I purchased along the way.

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