Does the title strike you as a little over-the-top, even for the birthplace of the Renaissance? It might not if you take into account that all that alliteration is actually, in a nutshell, the story of how the city got its name. In fact, two versions of that story.
The Italian name is Firenze (fee-ren-zay), from Fiorenza as it was called during the Middle Ages, which in turn comes from the name of the Roman settlement founded here in the spring of 59 AD. Every year the Romans celebrated the arrival of spring with festivities in honour of the Goddess Flora, so they decided to call their new city Florentia.
That’s one theory. But when it comes to events that occurred so long ago, there is often no shortage of theories and the origin of Florence’s name is no exception.
Another theory has to do with the Etruscans, who had settled in Fiesole, one of the hills overlooking Florence, somewhere around 550 B.C. At the port they built on the Arno River, the Etruscans carried on a lively commerce with the pilgrims – many of them Roman – who passed through the area. The Etruscans picked up some of the language spoken by those pilgrims. Latin phrases like pianura florents, which is what the Romans called the flourishing (florents) plains along the banks of the Arno. Not knowing that other Romans would come along later and destroy their city, the Etruscans picked up on the Roman name and called the encampment Florentia.
Flowering or flourishing. Take your pick.
Most people just call it il Duomo, but the official name of the cathedral that looms over Florence is Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower). The flower is il giglio, the white iris that once grew wild within the walls of the city and for centuries was the symbol of Florence.
For a city we now associate with the arts, Florence has had a remarkably bellicose history. The 13th century was no exception. In addition to the typical woes of medieval life, the citizens of Florence had to deal with the mayhem caused by two warring factions – the Guelphs and the Ghibellines – each intent on seizing power, one on behalf of the Pope, the other for the Holy Roman Emperor. I could never remember who was on whose side until I came up with the following – primitive, but fool-proof: Guelphs and the Pope – one syllable each; same with Ghibellines and the Emperor – three each. I said it was primitive.
The Florentine iris is sometimes mistaken for a lily. What there is no confusion about however, is the colour of the iris on the façade of the Duomo. Most definitely not white. One day it must have occurred to the Guelphs that it was bad optics to have the same coat of arms as their arch rivals, so they reversed the colours – changing their symbol to a red iris on a white background. After a few more decades of warring, the Guelphs were finally victorious and had their version of the iris adopted as the city’s official symbol.
The Guelphs’ red iris is everywhere – even on this sign at the entrance to the San Lorenzo market. “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO BUY FALSE AND “COUNTERFEIT” MERCHANDISE FROM ABUSIVE VENDORS”. I have no idea why “contraffatta” is in quotation marks.
Given the role the iris has played in the city’s history, it seems fitting to start our tour of the gardens of Florence with a visit to the Giardino dell’Iris – an iris garden on the hillside leading up to Piazzale Michelangelo.
Many Italian gardens are surprisingly difficult to find – even some of the biggies. As if you have to pass some kind of rite of passage. But I didn’t expect the Giardino dell’Iris to be one of them. From the research I had done before leaving home, I got the impression it was just a short walk down the hillside to the right. But, just to be sure (visiting gardens requires a LOT of walking – I didn’t want to do any more than necessary) I decided to check with the manager of the hotel I was staying in before setting out. A Florentine native, he had never heard of a Giardino dell’Iris, but he did know of a Roseto (Rose Garden). It was on the hillside to the LEFT of Piazzale Michelangelo. Perhaps the Iris Garden was part of the Roseto. In my travels around Italy I have come across enough anomalies – mistakes on maps, misleading signs – to find this totally reasonable. So off to the Rose Garden I went. Standing on the left side of the piazzale, just below the railing, where yet another couple was having their wedding photos taken, there it was.
Finally I caught sight of what I took to be a gardener entering a garden-shed type building near the entrance. On the door he closed behind him was a very big sign – PRIVATO. I knocked and my gardener, looking decidedly grumpy, opened the door.
This is the kind of situation that calls for a strategy I have often resorted to over the years. It is, for me, totally out of character, but desperate times… The trick is to blurt out, as quickly as possible, my much-practiced opening line – “Scusi. Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma…” (Excuse me. Sorry to bother you, but…) It works like a charm. While the accosted is still digesting the fact that a foreigner is actually not butchering their language, I can usually manage to explain my plight.
The iris garden was “Sulla destra” – on the RIGHT side of the piazzale.
In fairness to the hotel manager, this is a private garden, open to the public only a few weeks of the year, when iris growers from all over the world converge on the hillside for the International Iris Competition. If you’re thinking of going, keep in mind that the opening dates vary somewhat from year to year as they are set to coincide with the peak blooming period, which in Florence is generally late April to mid May.
Italians often use the English “iris”, but the flower does have an Italian name – two, if you count dialect. Standard Italian is giglio (geel-yo). Tuscan dialect is a bit more of a challenge: giaggiolo (ja-joe-low) which sounds a lot like another tongue-twister – ghiacciolo (ghyatch-oh-low). If you’re beginning to wonder where this is going… when the iris rhizome is washed clean of all dirt, it is white and, with its strange lumpy shape, looks a bit like a ghiacciolo (icicle). It is also an ancient remedy for burns and other ailments. Mothers would cut off bits of the rhizome and give it to soothe their teething infants.
No blue skies. No dappled sunlight. This was the coldest and rainiest spring locals well into their seventies could remember. And yet, even if the iris is not one of your favourites, the overall effect was enchanting.