As I mentioned on my “Welcome” page, even the most ardent garden enthusiastic has to come up for air now and then, so today I’m taking my first break from visiting gardens.
So that you can identify these posts more easily, I’ll call them “Taking a Break” or “Una Passeggiata a...” (A Stroll around …)
In the first of these posts I’m going to spend the day in the centro storico of Florence revisiting some of my favourite places.
There is of course a lot to see and I don’t want to ruin the day by falling victim to the “Stendhal Syndrome” – a deep malaise, often accompanied by shortness of breath or fainting, caused by an exposure to an excess of beauty. It was named after Stendhal, the French author, who fainted, supposedly overcome by the wonders of Florence upon his first visit to the city. To play it safe I’m going to stick to the city’s al fresco offerings. No art galleries. No museums. Even with all those sites off limits there is still a lot to see, so I’ve divided the day into two parts: Part I – la mattina (morning) and Part II – il pomeriggio (pome-air-eej-oh).
Una passeggiata (pass-edge-jah-tuh) is a walk, a stroll. You don’t even want to think about driving here unless you have to. My happiest driving moments in Florence are always when I hand the car keys over to the hotel employee whose job it is to spirit the car out of my sight.
To start the day, what better way than a visit to Il Mercato di San Lorenzo, the biggest and liveliest market in Florence.
The food market is inside. Meat, poultry, fish, bread, cheese and wine vendors are on the ground floor.
You have to climb the stairs to the second floor, which is called the first floor – primo piano – in Italy, for vegetables and fruit.
I could spend the day in here. But I have miles to go … It may seem like miles by the end of the day, but I’ll actually have covered only a couple of kilometres by the time I’m sitting down with that aperitivo. Incredibly, the centro storico of Florence is only four square kilometres. I drag myself out of the market and head for nearby Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
On the way I pass by a building at the corner of Via dei Servi and Via Pucci. There is nothing unusual about it – there are so many of these large, elegant Renaissance palazzi – except for one of the windows on the ground floor. It is blocked up.
In the intense competition for power and prestige that characterized 16th century Florence, it was not uncommon for staunch allies to turn into arch enemies in un batter di ciglia (blink of an eyelash). The story of the sudden downfall of the Pucci family was one of many.
The Puccis were part of a group of aristocratic families that had long been close to the Medici’s, but in 1560 Pandolfo Pucci, was charged with immoral conduct – which in those days was a pretty broad charge that could probably have been laid against most of that elite group. In any event, as a result the entire family was expelled from the Florentine court. Pandolfo plotted his revenge.
Every Sunday, Cosimo I, head of the Medici family at the time, would pass by Pallazzo Pucci on his way to Santissima Annunziata. The assassins Pandolfo hired couldn’t have missed their target from the first floor window of the palace. Except that the Medicis, who hadn’t held on to power for so long because they trusted their friends, never scrimped on spies. The plot was uncovered and Pandolfo was condemned to death by hanging. As a permanent warning to others, or maybe because the window still spooked him, Cosimo ordered it blocked up, as it remains to this day.
Piazza Santissima Annunziata is a few blocks north. In the middle of the piazza is a statue – Ferdinando Medici I, in the usual heroic pose. This is the same Ferdinando who commissioned the Boboli Gardens. But it’s my day off from visiting gardens, so it’s not the connection with Boboli, but the plaque on the pedestal he is mounted on that I’m interested in.
It shows a queen bee surrounded by a swarm of bees and the motto “majestate tantum”. The queen bee was meant to symbolize Ferdinando, the centre of all things, surrounded by his peaceful, hard-working citizens. Brings to mind a few 21st century types.
As time – and Ferdinando – passed, a new interpretation was given to the plaque. The worker bees are arranged in a concentric, but offset pattern around the queen, making it virtually impossible to count them without at least one “marker” bee. This led to a unique strategy often adopted by exasperated Florentine parents.
Since they had none of the electronic gadgets at the disposal of exasperated 21st century parents, whenever they’d come to their wits ends trying to deal with children who were pestering them for this, that or the other thing, they would take them to the piazza, stand them in front of the plaque and tell them they could have anything they wanted – once they had accurately counted the bees.
Apparently it worked like a charm. (For the record there are ninety-one.)
Along the east side of the piazza is one of the most beautiful loggias in Florence. And at the north end of the loggia is one of the most poignant sights in all Florence – La Ruota degli Innocenti (Wheel of the Innocents). Although it hasn’t turned for a long time, it has been preserved in memory of a heart-breaking practice that has existed since time immemorial and which, sadly, exists to this day.
Since ancient times, across many cultures, unwanted babies have been abandoned, murdered or sold. With the arrival of Christianity, the plight of the unwanted was somewhat alleviated. In 315 Emperor Constantine ordered a portion of state revenues to be set aside for the care of abandoned newborns, as well as the children of impoverished families. A subsequent law imposed the death penalty for the murder of a baby (but no penalty for selling it!). Those who couldn’t or didn’t want to keep their children would place the child on a large wheel, set in a window-like opening of a hospital, pull on a cord next to the wheel and quickly slip away in complete anonymity.
Alerted by the bell, nuns would rush to the wheel, turn it and retrieve the foundling. Sometimes small objects – buttons, ribbons or rings – would be hung around the baby’s neck or placed in a crevice next to the wheel. The nuns would carefully safeguard these “anonymous” objects, so that if a mother wanted to take back her child – even years later – it would be possible to make the proper identification.
Although the last “Wheel of the Innocents” in Italy was closed in 1923, the problem of abandoned newborns continued, despite Italian laws which guarantee a woman the right to give birth in total anonymity, with full hospital care, as well as protection from persecution if she decides not to keep the newborn. To deal with the ongoing tragedy of abandoned newborns, in 2006 the “ruota” was resurrected in a clinic in Rome. The abandoned newborn passes through a small, revolving window into a temperature-controlled room. A sensor alerts a neonatal specialist to the presence of the child, who is immediately transferred to the appropriate hospital ward. The slogan adopted by the clinic is: “Non abbandonarlo. Affidalo a noi. (Do not abandon your baby. Leave it in our care.)
It’s just a short walk back to Piazza del Duomo, where there is always a lot going on. After the Ruota degli Innocenti it’s refreshing to see a few strollers.
I know I said I was going to spend the whole day al fresco, but at the back of the Duomo (or at least what I think of as the back – it’s on the other end of the piazza) is a rather unusual museum. I’d read about it, but had never got around to visiting.
It’s called Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Museum of the Masterpieces of the Duomo). It’s a “church museum”. Many cities throughout Italy have set them up in order to preserve works of art commissioned for church exteriors in the days before acid rain and pollution. Copies, presumably pollution-resistant, are usually made to stand in for the originals. Although much less famous than the Uffizi Galleries, the Museo dell’Opera contains many works by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance.
By the time I’ve had a good look around it’s 1 p.m. or, as Italians, who usually use the 24-hour clock say, le 13:00 (lay tray– dee-chee), which is, happily, l’ora di mangiare (lore-uh-dee-mon-jar-ay) – “the hour to eat”.