On the Other Side

One more passeggiata in Florence and then it’s back to the gardens.

Paris has the Left Bank and the Right Bank.  London has the East End and the West End.  New York has the West Side and the East Side.  So many of our cities have some kind of line, a demarcation, that divides them into distinct, sometimes almost self-contained neighbourhoods.  Residents are often fiercely loyal to their side, venturing over to the other side only when necessary.  Many years ago, I lived in the Beaches, at the east end of Toronto.  One day I was astounded when my neighbour confessed that, apart from his annual foray to TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), he never ventured west of Yonge Street.

Whether it is a road or a river – the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, Fifth Avenue in New York, Yonge Street in Toronto (OK, maybe for the purposes of this post we’ll leave out Yonge Street.) – the dividing “line” is often a source of civic pride to residents, no matter which side they live on.

In Florence the dividing line is the Arno River.   The Arno is not an easy river to be proud of.  It has a nasty habit of flooding its banks now and then, and the rest of the time it isn’t even really much of a river.


Mark Twain noticed this when he visited, and wrote about it later in his classic travel memoir, “The Innocents Abroad”.

“It is popular to admire the Arno.  It is a great historical creek, with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around.  It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it.  They call it a river and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines.  They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it.”

Despite the Arno’s shortcomings as a river, its role as the city’s great divide is undeniable. There are some who might even say, quietly among friends, of course, that everything that matters in Florence is on the north side.

The ancient Romans located their military base on the north side.  The Duomo, the most important religious building of the city, was built on the north side, as was Palazzo Vecchio.  The most powerful and wealthy Florentine families – the Strozzi, the Albizzi, the Bardi, the Pazzi – all built their palaces on the north side.  The Uffizi Galleries and the Accademia delle Belle Arti, home to Michelangelo’s David, are on the north side.

Piazza della Repubblica was built on the site of the ancient Roman forum.

Piazza della Repubblica was built on the site of the ancient Roman forum. On the north side.

The Mercato di San Lorenzo, the most important food and outdoor market in the city, is on the north side.

The Mercato di San Lorenzo, the most important food and outdoor market in the city, is on the north side.

Salvatore Ferragamo, one of many high end designers and retailers whose flagship stores are on the north side.

Salvatore Ferragamo, one of many high end designers and retailers whose flagship stores are on the north side.

So, we begin to wonder, what’s left for the south side?  Apart from the Medicis in Pitti Palace and the Brownings in Casa Guidi across the piazza?  As if to add insult to injury, the area doesn’t even have much of a name.  It’s called the Oltrarno – literally “On the Other Side of the Arno”.

Who lived and worked here?  Artigiani (are-tea-john-knee). Artisans.  And although gentrification has been creeping into the neighbourhood, this is where you can still find artisans in tiny medieval workshops, creating a wide variety of hand-made, one-of-a-kind products.  Bookbinders, gilders, woodworkers, sculptors, cobblers, furniture restorers, and of course, makers of beautiful Florentine marbled paper.


On my way back from Palazzo Pitti one day, I couldn’t resist the paper on display in a storefront nearby.  One thing about paper – it’s light.  A big consideration if you have to get on a plane at the end of your trip.  After so many trips, when carefully wrapped pieces of pottery and wine bottles brought me perilously close to the weight limit, I have become ruthless in my purchases.  Scarves are good too.  They’re light and they don’t break.  Like the last bottle of wine I brought back. It was red of course.  My suitcase smelled like a wine cellar for days.  Luckily none of my clothes were ruined and after just a few washings, the black socks I had wrapped the bottle in were as good as new.

I was wandering around the tiny shop when a young commessa (comb-may-suh) approached me.  “Sto solo guardando,”  (“Just looking”) I said, but she offered to give me a demonstration anyway.  A good sales technique, I couldn’t help thinking, but she was very friendly and who doesn’t like seeing how things are made?


It looked like a lot of fun.  You got to splatter a bunch of different colours of paint into a tray.  I asked what her favourite colour was.  Porpora (Purple).  It seemed an odd choice so I asked why.  “Perchè riesce sempre bene”, she laughed.  (Because it always works out.)

She slowly passed a long steel comb through the mixture, twisting her wrist slightly to create a wavy effect.

She slowly passed a long steel comb through the mixture, twisting her wrist slightly to create a wavy effect.


Next she passed a thin paint brush up and down the tray.  I had done something similar many years ago.  For Hallowe’en.  I had decorated tiny muffins with spider webs by piping circles around the tops of the muffins and then pulling a toothpick through the icing towards the centre.  Everyone thought I was a genius.  That was before every barista knew how to create a work of art on your morning cappuccino.


Carta marmorizzata fiorentina. (Marbleized Florentine paper)  Did I end up buying any?  Would you?

Santo Spirito.  Does it face the wrong way?

Santo Spirito. Does it face the wrong way?

Sometimes it looks like the residents of the Oltrarno, fed up with the lack of respect shown to them by their fellow citizens to the north, simply decided to turn their back on them.

Even if this is your first visit to Florence and even if you don’t know all that much about architecture, I would bet that if you took a stroll along the north side of the Lungarno you’d start to think there was something amiss about the Basilica della Santa Maria dello Santo Spirito – Santo Spirito for short.  As if it’s facing the wrong way.

Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect who designed it, thought so.  He wanted the church set back from the river.  A large piazza, starting at the river bank, would lead to the church entrance which would, in Brunelleschi’s plan, look out over the Arno.   Apart from being more convenient for everyone who lived and worked there, this would have ensured that visitors who arrived by boat, especially Florence’s rivals from Genoa, would have been suitably impressed with its façade.  So what happened?

Before Santo Spirito,  there was a 13th century Augustinian priory on the site. When it was destroyed by fire the local honchos approached Brunelleschi – and keep in mind that this is the same Brunelleschi who had already, among various other significant buildings in Florence, designed the Duomo.  They asked him if he would be willing to design a new church for the neighbourhood.  But there was a catch.  They could offer him “advantage and honour”, but probably no financial compensation for his efforts.   It’s almost impossible to imagine today, given Brunelleschi‘s reputation as one of the leading architects of the day, that they would even think of approaching him.  Let alone that Brunelleschi would accept the commission.

In any event, Brunelleschi went back to his studio and came up with a beautiful design, with the church facing the river for all to see.  But no matter how much he pleaded and argued – and here’s the part that is easier for us to understand – the powers-that-be didn’t get it. They insisted he turn the whole thing around.  It was rumoured that, in time, some of them came to regret their decision.


The front entrance of Santo Spirito, against Brunelleschi’s wishes, faces away from the Arno.

Entering Piazza Santo Spirito is like entering a different city.

Entering Piazza Santo Spirito is like entering a different city.


The weekly market is much more down-to-earth than the markets on the north side.


One of the cheese vendors was trying to get customers to buy shares in his farm.




Why should I adopt a goat?  Because if you know us and you like our products and you like how we work you can help support our enterprise.

What does this mean in practical terms?  We ask you for €100 before the end of 2010.  By doing so you will support the farm financially in the first 3 months of the year when we have no income and will face as usual, dark financial storms.

Where does this money go?  We will pay the rent, buy certified organic feed for the goats and get  ready for the new season.

Nice idea, but what do I get out of it?  Your money will be paid back to you throughout the year 2011 (and not beyond) as produce (milk, cheese, meat) at a 10% discount; in effect, you give 100 and we give you back 110 in produce.

 Think about it and…do something!!

By now it was lunch time so I walked around the piazza, checking out all the trattorie (tra-tor-ree-ay). It was difficult to choose.  There were so many of them, all crowded – always a good sign – and probably all good. Finally I settled on one near the church.  There were some tourists, but there were also lots of locals.


What a relief to sit down!  And so much to take in while waiting for the waiter to take my order.  Like the couple at the table next to me with their canine companions.  I hadn’t seen that many tattoos on one person since leaving Toronto.


I have a very simple camera.  No fancy paparazzi telephoto lenses, but Miss Black Hat and Oversized Sunglasses was still very keen on shining her pearlies whenever I aimed my camera in her direction.  There were also a few “characters” hanging about that made me wonder if this was some kind of low-key hangout where artists went to escape the limelight.


A few minutes later along came this character.  He struck me as something out of “Brideshead Revisited”.  He leaned his bike against the railing and sat down with the signorina of the many tattoos.


For a different take on Florence, take a walk on the “other” side.

Next post – a new garden for a new palace.

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