Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), is the oldest of Florence's six bridges and undoubtedly its most photographed. Dating to Roman times, but rebuilt in 1345, it is one of only four bridges in the world to still have shops on it.
Florence – Long Read

Golden stones hide another world

Photo by Jurjen Drenth

Florence – Long Read Golden stones hide another world

Hello Florence, whose Renaissance art, historic architecture and hearty Tuscan cuisine attract countless visitors every year experience its treasures. Yet behind its warm welcome lies a city that is still wary of outsiders, where the golden stones hide another still-private world.

Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton Travel Writer

“Rome is a whore,” says Giambaccio. It has just gone midnight, and we have wandered through the moonstruck streets around Florence’s Piazza San Spirito for hours before winding up here: in a haphazardly cluttered art studio Giambaccio has modeled on a ship’s deck. “She opens her legs for everybody. But Florence...” He mimes chastity – the shutting of two knees – with his fingers. “We are a walled city. We are closed.”

For the thousands of tourists that descend on Florence every year, the Renaissance capital of Tuscany seems anything but closed. From the 18th century onwards, Florence has been the high point of the Grand Tour: less city than cultural playground for the writers, artists, and idle scions of landed gentries past. Visitors would come to Florence to consume – art, food, wine – to export antiquities and anecdotes alike. They would engage with locals little, if at all.

Today, the financial crisis and the crash of the euro have made Florence an even more appealing prospect for the 8,000 or so American students who come to study here every year. Local lore has it that Florence has the highest concentration of Americans outside America.

They attend local English-language universities; drinking Peroni beer in the streets around Piazza dei Pitti and spending their money in places most locals can’t afford. City papers such as the Corriere Fiorentino regularly publish exasperated screeds against the study-abroad students who sing, slur and shout each morning before dawn. And along the smoothly geometric alleyways of Florence’s dandelion-gold centro storico, they are by far the city’s most visible presence – and for many, its most despised.

Yet behind closed doors, in studios fashioned from repurposed palazzos and hidden bars, there lies another Florence: the famously insular city of locals like Giambaccio, who take pride in how “walled” their city really is. Rome may be a promiscuous città apertà – Giambaccio cites Rome’s capitulation to Nazi occupation, which he contrasts with the noble suffering of Florentines during the year-long German siege – but here in Florence, the locals remain steadfastly wary of outsiders.

"We are a walled city. We are closed"

“We are survivors,” says Giambaccio. He points to his city’s tradition of cucina povera – a diet rooted in the transfiguration of cheap offal into filling dishes like lampredotto – as a characteristic example of Florentine ingenuity and strength. “We eat what we had to eat to survive.”

Giambaccio has spent the past year painting a series of 500 local portraits: a book of Florentines that doubles as an urban “who’s who” of the city’s eccentrics. But he denies that there is any unifying visual factor to link them. Rather, you can tell a Florentine by the smell. “We are like migrating alligators – we have a sense. At home, or abroad, we recognize one another,” he laughs. “Florentines smell like lampredotto,” he says. It is all in the blood.

Along the Arno, the houses are all deep, burnished gold: set off by the ebulliently intense green of the Tuscan hills. The alleyways are narrow: they swarm. The piazzas are perfectly angular: precisely square.

That, says my friend Zani, is the key to Florence. Zani – although he works a tech job – considers himself a sculptor by vocation. And the first thing any sculptor learns, he says, is how to create a perfect square. Like Giambaccio, he describes his hometown as fundamentally “walled”– raising, too, the city’s collective memories of Nazi siege.

It is the stones themselves, Zani says, that foster Florentine culture. The quarries near Rome offer builders marble to work with – “Rome is bright,” he says. It shines. But Florentines built with Tuscan pietra forte: heavy limestone that reflects no light.

He points it out to me as we pass the Palazzo Strozzi, then some disused fortifications, then an old medieval tower. Florence lacks Rome’s chaos, its distinctive light. Instead it is a narrow city, a cloistered city, walled off with dark stone. “But it is dominated stone”: stone that has seen centuries of sculptors and architects, Brunelleschis and Michelozzos, transform raw natural material into something like harmony.

The houses are all deep, burnished gold

Florence is famous for its craftsmanship, after all: for the triumph of order over chaos, art over nature. The Ferragamo flagship overlooks the Arno; on the Ponte Vecchio, stalls overflow with leather bags, expertly and inexpertly stitched. Around the Pitti Palace, stores sell hand-painted playing cards, oracular tarocchi in exquisite miniature, journals bound in leather, embossed with Botticelli angels.

The Specola Museum of Natural History – just off the Boboli Gardens – houses 34 rooms of taxidermied spiders, lynxes, lions. The last rooms offer glimpses of “Anatomical Venuses” – wax models of beautiful, disemboweled women (their hair, I learn, is human) – who once served to teach doctors and artists alike the way of dominating flesh through understanding.

As we walk on, that sense of domination becomes absolute. There is no street corner that is not perfectly in proportion to so many others; by the Uffizi Museum, Doric columns stretch into identical arches; flanked by symmetrical statues – all artists, long dead. Like the Anatomical Venus, the city is impossibly beautiful, uncanny and unreal. As tour groups flock through the streets, and Piazza della Signori echoes with foreign voices, I wonder what, in this city of artifice, is real.

It is not just local Florentines, I learn, who feel this city’s tension between art and life, playground and city. Coral Lelah, a longtime expat who leads food and wine tours for visitors, is all too conscious of the ambiguous role foreigners play here. “When I was looking for an apartment,” she says, “nobody would rent to me. They all wanted to rent to transients” – students looking for an apartment for a few months or a semester, who typically pay higher prices.

She loves her adopted city – its beauty, its famous quality of life, its obsession with food and wine. But she detects what she calls “a little bitterness” in many locals, who feel that they’re watching their city be transformed into a picturesque background for the sentimental education of outsiders. She points to the example of cucina povera: the most characteristically Florentine food.

Tension between art and life, playground and city

Traditionally, rich and poor alike would go to local trattorias or lampredotto stands, all eating the same food, all paying the same – affordable – bill. But, increasingly, restaurants see an opportunity in Florence’s ever-renewable population of transients – “places serve cucina povera at prices no Florentine could afford.”

She paints a grim picture of “industrialized” bars in this new Florence: apertivo buffets – a traditional feature of Florentine social life – with beans scooped out of a tin, leftover pasta from lunch, no consideration for the all-important pairing of food and wine. It is that indifference that Coral works to correct: working with local bars and restaurants to promote a more sustainable approach to tourism and food.

At one of her favorite wine bars, Il Volpe et l’Uva – nestled in a Renaissance square by the Ponte Vecchio – Coral introduces me to the proprietor, Emilio, who takes great pride in his establishment’s 20-year history of hand-picking its rotating menu from villages all over Italy: Calabrian spicy sausage, Tuscan cheese, all painstakingly matched with wine.

“This one would go with a gorgonzola,” Coral says to herself, as Emilio pours out sharp Fracciacorta into our glasses.

Emilio seizes on the suggestion. “I approve,” he promptly informs us, before vanishing inside. He has already presented us with several platters of crostini – included with the price of the wine – but he would be remiss in neglecting this particular pairing. He emerges with a wood platter, almost too small for the cornucopia of soft cheeses that threaten to teeter off the plate.

Across the square, two girls are on their fifth or sixth glass of prosecco. They pour out more; they collapse into hysterics. Emilio gives them a look. They look down for a moment, flushed with embarrassment and wine. Then they start giggling again.

To approach the real Florence, Coral has told me, we must get out of the city center. She directs me to St. Ambrogio Market, a mile from Ponte Vecchio, where visitors rarely go. The covered market spills out into the street. Under awnings of corrugated tin, encircled by a ring of dilapidated trucks: stalls for cheap cotton dresses; riotous flowers; porchetta, cut straight from the half-pickled head of a pig.

Two gregarious chefs Sergio and Pier Paolo – share command of a lampredotto truck – elbowing their way into effectiveness in a space built only for one. Sergio deals in traditional lampredotto; his colleague with a version thick with pomodoro. They bark out orders, ladle broth and green spice onto fresh bread, deal out wine in plastic cups for 50 centimes apiece. The line snakes onto the church steps.

Sergio deals in traditional lampredotto

Inside the marketplace, a gargantuan butcher beckons me with bellows to his unmarked stall, promising me “the best parmesan in the world!” He cuts two thick slices, then is distracted by the sight of a beautiful woman pushing a stroller. He calls out to her. “This is the most beautiful child in the world!” he pronounces. He winks at the mother. “Born to the very worst mamma in the world.” She laughs as he thrusts a plateful of salami toward her. Then he remembers me. “You must try the best cheese in the world,” he says again, offering me a Tuscan goat pecorino.

I gently remind him that, moments earlier, he said that of the parmesan. He considers for a moment. He furrows his brows; he frowns. At last he smiles. “This is one of the best cheeses in the world,” he says. Thus satisfied, he shoves more salami into my palms.

But it is not until Sunday night that I truly find what I am looking for: a Florence that melds art and reality, a Florence that fully welcomes outsiders into its fold. The Church of San Miniato al Monte, flanked by rose gardens, up a hill overlooking the centro storico, is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions: tessellations of green marble geometric on white stone: its arches perfect in proportion. But as I head towards the low-vaulted crypts: past a “NO PHOTOS” sign that marks the end of the tourist area of the church, I hear soft voices, singing.

Fifty people are sitting on splintering wooden chairs. Children are fidgeting. Old ladies are leaning on one another’s arms. Nobody holds a camera. The frescos have long faded into the plaster. Christ has no face, but here and there, colors slash across the aged whiteness of the walls. A bald, bowed priest is leading Latin Mass: we all know the words: “Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem caeli et terrae...”

Halfway through, the priest begins to sneeze. At first, it is only the children who giggle: the two pre-teen boys beside me who mimic each achoo. But he keeps on sneezing, and soon the mothers are laughing, too, and the fathers who stand against the columns, the old women in their hats. We are all laughing, together, and by the 12th or 13th sneeze the priest is laughing too. “Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.”

One of the little boys pokes me in the shoulder. He stares, then takes my hand. I look around. We are all holding hands, now, shoulder to shoulder, our heads bowed. We might be foreigners, locals, strangers; we all chant in Latin – we cannot tell. One by one, the old men, the mothers, the children take my hand; they embrace me.

“Pace, pace, pace,” they chant.

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The copy of Michelangelo's statue of "David" in Piazza della Signoria is arguably the most famous work of art in Florence. The original of 1504, designed for the roof of the cathedral but too heavy to be put there, was moved to the Accademia Gallery in the late 19th century to protect it from damage. Photo by Jurjen Drenth

Jurjen Drenth

Jurjen Drenth

Minolta Dynax 9

Aperture
ƒ/5.6
Exposure
1/125
ISO
100
Focal
35 mm

The copy of Michelangelo's statue of "David" in Piazza della Signoria is arguably the most famous work of art in Florence. The original of 1504, designed for the roof of the cathedral but too heavy to be put there, was moved to the Accademia Gallery in the late 19th century to protect it from damage.

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