the intellectual

Florence is an unsolved enigma. You may be mad for its Renaissance wonders or hate the fact that it’s a theatre of human nomadism, but you’ll never be indifferent to it. The Tuscan capital is a constant source of enchantment, translating into art, literature and music.

Music is where I begin the first leg of my journey. As a lover of Italian new wave, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the well-known music shop DATA RECORDS 93, once known as Contempo, at 15/R Via dei Neri. This is where the city streets merit a very brief parenthesis. On your arrival in Florence, if you think the street numbering makes less sense than pineapple on pizza, you’d be about right. There is a logic to it, though, which you’ll discover once you’ve gone back and forth like a crazy person for hours, baffled by the fact that 7 and 9 come between 13 and 15. The numbering is in fact divided between R (red, or rossa) and N (black, or nera): the first indicates commercial activity and the second a residence. Having solved the mystery, let’s go back to music. From its humble beginnings in 1977, DATA RECORDS 93 has marked the history of Florentine and Italian rock. Measuring about 20 square metres and amounting to little more than an underground cavern, the shop is the work of Giampiero Barlotti, together with the twin label “Contempo”. Bands likes Litfiba, Diaframma, Pankow and Clock DVA were born here, and cult labels distributed, paying particular attention to the international stage, as well as the Italian scene. Today, the shop retains its anarchic appearance, seemingly chaotic, but behind which lie practical displays and meticulous cataloguing.

Piazza della Signoria
Museo Novecento
Porta San Niccolò gate

Focused in mind and spirit, with a copy of “Altrove” (Elsewhere) by Diaframma jealously guarded under my arm, I stand out in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce, a Gothic wonder built in 1295 by Arnolfo di Cambio. “I had reached the point of emotion where the heavenly sensations of the fine arts meet passionate feeling. As I emerged from Santa Croce, I had heart palpitations… the life went out of me, and I walked in fear of falling. With these words, Marie-Henri Beyle, best known as Stendhal, described his emotions on leaving the Basilica. Art so beautiful it hurts. Difficulty breathing and panic attacks when faced with works of extraordinary beauty packed into small spaces. Be warned: you too might succumb to Stendhal’s Syndrome!

Abandoning, not without turmoil, the place that so burned itself into the soul of the famous romantic writer, I leave the Arno river behind and head for Quartiere San Niccolò, home of working class hero Metello Salani. Metello is one of the most fascinating characters to have sprung from the pen of the writer Vasco Pratolini, who probably succeeded more than anyone else in describing popular Florence at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Union revolts and class struggle told by the mouth of a common man who cuts through the feudal, Ghibelline (imperialist) and anarchist Florence of the 1940s; a city in revolt, poor and destroyed, but proudly in the process of reconstruction. Today San Niccolò is a characteristic Lungarno village that does nothing to mask its past. Its main road, Via San Niccolò, was chosen by film-maker and theatre director Andrei Tarkovsky as a dwelling for the last few years of his life. You can still make out the commemorative plaque at number 91 that reads “to the sublime director of spiritual cinema exiled in Florence”.

Chiesa di Ognissanti (All Saints’ Church)

Crossing Ponte all Carraia and heading back towards the centre, on the opposite bank of the Arno you reach Borgo Ognissanti. Look up at house number 12 on this characteristic street, where you’ll see an imposing stone balcony with all its architectural elements in reverse. The Rovesciato Balcony, formerly called “the upside-down balcony”, is a stylistically bizarre feature linked to an equally curious anecdote. It’s said that the architect of the Vespucci family, who owned the palace, was commissioned to renovate it by adding an elegant balcony that widened the building. The architect presented the project to Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, who was gradually removing all the balconies in the city centre to make it more pleasant. The project was therefore immediately rejected. The architect, pressured by the Vespucci family, presented the Duke with a new design. Affronted by the bare-faced insistence of the man, the Duke didn’t simply refuse, but tried to discourage him further by replying “yes, only backwards”. The architect, not grasping the hint to desist, immediately went to work and built all the elements of the balcony exactly in reverse. Legend has it that the Duke, so amused by the flagrant disobedience, decided to leave the balcony be.

Basilica of Santa Croce
Dante’s house

Heading down the road towards Palazzo Vecchio, my attention is drawn to a head carved into the wall of the old residence of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici. It’s Michelangelo’s face. According to the myth, this roughly sketched portrait on the wall is the work of none other than Michelangelo Buonarroti. There are two versions of the curious anecdote, which contradict one another, but both of which have become part of popular tradition. The most famous tells the story of a man who was always bothering the great artist, badgering him with questions and annoying demands that frustrated Michelangelo to the point that he started carving the man’s face on the sly, with his hands behind his back. The other version says that Michelangelo, watching a prisoner sentenced to death pass by on his way to be executed, was so struck by the expression on the man’s face that he decided to immortalise him on the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio. We may never know which is the correct version, but finding this pearl, so central yet hidden from view, almost makes you feel like a pioneer. Reaching Piazza della Repubblica, I continue towards Dante’s house, pausing for a moment at the entrance to the tiny Church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi. This is where the great poet married Gemma Donati, met his beloved Beatrice Portinari and where Beatrice’s family were laid to rest.

Todo Modo bookshop

After delving into the sacred, my secular search leads me to a particularly striking contemporary art gallery, Galleria360. Inside I meet Riccardo Piagentini, architect and director of the collection, who takes me on a short tour of the exhibition space. The gallery, built on two floors at 11 Via Il Prato, paints with mastery the strokes of our century, through the works of the most highly regarded international artists. There are normally three exhibitions at a time, which change each month, creating a new air of innovation and aiming to promote and spread the pictorial and sculptural trends of the moment. At first glance, it would seem to be a clear break with the Renaissance experience that characterises Florence as a whole, but in reality, there’s an underlying continuity. For a city that exalts in its artistic past, looking to the future is another way of being more aware of the present in which we’re living.

di Valerio Stefanori

Piazza della Signoria

other itineraries

  • the storyteller

  • the socialite

  • the sporty type

  • the traveller