the storyteller

We Florentines love the city for its red roofs, its beauty balanced between architecture and nature, and its secret gardens. Not one day goes by that we don’t cross between the two banks of the river at least once. Around here we say “di qua e di là d’Arno” (here and there across the Arno): ‘there’ is more the part for the locals, ‘here’ is the area with all the big museums, the Duomo and the Piazza Signoria.

My Florence is the one of Sunday morning walks, an engagement ritual that repeats itself each week and that starts from the most panoramic location in the city: the parvis of the San Miniato al Monte Basilica. From here I descend into the district that for centuries has been dedicated to craftsmanship: goldsmiths, paper makers, framers, ceramists, designers and tailors of quality. From the San Miniato al Monte courtyard you can see the whole city, with the Arno and its bridges forming the blueprint for the city’s design. To the west the gaze alights upon the sharp edges of the new courthouse, in the suburban district of Novoli, while to the east the bricks of the Santa Croce Basilica warm the gaze before it stops on the Great Synagogue’s bright green dome.

Forte Belvedere
Arno river, Ponte Vecchio bridge
5eCinque

Full of energy, take Via di Belvedere towards Porta San Giorgio gate. On the right, admire the dragon fresco and the longest stretch of medieval walls in Florence. On the left, enjoy the imposing and severe Forte Belvedere, venue for shows and exhibitions. From here, go down to Piazza di Santa Felicita, a small treasure trove overlooking the church of the same name, to reach Oltrarno. At Palazzo Pitti, Joanna of Austria would pass through the Vasari corridor built by her father-in-law Cosimo I so that she wouldn’t have to walk along the road, to reach the private chapel enclosed above the church’s central nave. This is a pleasure-loving neighbourhood: you can choose between a nice focaccia with chickpea flour (don’t miss the one at 5eCinque) and steak Florentine, at least 8 cm thick and cooked rare, at I 4Leoni.

Borgo San Jacopo, Via Maggio and Via dei Serragli are the streets of craftsmen and antique dealers. To get to the first of these from Piazza della Passera, I love crossing Via Toscanella to say hello to the Madonna del Puzzo (Madonna of the Stink), an original terracotta masterpiece made by Mario Mariotti. The Madonna is covering her nose and looking up to the sky. Mariotti lived in the neighbourhood and he thought this would be a good way to show his disgust at the bad smells in the area. As I was saying, you can find all sorts of craftsmen in Florence. Two such examples are Lapo and Michiko; he’s a sixth-generation book-binding master and she’s been in Florence for 15 years as a paper restorer. Lifelong friends and companions, Lapo is the self-taught son of art, while Michiko has studied in Paris (she has hung both the French national flag and the Italian flag outside the atelier): “We want to aim high, creating unique pieces, a far cry from mass production”. Lapo and Michiko’s paper could also work as a base for Marilena and Rino’s artistic photography. Their laboratory, Fotomorgana, is located between Giardino di Boboli and Torrigani gardens, at 104 Via dei Serragli, in the artistic heart of Florentine craftsmanship. Probably the only printers from black and white negatives in the whole of Tuscany, they’ve been on the market for so many years that all the professionals go to them. In the laboratory, the magic of the darkroom can be seen in each creation: unique prints, handcrafted passe-partouts, touch-ups and colours are just some of the infinite possibilities conceived by the art of Marilena and Rino.  

If all that craft has put you in a good mood, cultivate your appetite and take a stroll around Piazza Santo Spirito on the third Sunday of the month. I come here to do my shopping at the organic market. At the Fierucola market you can find goat’s milk cheese and freshly baked bread, and after doing your shopping I suggest you stop to eat something in the square; a romantic dinner maybe or just a sandwich on the fly? It all depends how much time you have. At lunch, I often walk a little further to Piazza dei Nerli, where I eat a couple of slices of poppa on toast and a lampredotto sandwich, historically only eaten by the tripe maker: it’s a peasant dish made from a quarter of a cow’s stomach.

When the evening comes, the Florentine habit is to stop for a cordiale at Caffè Notte, in Via delle Caldaie. At one time the Arte della Lana boilers were here, which were used to heat water for dyeing cloth. Florence owes a lot to this art: from Torrino di Santa Rosa, where you can stop for an aperitif or a quick lunch, you’ll have a beautiful view over the Pescaia di Santa Rosa lock below. The Humiliati monks built a canal system that carried water to the Borgo Ognissanti hospital, the church and the factories. At this point you should stop-off at the small church in Borgo Ognissanti. The church is home to some real treasures, like the magnificent wooden crucifix, which had to wait twenty years to be restored (there was never enough money)! Another magical place is the Cenacle, only open in the morning, where you can see Ghirlandaio’s fresco of the last supper. This part also houses the tomb of Luigi del Buono, creator of the unique Florentine theatrical mask, the Stenterello.

Piazza Santa Maria Novella
Little church Borgo Ognissanti

Finally, we’ve arrived at my neighbourhood: Santa Maria Novella. This is where the central station is found, designed in the 1930s by the Tuscan Group led by Giovanni Michelucci. It’s also home to a new area of craftsmen between Borgognissanti, Via Palazzuolo and Via della Scala, and finally it’s the gateway to the Roman quarter encompassing the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. In the piazza, I enjoy reading the sundial on the façade of the Basilica (there’s another sundial on the Ponte Vecchio bridge), flanked by an armillary sphere. These astronomical instruments all date to the 14th century. In Santa Maria Novella there are two “new” museums: the Museo del Novecento (20th Century Museum), housed in what was San Paolo Hospital, and the Marino Marini Museum, in the former church in Piazza San Pancrazio. In the latter, the works of the master from Pistoia are flanked by Leon Battista Alberti’s masterpiece, the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre.

I love the more “local” neighbourhoods, have you noticed? And in the popular San Lorenzo there’s a beautiful iron-roofed market, designed at the end of the nineteenth century by Giuseppe Mengoni and inspired by Les Halles in Paris. Inside you can grab a bite to eat, while the outside stalls sell clothing and leather jackets. Stop at Parini and sample the delicacies available: matured meats, cheeses and sauces. Ask the owner for advice if you’re not sure about the rules on exporting food abroad: he’s very well informed! And if a glass of wine whets your appetite, go up to the first floor where you’ll find a Chianti Classico kiosk. Any bottles you buy here can be sent directly to your home.

Central Market
Quadrilatero romano

Pushing on to Via XXVII Aprile, you can enjoy visiting another cenacle. The Monastery of Sant’ Apollonia, in addition to the fresco by Andrea del Castagno, houses a museum and one of the city’s most beloved university canteens. Were you cold at the cenacle? Come and warm yourself up in the porticoes of Santissima Annunziata piazza and admire the view of Brunelleschi’s cupola. In the centre is one of the few equestrian monuments in Florence, Ferdinando I° de’ Medici, made by the bronze masters Giambologna and Pietro Tacca. Don’t turn around just yet, climb up to Caffè del Verone and from its porticoes enter the Istituto Innocenti Museum. The loggia, where the laundry room of the Institute for Orphans was located, is now a cafeteria with breathtaking views. Florence from above is a moving sight.

I started at San Miniato a Monte Basilica and I’m finishing this walk at Torre della Zecca tower, where Florentine coins were minted. Di qua e di là dall’Arno, as the saying goes. Sunset paints the skyline of this medieval town, while the red roofs are aflame and the pebbles of the streets shimmer like the waters of the river flowing towards the horizon. A genuine image to hold in your heart forever more. My Florence.

di Isabella Mancini

other itineraries

  • the intellectual

  • the socialite

  • the sporty type

  • the traveller