Stepping from the bright morning sunlight through an iron gate that frames a long tree-shaded lane, my friends and I are warmly greeted by our host,
I have always loved Florence. It repeatedly draws me back. I live in Bologna but visit the capital of Tuscany whenever I can. So much ink has been spilled singing the praises of its beauty that it can be challenging for first-time and experienced travellers alike to know what to focus on. For this visit, I wanted a more personal, intimate experience. I wanted to peek behind the city’s cloak of cultural history and see it through a Florentine’s eyes. Guidebooks help, but cannot provide this truly local perspective. Consequently, I needed to enlist the help of a native who shared similar sensibilities. To this end, I recruited my friends, Florence-born children’s book illustrator Giovanni Manna and his wife, Laura Manaresi, to take me on a walking tour of places that express the spirit of his hometown.
“You can’t visit Florence without spending time in one of its many gardens,” Giovanni says. “It is a city where nature and culture intersect without interruption.”
This is why I find myself standing before a Tuscan nobleman on a March morning. The marchese (marquis) is dressed casually in a green jacket and red scarf, and is one of those people you like immediately. Very down to earth.
While his son, Vanni, works on some plants, his father gestures at two adjacent greenhouses, explaining that they were among the first in Florence. Since the 1970s, he has maintained a nursery here to help finance the upkeep of the property. I can see why. The grounds are large. The estate is essentially divided between three families: The marchese Torrigiani Malaspina’s family occupies a villa on the south side of the gardens. His sister, Serena, a former limonaia (lemonary) in the middle, while his cousin, Raffaele, lives in a porticoed palazzo on the north side. It is worth noting that many families in Italy – noble or otherwise – that have inherited large estates often struggle with the cost of maintaining their historic patrimony. The New York Times reported on this trend in January, 2015, noting that, “In recent years, Italy’s well-rooted inherited wealth has withered from a potent combination of factors. They include the increasing costs of living and services, the shaky finances of owners in a time of lingering economic trouble, cuts in government subsidies to maintain historical properties and, not least, mushrooming property taxes.”
The marchese’s enthusiasm for his terra or landis infectious. A 400-year-old Ginkgo biloba tree is a favourite, showing spectacular colours in the fall. He tells the long history of his family property, highlighting the founding of the first European botanical club there – Societa Botanica Fiorentina, a precursor to the Italian Botanical Society – in 1716.
He then recounts one remarkable story about the charmed effect these gardens can have on people: During the Second World War, the German command used the property as one of its residences. As the Allies advanced on Florence, soldiers mined the gardens before retreating. However, the German sergeant who was tasked with blowing up the Ponte Vecchio didn’t, and returned later to tell the liberators where the enemy had buried the mines. This soldier visited a few times years after the war, still proud of his good deed.
We cross in front of the main residence toward a neo-Gothic tower built in 1824, poking above the landscape. Unlike the famous Boboli Gardens, located just blocks away, there is a certain familiarity here not found in more heavily trafficked public attractions. The grounds inside this garden are manicured, but not overly so. And there are no other visitors present. I feel like we are intruding upon someone’s garden party. The stillness lends an air of mystery that pulls me deeper into the experience. There is a subtle and pleasing balance between nature and architecture not wholly expected near the buzzing historic city centre.
Giovanni explains how these gardens have always captivated him: “Growing up, I could always see the unique shape of the tower from my uncle’s yard near Porta Romana. I would daydream about the gardens hidden behind these walls. Being able to finally visit them is a real privilege.”
We walk around the base of the tower emblazoned with the Torrigiani family coat of arms. It sits next to defensive ramparts ( Bastioni Nuovi) built in 1544 by Cosimo de’ Medici.
While Giovanni continues to marvel at his good fortune at being inside these garden’s walls, I stare at a marble plaque inscribed with the words: “COSMUS MED: FLORENTIE ET SENAR: DUX II” (Cosimo Medici II: Duke of Florence and Siena). History’s imprint is particularly evident in this contemplative setting. It is transformative. I feel its palpable weight. “More than just being beautiful, these places give you the feeling of entering into another world where time has stood still,” Giovanni says.
Later, back at the main villa, the marchese leads us down the darkened main entry hall in the Torrigiani family’s private living quarters. Dozens of framed photos, yellowed maps and family heirlooms adorn the walls. Faces peer down at us from old paintings, accentuating the feeling of intimacy. In a large drawing room spliced by sunlight streaming through large French doors, the marchese returns with a bottle of wine that bears the family name, Serre Torrigiani. We drink in the last moments of this memorable visit sipping chilled vino bianco as if we were part of his extended family.
Not to be lost in the shuffle of monuments and museums are Florence’s unique constellation of shops selling art, antiques and handmade goods. We drop in on Antonella Pratesi, who operates a small antique shop that opened in 1991. It is located at the back of a small, hidden courtyard near Ponte alla Carraia in Via dei Fossi.
There are three words to describe this particular store: unique, varied and tiny. Inside, the space is cramped. It is hard to pass by fellow browsers. Glass display cases, filled with an array of art objects, dominate the space.
At one end of the store, a green desk lamp shines on a cluttered desk while a mustachioed burattino (puppet) sits on a shelf above, legs crossed, adding to the pervading feeling of eclecticism.
At the other, shelves overflow with antique jewellery, chinaware, framed artwork, old books and other collectibles. The selection of goods provides a sense of the personality of the owner, almost like a glimpse into her mind. Each object is chosen for a reason. Antonella explains that she gets customers from all over the world, including celebrities. However, she has no website, so I don’t know how people find this place. In addition to antiques, she sells custom artwork by local artists such as Stefano Materassi, who creates original pieces from recycled materials and found objects.
Antonella’s space is a feast for the eyes. Little shops like this are one of the undervalued treasures of Florence.
After lunch in a traditional Tuscan eatery, Trattoria La Casalinga, full of yelling waiters and few tourists, we set out for the Giardino delle Rose in the Oltrarno district. Giovanni navigates more by sense memory than having a precise route in mind. We bob and weave through throngs of tourists in Piazza Pitti and push on, still on the south bank of the Arno, pausing in front of Santa Felicita, one of the oldest churches in Florence. The Corridoio Vasariano (Vasari Corridor), that the Medici had built in 1564 to move unseen from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti, passes inconspicuously above the main entrance of the building. Santa Felicita sits in a tiny eponymous square pushed back from the street a block from the Ponte Vecchio.
I never knew it was there. At one time, Giovanni didn’t either. He recounts how he stumbled across this church as a child riding on his bicycle: “One day, during one of these rides, I entered this church, having no idea that inside was one of the most important Florentine works of the 16th century, The Deposition by Pontormo. From that day on, I began returning [often] to admire it.”
He says that although the church is located in the heart of the tourist district, it is visited comparatively little. Unfortunately, the Capponi Chapel, where the painting is located, is closed for restoration work. Churches such as Santa Felicita, Badia Fiorentina – that Dante allegedly frequented – or Santa Trinita, for example, dot the Florentine landscape and offer quiet respite from the madding crowds. Furthermore, many are decorated with artistic treasures. Giovanni says that tourists – and even locals, for that matter – often follow the same paths without realizing that they are passing in front of incredible places.
The Giardino delle Rose is a beautiful hillside public garden/park frequented mostly by locals and students. It is suspended between two of the busiest areas of Florence on a verdant crescent of land: At the bottom of the hill lies the San Niccolò district, a busy neighbourhood full of eateries and art galleries; above sits the Piazzale Michelangelo, a large parking lot where armies of vacationers take pictures of the iconic Florentine skyline.
No matter how many times I visit Florence, it never ceases to amaze me how just a small change in perspective can make all the difference: For sightseers looking down from the crowded piazzale above, the city is laid out in all its panoramic glory. The view is breathtaking, yet the city seems distant. Moreover, whenever I go up there, sharp elbows are required to fight the throngs of people to get good photos. However, observing essentially the same scene from the path that winds through the terraced garden 100 metres below, a similar yet more intimate portrait is on offer. From this vantage point, I can take in the experience in relative peace. Peering between the red-tiled rooftops of apartment buildings, I spot a young woman reading a book in an open window. Laundry flaps in the spring breeze. The dome of the Duomo is framed perfectly by two cypress trees. I can almost reach out and touch it. People are nearby but hidden from view.
As its name denotes, this giardino is, above all, a rose garden, with about 1,000 varieties featured in its one hectare area. As part of an urban renewal program in the mid-19th century, the city enlisted Florentine architect, Giuseppe Poggi, to design the area. The gardens opened to the general public in 1895. Over time, attractions were added. In 1998, a Japanese garden with a water feature made its debut, while in 2011, 12 sculptures by the late Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon were installed.
We climb toward the top, passing by a patchwork of meadows linking the various parts of the garden together. Students study while reclining on blankets. Beautiful villas dot nearby hills to the southwest. Near the summit, we finish the tour in a small square featuring Folon’s Partir (To Leave), a bronze sculpture of a ship framed by the outline of a suitcase. Through the work, Florence’s skyline rides the waves. A couple snaps pictures as tour buses grind up the hill above us in Viale Galileo, their passengers likely unaware of this treasure.
Giovanni admires the sculpture and looks out over his hometown. A bench placed directly behind it invites contemplation. Folon’s piece seems to sum up the essence of what gives Florence its unique character. It is something new providing a window onto something old. He tells me later that Folon was an artist who loved the city of Florence and whose rich poetic imagination was evident in all of his works; he always placed a human figure or man-made object in a context tightly linked to the natural world that evoked the interlinking of nature and culture typical of the city. In the same way, the parks and gardens of Florence effortlessly connect the urban fabric of man-made art and architecture with the natural beauty of the surroundings.
The meaning of the sculpture’s title is not lost on me – To Leave. I have left my home; Giovanni has left his to live and work in Bologna. But we always carry a part of Florence with us. And we always return.
Giovanni Manna’s ten hidden jewels in Florence