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A morning in the Old Market 24/02/2011

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c. 1880

But now to glance at the aspect of the place as a market. Could anything be more picturesque than the antique old gabled roofs, and the stalls beneath them with yellow awnings, which seem to absorb the sunlight, and yet shadow the piles of vegetables and baskets of fruit of every hue under the sun? Why, the very cabbages ring the changes on all the reds, yellows, and greens almost to blue-black! then the crimson and orange strings of capsicums festooned across the heaps of scarlet tomatoes, the rich purple of the pear-shaped petronciani, and the mingled hues of the pomegranate, make the greengrocer’s stall under the yellow shadow a feast of colour as well as a study of life.

Though we see all our old English friends of the vegetable kingdom, yet there are so many unknown herbs that we wonder what they are, and whether they are good for food. Here comes a poor tottering old woman, and putting down a bit of copper as big as a farthing asks for ‘two centesimi of radicchio’ the leaves of the garden chicory. She spends a like coin on a crust of bread at a baker’s, and there is her breakfast complete bread and salad for less than a penny.

There is a pert serving-maid, looking very pretty under her black lace veil; she spends several minutes bargaining for some lentils, and at length goes off with a parcel of those little brown seeds, of which she will make a puree to garnish the grand joint at her master’s dinner table. This esteemed dish is a zampone, a pig’s leg, bound and stuffed with meat, like a Bologna sausage, and smothered under a brown mash of lentils. But what is that keen-eyed man-cook buying? Certain pear-shaped shining vegetables of a rich purple colour. Such things were never eaten in old England. They are called petronciani, and are the fruit of the Solanum insanum or ‘mad apples’. They are first boiled till tender, then cut into slices, dipped in egg, and fried.

A sharp-faced old servant comes up, throws a quick glance round the stall, and muttering, ‘What, no gobbi, today? I shall have to go back to Menica after all’, and away she hurries. What are gobbi, do you suppose? They are a favourite vegetable in Italy, and are nothing but the stalks of the artichoke, tied up in bundles like celery. They may be eaten boiled, and served with melted butter, or cut into pieces, and fried in eggs and bread crumbs; and are excellent either way, the taste being something between celery and seakale.

Another favourite Italian vegetable consists of the knots of young leaves on the stalks of the fennel; but the flavour is too strong to suit an English taste. There are also some very small kinds of vegetable marrow, about as large as apples, which are very good.

Here comes another purchaser, who asks for ceci, and goes away with a pocket of round, yellow seeds, like over-grown peas, which were taken wet from a barrel of salt water, The plant which produces them is the Cicer Arietinum (English ram’s head, or chick pea). A very good soup maigre is made from them; but if your olfactory organs are delicate, it will be advisable not to assist at the cooking of them, for they emit a strong odour, like salt cod. The Italians live largely on leguminous plants; the numbers of different beans they use is quite remarkable; they vary in colour from the white haricot to dark red, and even dark brown species. If a working man can get a few beans, either hot or cold, with oil and vinegar, he is quite content to dine without meat ; and if a few of the greenish yellow funghi are added, he thinks it a meal fit for a king.

But what is this man calling as he conies slowly up the crowded market-street, shouting ‘Salati, salati’ (salted)? A little boy hearing the cry begins to sing ‘Son salati i miei lupini, Son salati dalla dama’. ‘My lupins are salted by my true love’ and he pulls a minute brown coin out of his pocket, and quickly exchanges it for the large flat, yellow lupin seeds, which the man has in a flat, wooden tub. There is scarcely a street corner in Florence at which you will not see the inevitable vendor of lupins, who is largely patronized by the working classes. The lupins are eaten after being kept in brine, but they are not cooked.

In the matter of salad, Italian tastes are as wide as in leguminous vegetables. They eat chicory and sorrel leaves, basil leaves, lettuce, endives, beetroot, dandelion, and cold cabbage. And a favourite salad is a grassylooking plant, which they call barba di cappuccini (or Capucino’s beard), known in England as ‘buck’s horn’, ‘goat’s beard’, or ‘star of the earth’. The Italians have classical authority for eating this, for Dioscorides said in his time that the plantago coronopus was eaten cooked; the only difference is, that the moderns do not trouble to cook it.

The fruit stall, which is often distinct from the vegetable seller’s, contains quite as many specimens which are strange to English eyes. Side by side with yellow apricots lies the cactus fruit, or prickly pear. Be sure that you don’t attempt to eat it, or even to touch it, without a knife, for the harmless little brown spots which dot its ruddy surface are each composed of a thousand invisible thorns which have a knack of entering the skin on the smallest provocation. The correct manner of eating a prickly pear is to cut off the two ends, then cut down the outer rind, and laying it open, take out the inner pulp.

Here are two baskets full of russet brown fruits; one familiar enough is the common medlar, but the other is shaped like a pear. It is the fruit of the pyrus sorbus (service tree). When fresh, they look like bright coloured pears; we were shown large bunches of them hung up in the shop, but they are only good to eat when mellowed by keeping till brown as a ripe medlar, and have a much richer flavour than that fruit.

A basket of red, velvety-looking berries, similar to strawberries, only rounder, next attracts us; they are arbutus berries, and when quite ripe are really very good to eat. The children are fond of another wild fruit, called giuggiole (jujube tree). They are glossy brown berries, with a soft, green pulp within. The oval red berries of the ‘cornel cherry’ are also greatly appreciated by children. The Romans also knew this cherry, but they grew it chiefly for the wood, from which their lances and arrows were made. But the most cooling and delicious fruit of all is the Japanese nespolo, a yellow medlar, with a delicious acid taste; they come in as soon as the warm weather begins, and are the favourite refresheners until the water-melon takes their place.

There are also different nuts eaten here. Besides walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts (which make a dozen different kinds of foods), we have the pinoli and the noce di Brasil. Pinoli are the little kernels of the cone of the stone pine. They are remarkably good in flavour, having a slight aromatic taste. They are obtained by placing the pine cone in an oven, when the heat causes the scales to open, and the nuts are easily shaken out and cracked with a hammer. The Brasil nut is a curious little pair of twin yellow berries in a brownish husk; the flavour is rich and aromatic.

A walk through the Italian market will certainly produce the thought that the English might vary and economize their food much more than they do. At those old cook-shops, in which the Florentines of three or four centuries ago were wont to dine, and where the ancient plates and dishes they used are preserved on shelves on the walls, one sees the most curious processes of cooking. Over the fire a large wheel revolves, on which are trussed rows of fowls, thrushes, and larks, the latter alternated with bits of bread, pork, and sage leaves. In the frying-pans are savoury messes of yellow polenta, made from the maizeflour, frying in oil, and of brown migliaccio, a cake of chestnut flour, and piles of nicely cooked fritto, the materials for which are endless, ranging the vegetable and animal kingdom.

As for economy, we might learn a great deal from a Florentine cook. For instance, when we truss a fowl, we make no use of the liver, except by displaying it under the wing. As for the cock’s comb, and other appendages to the head and neck of chanticleer, we consider them refuse. Not so the Italian; he calls them regalia, cuts them up and stews them with the liver in luscious gravy, and makes one of the most stylish entries for a dinner party, either by filling a vol-au-vent with them, or in a shape of stewed rice, called risotto con regalia. A fowl will, in the poulterer’s hands, serve several customers, for marketing is done on the infinitesimal system. The two bits off the breast are bought separately as a dish for an invalid or a fricassee for an entree. Then the carcass is sold for roasting or making soup, the legs and neck are purchased for a few centesimi by the poor, and the combs and livers go to the tables of the rich as regalia.

The fish market presents equally curious specimens of food. The sepia, or cuttle fish, is much liked, and you see its long arms, with their curious rows of circular disks, lying about in all directions. You will never find a mackerel; and if a salmon be visible, it has been imported for the benefit of some English Midas, at ten francs the Tuscan pound of twelve ounces. But there are large-headed, three-sided fish called naselli, which are as good as whiting, and a large kind of cod called palombo. Lobsters, as we know them, do not appear, but there are huge crawfish, larger than any lobster, and looking like magnified shrimps. It is a fashion to fry the very small shrimps in their shells, and eat them crisp and entire. Frogs’ legs also make a very delicate dish of fritto. Indeed, what will not an Italian make delicious in a fry? A dish of dainty morsels, fried in butter, of a pale brown, is placed before you, and its contents will prove a perfect riddle. Probably there will be melon flowers, bits of every vegetable imaginable, celery, morsels of calves’ brain and marrow, tiny lamb chops, sweetbreads, liver, artichoke, bits of fennel, etc etc. Nothing comes amiss to the frying-pan when fritto misto is required. But our marketing is over ; we have got back to the kitchen, so we will leave the cook to her mysteries.

The Old Centre under Sentence of Death 22/01/2011

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c. 1884

Old Florence is fast disappearing. The characteristic narrow streets, where the midday sun only shines down through an irregular sky-line of picturesque eaves and gargoyles nearly meeting overhead, are, one by one, being widened into grand, new streets which take a gay Parisian aspect. Grim old palaces put on new faces, and only their general solidity and name preserves the aroma of antiquity. Now a square, ironbeamed market-place has arisen, which is to substitute that quaint, bewildering, parti-coloured, semi-mediaeval conglomeration of human life and curiosities which has for century on century been the mercantile heart of Florence. The old market, and its twin sister the Ghetto, are both doomed to destruction they are, in fact, to be offered as a sacrifice to the modern deity, Hygiene. It is right and just that this should be so, but before they disappear from our midst some slight picture of the old Florence, which will never be seen again, should be preserved.

The Ghetto and Mercato Vecchio stand side by side, a mass of lurid tenements, with black walls and small windows, piled story upon story in narrow streets almost cavernous in their darkness, and propped house against house by flying buttresses high in air and gloomy archways nearer earth. Among these dismal abodes are larger and more imposing houses, with remains of ancient towers, and sculptured arms and ensigns of extinct guilds on their time-worn facades: these are the old palaces where the potentates of the Middle Ages and the rich burghers of the commonwealth lived in state, for this district which is now given over to squalid poverty was once the very city of Florence.

There is this difference between the last fate of what we have called twin sisters. The Ghetto keeps all her abject mysteries shrouded from the light of day, for no one dares to penetrate her gloomy cellars and the cavernous alleys which hide in these days, not the despised Jews, but all the wretched, hopeless population whose doings, morally and actually, shun the light of day; while the old market close by is still the chief artery of modern life, and is crowded from morn till eve with a never ceasing stream of buyers and sellers.

In the Ghetto are squalid old men and women who have never seen the sunlight, and who look on rain as a strange phenomenon, for they have passed a life in the dark cellars, from whence they dare not emerge. All the countless families draw their water from one well in the midst of a dark piazza., and this piazza, seems to have represented the outer world to most of them. It has long ceased to be the prison of the Jews, who were confined within its gates in 1571 by Cosimo I for in these days the Jews are a great power in the city. But misery, crime, and want lurk there instead.

The old market keeps better company. The archbishop’s palace is in its precincts, a church stands at each corner, and in its narrow streets are the decaying palaces of the Tornaquinci, Vecchietti, Amieri, Neri, Medici, and half the names glorious in Florentine story. A dim memory lingers of a marvellous palace built by the Tosinghi, about A.D. 1100, the tower of which was covered with rows of little Lombard galleries with white marble colonnettes like the tower of Pisa this has passed away, but less ancient beauties remain.

There is the Vecchietti palace, where John of Bologna’s black demon grins in endless hideousness, at the corner where the Devil himself galloped by, on a black horse when exorcised by St. Peter Martyr. It was in this house that John of Bologna was sheltered when he came as a foreign artist to study in Florence, and its owner was his most liberal patron. But the Vecchietti palace has older memories than these. There lived the Cavolaia, or cabbage seller, who in mediaeval times had made a fortune by selling the produce of her podere in the old market, and at her. death ordered the bells of the cathedral and All Saints’ Church to be rung for her soul from All Saints’ Day to the end of Carnival. Her bones are said to be in the tomb of Bishop Ranieri in the Baptistery, though history does not explain how they got there.

The Amieri palaces form quite a district of the Mercato; their half-demolished towers date from Ghibelline times, and the last Amieri, Bernardo di Nicolo, is known to fame as the father of Genevra, whose story is one of the quaintest legends of Florence. Refused the lover of her choice, and betrothed by force to Francesco Agolanti, she afterwards fell a victim to the plague in 1400. Believed to be dead, she was placed in the family vault in the cemetery by the cathedral. She awoke from her swoon on a bright moonlight night, and, bursting her bandages, escaped from her ghastly prison, and, clad in her shroud, went to her husband’s house. He exorcised her as a spirit, and refused to open his door. Her father did the same, and no one would afford shelter to her resuscitated person but the family of her first lover. The marriage with Agolanti was decreed by the tribunals to be annulled by her death and burial, and she was by this curious quip released to begin a happier life with Rondinelli, her first love. To this day the street she trod on that moonlit night is called Via della Morte.

Another interesting house in the old market is that of the Castiglioni, which has some fine old sculptured doorways and chimney-pieces. Dante Castiglione was a famous person at the time of the siege of Florence, 1529, not so much for his prowess in war as for a duel he and Martelli fought, against Bandini and his second in rivalry for the smiles of a belle named Marietta de’ Ricci. As the combatants belonged to the two opposite parties who were striving for supremacy in Florence, the duel (or double duel there being four combatants) assumed a political importance, and was taken by the superstitious Florentines as an omen of the fate of the war.

Other interesting buildings are the houses which were once head-quarters of the different guilds. Here is the striped shield of the Linaioli or flax merchants; there, the arms of the Calimala or wool-dressers. Now one sees the lamb and banner of the guild of wool (Arte della Lana), then the (vaio) ermine of the Pellicceria or furriers. In one of these latter, Benvenuto Cellini lived. As for works of art, has not the old market one of Luca della Robbia’s loveliest conceptions, in the relief of the Madonna and Child of the lunette of the Church of S. Piero Buonconcilio? The purest faced Madonna and most delicious baby which that master of infantile modelling ever conceived. And boasted it not once of Donatello’s statue of Abundance on its central column? And has not our good old Vasari built a Greek peristyle without a temple to shelter the vendors of unsavoury fish?…

Florence 1887. Since this was written, the reluctant Florentines have been driven by force of municipal law to use the iron-bound modern market-place in San Lorenzo; and the six hundred families crowded into that human hive of misery called the Ghetto have been turned out into more healthy abodes, in disused convents or model houses for the poor, where it is hoped that new influences and fresh air will bring new moral and physical health to them. The empty Ghetto has been the exploring ground of artists and physiologists; it has been the scene of carnival gaiety, when the artists with their magic brushes transformed it into the ‘City of Bagdad’, and illuminated its darkest mysteries and gloomiest caverns with electric light. This year it is to undergo another transformation under these artists’ hands, and to represent ‘Cinque-Cento Florence’, with Donatello at work in his studio; after which both Ghetto and Mercato are to fall under the reforming touch of improvement. Florence will lose its most characteristic remnants of mediaevalism, and gain in a sanitary and moral aspect.

The Best Hotels according to Hare 09/12/2010

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Augustus Hare (‘the thinking man’s Baedeker’) in the sixth edition of his guide to Florence (1904) included the following list of best hotels in Florence.

Hotel Paoli, at the end of the Lung’ Arno della Zecca, near S. Croce, quiet and suited for winter quarters.

Hotel Bristol, comfortable, more central.

Hotel Anglo-American, Via Garibaldi, reasonable. Hotel de la Ville, large, central (Piazza Manin).

Hotel New York (once Palazzo Ricasoli), newly done up (Piazza del Ponte alla Carraia).

Hotel Savoy, in the centre (on the site of the Mercato Vecchio), comfortable, large, expensive.

Hotel Minerva, near Santa Maria Novella, quiet, clean, and old-fashioned, no view.

Hotel Grande-Bretagne and Royal adjoining, frequently under new management.

Hotel Albion, small, facing the Arno.

Hotel Berchielli, small. Lung’ Arno Acciaiuoli.

Hotel Europa, 3 Via Tornabuoni.

Hotel Washington, near Piazza S. Trinita, and facing the river (Lung’ Arno, Amerigo Vespucci).