Florence: The barfly’s dream

My part in this project, the early modern part, started with an imaginary pub crawl. It’s grand-ducal Florence, 1593, and Bastiano de’ Rossi delivers a speech in “praise of wine” to his literary pals at the Accademia dell Crusca, which had been set up a decade earlier with the aim of standardising Italian. It’s a festive moment, the six-monthly investiture of new officials, and Bastiano, the academy’s secretary, paints himself as a man in desperate need of a drink. He tells his audience how he’d gone to bed one night with an overpowering thirst, then dreamt of finding a tavern in Florence in which he could quench it. (Bastiano de’ Rossi, ‘Cicalata in lode del vino’, in Prose fiorentine, Florence, 1716-45, Part 3a, vol. 2, 1-24)

In his ‘dream’, Bastiano materialises outside the city – but he’s only forty feet from the walls so he knows he’ll find a watering hole nearby. In front of him is the Porta alla Croce, the city’s eastern gate. “I went inside,” he says, “in order to go to Michele del Bello, who has the tavern at the side of the gate. But I found nobody there except a girl who told me that neither master nor servant was around.” So he heads down Borgo la Croce, turns left into via Pentolini (now via dei Macci), then doubles back and heads up into via dei Pilastri to the tavern of the Giardino. But there’s nobody to be found at that osteria either. On Bastiano goes. And he keeps going, until he has taken himself around the entire city and some 30-odd taverns in what turns out to be a fruitless attempt to find a pub that is open and an oste who can serve him. In effect, Bastiano traces out an itinerary of taverns, a drinking tour of the city. It’s the Florence of the barfly flaneur – as opposed, say, to the Florence of the nascent art pilgrim, whom Francesco Bocchi spoke to in his famous guidebook published two years earlier, in 1591.

Bastiano’s dream is interesting because you don’t find many documents that join the dots up so explicitly. What you tend to get, or get quite easily, are administrative sources that give you a static city. I’m using one such source, a detailed census of 1561, to map the roughly 40 taverns in sixteenth-century Florence, which will act as a resource for this project and – when it’s hopefully online/app’d – a useful tool for others. (R Burr Litchfield’s rough guide is in Links). What Bastiano presents us with is an idea of how bodies, mainly male bodies, might move through urban space, how taverns had gravity, pulling people towards them at certain times and along certain routes. He presents us with the idea that Florentines carried with them at least a partial mental map of taverns and their tavernkeepers; and he implies that if taverns were in a sense agents of both an imagined and a practised community within a specific neighbourhood, they could also be places in which men from different parts of the city found themselves gathering, socialising, networking – no doubt especially true for city-centre taverns, such as Sant’Andrea near the Mercato Vecchio or the Fico off the via Calzaiuoli, represented in this image from 1501 (of which more below).

Bastiano’s oration to the Crusca also suggests that taverns, and their tavernkeepers, were as familiar to a social and cultural elite as they were to artisan Florence. We already know that taverns were hubs for artisan men in the same period. A good number of the city’s roughly 40 potenze (powers) – bands of workers who marked out ‘kingdoms’ and ‘ruled’ the city at certain festival moments – were based at taverns. At times the men of a potenza would choose their local tavernkeeper as ‘king’. Furthermore, these men were on familiar terms with tavernkeepers not only within their territories but, like Bastiano, all across the city. Indeed tavernkeepers appear to have been trusted and cultivated characters. A couple of examples. In 1577, one illiterate king in the north of the city (San Barnaba) needed someone to pen a receipt for a cash gift he received from Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici during festivities for the birth of the duke’s son and heir – so he brought along the tavernkeeper of Sant’ Andrea, in the city centre, to write for him at the ducal treasury. In 1610, the king of the Spalla also brought along a tavernkeeper to write for him, possibly his local publican since the Spalla met at the Trave Torta at the southern foot of the Ponte alla Carraia. The same tavernkeeper, a certain Chimenti Maroni, was also a member of another brigade based at the Porta San Gallo gate, all the way up at the northern tip of the city. In fact Maroni was one of only a handful of men in 1610 (nine out of 259) who show up in a leadership and/or writing role in more than one potenza; another was also a tavernkeeper, an official for two ‘kingdoms’ that shared a common border.

Bastiano de’ Rossi was clearly familiar with his city’s ‘plebeian’ kingdoms, and keenly aware of the carnivalesque comedy of status inversion within which they paraded themselves on the city stage. In his dream he finally fetches up at the Fico, and there he discovers the reason he can’t get a drink in Florence that day: everyone has closed up and gone off for a special meeting of the tavernkeepers’ guild. Why? In order to hear about a catalogue of crimes perpetrated against the trade by none other than the Accademia della Crusca. So Bastiano tags along. He sees the tavernkeepers show up in a sumptuous procession. There’s a king. There’s a hierarchy of senators, the most important of whom, representing the city’s most important taverns, sit closest to the monarch. It’s a micro-state of publicans, a burlesque mirror of ducal government (or the government of the Crusca for that matter). The denunciations begin. The tavernkeeper of the Porco, off via Calzaiuoli, says he was tripped up by a member of the Crusca while delivering food to the table. One bartender says he was given a smack for not serving fast enough. Another was lampooned in song; another was told his boiled eggs were inedible. Bastiano himself is accused of not paying his bar tab. Even the dead, the ghost of a bar boy who once worked the Buco near the Palazzo Vecchio, make an appearance to condemn the members of the Crusca. At the end of it all the king passes a terrible sentence: from now on the Cruscanti will only be served wine from Cinque Terre, or even less palatable plonk if that’s available. Bastiano is so traumatised by this turn of events that he wakes up. Worse, when he runs off to the Fico to tell his friend about his dream, he discovers it’s all true. His oration ends with an appeal to the Counsels of the Crusca to sort it out, to make amends. Otherwise the Cruscanti may be forced into exile in order to get a decent glass of wine.

Bastiano’s portrayal of a ludicrous, vendetta-hungry ‘nobility’ of drink, it’s sacred honour impugned by a series of mundane slights, would no doubt have gone down a hoot among his learned brothers in the academy. Yet at the same time the entire conceit rests on – in fact, it extols – an idea of the social significance of taverns and of the men who ran them. It’s predicated on a quite intimate knowledge of people and places (names and nicknames of both tavernkeepers and Cruscanti are scattered liberally); on the experience of daily transactions, conversations, time spent, that would indeed have included an element of respect and trust – not least to pay up. The general implication of all of this is that, to some extent, the social classes of the 16th-century city shared a vocabulary of tavern-going, that they mixed in the tavern, perhaps played dice or other gambling games there. We don’t know a lot about the dynamics of this, but it does heighten the sense that the tavern could act as a liminal space at a time that saw social stratification become increasingly entrenched (something attested to by the very existence of worker ‘kingdoms’).

These issues – the productiveness of taverns, the kinds of networks, communities and ‘public’ spaces into which they are inserted and which they help to shape – are common to all the participants in this pilot project, from 16th-century Florence to 18th-century London and to Bristol today. One other common theme is the regulation of drinking, and more broadly the conflicts that turned around taverns. I’ll get back to this in a future blog, but want to briefly flag it up in the context of Bastiano de’ Rossi’s oration to the Crusca. For Bastiano, drinking wine was a virtue, not a vice. He’d be mute, he says, if he couldn’t get his hands on a flask of wine, that “precious liquor”, the colour of which gladdens the heart, the taste of which revitalises the body. His celebration of the tavern and of drinking took place at a moment in which the tavern had become a fiercely contested site, a battleground for Catholic reformers. To be sure, the tavern, playground of gamblers and sodomites, had always exercised moralists. The picture above of the Fico, from 1501, is the first in a series of paintings that preached the cautionary tale of a man called Rinaldeschi, who threw horse shit at an image of the Virgin after losing at dice in the tavern, a crime for which he was hanged from windows of the Bargello. As others have pointed out, it was no accident that so much was made of the Rinaldeschi case – this was, after all, a city still in the grip of Savonarola’s millenarian prophecies. But the last decades of the 16th century, post-Council of Trent, witnessed a more concerted bid to draw strict boundaries between the world of the sacred church and that of the profane tavern – “where God does not live” – and to ‘Christianise’ the sinners and wastrels who haunted the latter. Five years before Bastiano’s oration, in 1588, almost every artisan confraternity in Florence had processed against taverns, a state-endorsed collective pact of abstinence that utterly failed to stamp out tavern-going but speaks volumes about the rhetorical and regulatory atmosphere in which Bastiano was writing. Can we see his document as belonging to a wider cultural struggle, as a defence of the tavern at some level, of it’s quasi-mocked regal status, and with that certain kinds of mainly male sociability and behaviour?

David Rosenthal

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2 Responses to Florence: The barfly’s dream

  1. Samantha says:

    Do you happen to have encountered a Florentine tavern known as The Sun Inn, during your research?

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