Florence: Downtown #1

It’s hard to get away from certain taverns in early modern Florence – particularly the drinking dens in the crowded city centre. Take Galileo for example. In the comic broadside he wrote in the 1590s against the wearing of the “toga” or academic gown, Galileo picks out just a few taverns to help him nail his main point, that clothes don’t make the man. He argues the exact opposite. He says men are made like flasks. “When you go to the tavern in summer / to the Bertuccie, Porco, Sant’ Andrea / to the Chiassolino or Malvagia”, he writes, you’ll see that the flasks aren’t very fancy but instead reveal the excellent red wine within. What Galileo does, obviously enough, is put a place to an idea – and he namechecks the places that he assumes almost any Florentine would know.

At around the same time, Bastiano de’ Rossi, in a oration he called ‘In Praise of Wine’, takes his readers on an imaginary pub crawl of the entire city – but he ends up in the centre, at the Coroncina, Bertuccie, Panico, and finally the Porco and Fico, two taverns that were more or less across the street from each other on the via Calzaiuoli (see the map below, and my previous blog, The Barfly’s Dream). In a city in which Bastiano finds all the bars are closed, these ones seem to be the very last to shut up shop; and they were, he implies, the places where you tended to end up. Among tavernkeepers themselves, the Porco was considered one of the principal inns of the city. This was where the men elected to visit the sick of the tavernkeepers’ confraternity went every week to consult a list of the brothers who needed to confess and take communion (the surviving statutes are from 1681 but the confraternity was founded in 1542).

So the taverns of the centre – dense with shops and markets, alive with the rhythms of work and commerce, criss-crossed by hundreds of individual journeys every day – had a social, spatial and imaginary character all of their own. They would have been extremely familiar to men from across the city who came in to work or to do business, but also to a wider, overlapping public, for whom they were meeting points for drinking, gambling and socialising. You catch a glimpse of this from documents such as the one produced by a court case in 1433 (admittedly a little early for this project) in which a bunch of men were prosecuted for gambling in the Piazza Sant’ Andrea,  including a cloth merchant from Pisa, a wool cloth manufacturer, an employee of the Forced Loans office and a belt-maker. It turned out that “the cook at the neighbouring tavern” had lent them the dice (Brucker, The Society of Renaissance Florence, 183-4). Mixed in with the drinking and gambling, city-centre taverns were also strongly linked to prostitution and sexual encounters of all kinds. The streets beside the Mercato Vecchio were known for their brothels and, as Guido Ruggiero has pointed out, the taverns in the zone had pretty suggestive names : Bertuccie (Pussy), Chiassolino (Little Whorehouse), Fico (Cunt), Malvagia (Wicked Woman), Porco (Pig/Depraved). In the 15th century, downtown taverns, especially the Buco and Sant’ Andrea, were also regular venues for sodomy. We don’t yet know enough about the sexual landscape of central Florence after the demise of the Republic in 1530, but despite more restrictive zoning for prostitutes (and the effect of creating the ghetto in 1571 on the site of a major civic brothel beside the Mercato Vecchio) and harsher laws against sodomites, it would be very wrong to assume that this sexual culture was wiped out.

With all this in mind, it’s intrinsically interesting to locate the taverns that were such fixtures in the urban mental and social landscape. Just a few examples from the snapshot offered by the 1561 ducal census of shops, a taste from what is work in progress and may evolve into a set of wider spatial reconstructions over the next few months. The Porco (A) – run for 12 years by a certain Giovanni di Chimenti, who paid his rent to three owners (a Medici and two Baldesi) – was on via Calzaiuoli opposite the Loggia of the Nighittosa (in the part of Calzaiuoli then called Corso Adimari). On either side of the tavern were the shops of a crockery maker and a leatherworker. Walk across the street, to the Loggia itself, and you’d hit the Fico (B), or rather you had to go just off the street into an alley called the Chiasso del Fico. The Fico, owned by a widow called Simonetta, was run by a certain Simone di Antonio who had been there for six months. As you headed into the alley, on the corner you would see a leatherworker’s shop, and as you passed the tavern and arrived in the tiny piazza at the end of the Chiasso del Fico you’d find another. Less than a minute away was the Bertuccie (C), also in an alleyway of the same name (now Vicolo del Bazar) off the via del Corso. The neighbours here, on the corners as you entered this narrow street, were the shops of a leatherworker and a barber. I’ve tried to pin these taverns to the famous map produced by Stefano Bonsignori in1584, which is highly detailed though still too impressionistic to be certain about most buildings. If anybody thinks I’m way out, please comment!

There is a lot more to say about the psychology of mapping, then and now. But the key point is this: in these urban spaces individual and collective memory was externalised; they were where one’s sense of identity was in part rooted, and constantly remade in the revisiting. There’s a fascinating story in Le Cene (The Suppers), the mid 16th-century collection by Antonfrancesco Grazzini, which turns around the Bertuccie tavern (C). The story is about a physician called Dr Manente, the victim of a cruel beffa or practical joke orchestrated by Lorenzo de’ Medici. Manente gets so hammered one night at the Bertuccie, his regular haunt, that the oste has him carried out and left in the street. Lorenzo has him kidnapped and has a rumour spread around that he’s died of plague. When Manente is released and returns to Florence a while later, none of his drinking chums recognise him because they are so convinced he’s dead. When he approaches his wife she thinks he’s a ghost and causes a public stir. He runs, he takes refuge in the Bertuccie, where at first not even his “close friend” the tavernkeeper is sure it’s him. Eventually he engineers a gathering of his friends around a table at the tavern. They notice that he drinks two glasses of wine before touching his salad, just as Manente used to do. He won’t eat sweet food, which was also disdained by Manente. Then one of his friends sees that he has a birthmark in the shape of a wild boar –  and suddenly they know him, his re-identification is complete. Many of Grazzini’s stories deal with such extremes of exclusion. It bears thinking about that he chose this well-known Florentine pub (and the minutiae of social drinking and eating that took place within it) as the place in which Manente, who in effect was lost, is finally found, where his social being is rehabilitated.

David Rosenthal

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