The streets of Florence are a labyrinth where get lost
Florence has a thousand faces, the most seen and celebrated one can be inscribed in a sort of circle going from Piazza Duomo, through Piazza Signoria, up until Palazzo Pitti. It is the itinerary par excellence, which is also called “the Grand Duke’s walk”, as the places of power lie along the way. First, owned by the Medici’s Signoria, then by the Great Ducat. It goes from Palazzo Vecchio up until Palazzo Pitti with the Asburgo Lorena dynasty and the Savoia’s royal palace during the years in which Florence was capital starting in 1865.
Yet, to know and appreciate the true character of the city and its inhabitants, and to perceive how it was lived in the past centuries, it is necessary to move away from the “center” and to pass through the streets that flow behind Piazza Signoria, reaching the neighborhood of Santa Croce, with its basilica that became a Pantheon with the tombs of illustrious people.
The maze of streets leading from Via della Condotta to San Firenze makes it easy to see the long, narrow and dark streets, in which one can observe the alternating council houses and noble palaces. The more one walks through Via del Proconsolo, one will discover more historical clues that tell the story of people, crafts, and art workshops. These are the places dear to one of the most beloved Florentine writers, Vasco Pratolini, who told stories, in his remarkable novels, of the ordinary people’s Florentine society and life.
Right behind Palazzo della Signoria, one can find a small street with a singular name. It is via del Corno, wedged between Via dei Leoni and Via dei Magalotti, ancient toponyms that bear witness to Florentine and noble houses’ stories. The street is the main scene for the novel Chronicles of Poor Lovers. Pratolini describes it as a stifling street, where the houses, too close to each other, become cold in the brutal winters and suffocating during the hot and muggy Florentine summers.
Here one can grasp the cues of the life of the minute people, as they were called in Medieval times, which meant poor, without any guarantee of subsistence, and who carried out very humble and tiring jobs.
By going further down Via del Corno, one will reach Via Parlascio and from here head for Santa Croce. Before arriving in the big square, one can look for the so-called “curved” street, so named as it was built on the remains of the ancient Roman amphitheater. One can notice the singularity of the path, in a space that reveals the ancient Roman structure of Florentia.
The amphitheater therefore stood in the most southern part of the city; near the major decumanus (the street that ran from east-west in Roman cities) that today is associated with Via del Corso, giving shape to a regular and well-divided settlement. Of that distant past, one can still find traces, directing lines, and, by strolling through Via Isola delle Stinche one cannot miss to notice the circular appearance of the palaces, and the labyrinth of streets and alleys that characterize this Florentine area. Street names have original toponyms that are all related to their past. The name Isola delle Stinche (Island of the Stinche) is striking, as its name comes from the prison called delle Stinche, which stood in the place where the Verdi Theater is now located.
The jail was surrounded by a ditch, making the prison “isolated” (recalling the name for island, which is Isola in Italian); a proper place of suffering and detention. There were other prison buildings in the district. For all of these buildings there was the Court of Justice, located in Via dei Malcontenti (Literally means Street of the Unhappy), whose name speaks for itself, and then the Bargello, a name derived from a late Medieval Latin word, barigildus, a fortified tower, which was the garrisons and the Captain of Justice’s seat. The latter was supposed to guarantee peace and suppress the innumerable fights that arose among merchants, hosts, butchers, shoemakers and tanners. Let us resume our itinerary to discover the streets leading to beautiful Piazza Santa Croce. One will go through streets with revealing names, such as Via Torta, or Via dell’Anguillara that recalls the place where the Anghiari’s Counts, owners of a noble palace built there, had a castle.
Then, finally, coming out of one of the streets that lead to the square, here is Santa Croce’s great space. On a sunny day, the gaze can move freely towards the hills, the green of the hills that frame Viale dei Colli, and leave the maze of the narrow streets and reach the light and space of the big square, delimited by the basilica and the noble palaces. One can thus perceive the two faces of Florence: the dark labyrinth of medieval streets and alleys, and the free and harmonious one made of buildings and nature, beautiful as a spring morning.