Santo Spirito, but forever in my mind
Diladdarno Vol. 2. After San Frediano, a tour in another of the most popular quarters of Florence
Together with the San Frediano and San Niccolò quarters, Santo Spirito forms the Diladdarno, literally “the other side of the Arno”, the Left Bank in fact and similitude, to all effects the part of the city that conserves the authentic soul of being Florentine. The simple dwellings, the small workshops, the artisan masters who manage to survive here, cheek by jowl with the new restaurants and clubs, breathe life into a neighborhood with an undefinable character where working class is entwined with a noble extract.
It was in fact Eleonora of Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, who bought the Pitti Palace in 1560 with the intention to have an alternative residence available in a healthier zone than Palazzo Vecchio, where she first made her home. This transfer gave origin to the drastic transformation of the Oltrarno quarter (a more formal name for the Left Bank zone) and the Pitti Palace became the official residence of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
The palace underwent expansions and changes, the most important of which were conducted by Ammannati who built the elaborate internal courtyard and set out the Boboli Gardens. This was also the source of the strong alchemy of contrasts that has left such a deep trace in the city planning of this city, with lofty beautiful palaces standing beside dark narrow lanes, actually laid out to house the workshops and small trading and artisan concerns.
Let’s take this step by step. There are two historic symbols of the quarter: the Basilica of Santo Spirito and, as mentioned above, the Pitti Palace, and their namesake piazzas. The Basilica of Santo Spirito, so recognizable with its peculiarly naked facade, was built on the remains of the 13th century Augustinian convent, destroyed by fire in 1471. It represents Filippo Brunelleschi’s last masterpiece. He began work on it in 1444, only two years before his death.
Piazza Santo Spirito represents the vivacious spirit of the quarter, especially in the summer.There is a daily food market, while Sundays are dedicated to artisans (second Sunday of the month) and food and wine (third Sundays except for August, only local producers). In the evening, the bars and restaurants on the piazza make it a favorite attraction for a drink or a meal at the outdoor tables until far into the night.
From Volume, a club that is situated in a historic hat workshop, to Cabiria, one of the first to open on the piazza, and on to Pop and Pitta M’Ingolli on the other side, there are many alternatives and all valid.
For an exclusive view, choose the roof garden of Palazzo Guadagni, a 16th century aristocratic residence now transformed into a hotel. The panorama stretches from the piazza to the Boboli Gardens and the Bellosguardo Tower.
Stop for a lunch at the Trattoria La Casalinga (Via dei Michelozzi no. 9r), with 50 years of Florentine gastronomy and a home-style atmosphere, or slightly more reserved, at the Chicco di Caffè (Via della Chiesa no. 16r), a favorite with young local residents who share tables and enjoy the simple but delicious dishes (don’t miss the homemade sweets).
For a more formal atmosphere, the final address is Gurdulù (Via delle Caldaie no. 12). The restaurant is named for a character in Italo Calvino’s novel Il cavaliere inesistente [The Nonexistent Knight] and proposes the experience of Entiana Osmenzeza in the kitchen. The interiors recall the design atmosphere of French bistrots with an open kitchen and a great bar where guests are welcome to stop just for a cocktail, served in great style here. Right next door to the restaurant, stop for an aperitif or an after-dinner cocktail at the Langolino. It’s a small place but has become a point of reference for night life in Florence.
Heading back toward Santo Spirito and passing to the right of the Church, you will arrive in Via Maggio - the so-called “major” road because of the width that set it apart from other city streets in the past, today the heart of the antique dealers’ area. Here are some hints you won’t want to miss: Boralevi (at no. 16r), Giovanni Pratesi (no. 13), Giovanni Turchi (no. 50-52r), Tornabuoni Arte Antica (no. 38-40r) and Frascione Arte (no. 5).
Be sure to see the Palazzo Bianca Cappello, where the Venetian lady lived a Renaissance love story that fueled gossip as she first became the teacher and, subsequently, the wife of Grand Duke Francis I. At the end of Via Maggio, as you approach Ponte Santa Trinita, if you turn left you will enter Via Santo Spirito characterized by design shops, ancient palaces such as Palazzo Frescobaldi, one of the most beautiful in the city (with its own wondrous garden and an exclusive, private window on the Church of Santo Spirito), gourmet restaurants such as Il Santo Bevitore [The holy drinker] and the adjacent wine bar Il Santino [The little saint]. If you turn to the right you’ll arrive in Borgo San Jacopo, one of the most elegant streets in the quarter.
The very first shop on your right is one of the best-suppled fruit and vegetable dealers in the city. A few steps further and you will find Trattoria Cammillo (at no. 57r) and the Borgo San Jacopo (at no. 62r) restaurant, the reign of Executive Chef Peter Brunel, with one Michelin star.
Another piazza you should see is piazza della Passera. However, if you look for it on a map you won’t find it because this widening at the crossing of Via dello Sprone, Via Toscanella and Via dei Vellutini owes its name to Mario Mariotti, the artist/artisan symbol of Oltrarno With the complicity of the artisans in the zone, he decided to baptize it with an allusion to the famous brothels that were once so numerous in the quarter.
Here you can stop for a cup of coffee at the Caffè degli Artigiani, ice cream at the Gelateria della Passera, dinner at the Il Magazzino where you’ll taste specialties based on tripe and more by one of the greats, Luca Cai, or for a cocktail at Ditta Artigianale, a coffee roasting shop and club that is open for lunch and dinner with an international air and a well-furnished gin bar.
Crossing this small piazza will bring you to Via dei Guicciardini, which leads to the other great symbol of the Oltrarno, Piazza Pitti, also the site of the Pitti Palace, once the residence of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and now home to the impressive museum complex composed of the Palatina and Modern Art galleries, the Silver Museum, the Costume Gallery, and the Porcelain Museum.
From the Pitti Palace you can go into the Boboli Gardens, considered one of the most famous in the world. The dimensions of the park and the works of art were greatly increased by the Medicis and by the Lorraine family throughout the 19th century. During your walk in the gardens, you won’t want to miss the Amphitheater, which marks the point where the Boboli hill was excavated to quarry the stone to build the Palace itself, dominated by the Artichoke Fountain, an open-air embrace centered on the giant obelisk brought from Luxor and raised here in 1789.
Another little treasure is the Kaffeehaus, a rococò jewel topped off by a glazed dome, which offers the most beautiful view of Boboli, the Fountain of the Ocean by Giambologna, surrounded by three sculptures inspired by three great rivers: the Ganges, the Nile and the Euphrates. Perseus astride his steed rises above the water, as does Andromeda anchored to the stone.
Returning once again toward Santo Spirito with the Basilica behind you, on the right as you walk along Via Sant’Agostino, you will encounter Via dei Serragli, the main road that crosses through the quarter from the Carraia bridge to Piazza della Calza and Porta Romana. The ancient name of the street was Canto della Cuculia, which alluded to the landscape of trees where, legend says, woodpeckers used to nest, thus representing a contested passage of transition to the fields.
Today, it is still the location of some of the most beautiful palaces in the city such as Rosselli del Turco and Ricasoli-Salviati (at no. 49), the former convent of Sant’Elisabetta delle Convertite, as well as many workshops and interesting art ateliers such as the GattaRossa collective at no. 75c.