I have been a contented country mouse for the better part of my 16 years in Italy, tucked snugly away in the ultimate sleepy Tuscan village where fresh air, quiet nights and friendly smiles from passers-by are the norm. Small-town gossip and the molasses-slow arrival of mod-cons like broadband internet aside, it was a good life, full of simple pleasures, from my rose and herb gardens, vegetable patch and cherry trees to those dazzlingly clear stars on summer evenings and parking spots for the taking. Imagine my anxiety then at the prospect of moving back to Florence after having grown so accustomed to the slow pace and family-like feel of my town. While I have always appreciated Florence for its endless fascination, its rock star status on nearly every cultural stage imaginable, I never thought I’d live among the pushy impersonal throngs again.
After a surreal and exhausting couple of weeks spent apartment hunting, dodging fraudulent online rental schemes and pestering every possible acquaintance, I finally got lucky—a bright, right-sized and right-priced one bedroom in piazza dei Ciompi, in the one Florentine neighborhood I was ever truly familiar with, Sant’Ambrogio (I’d lived there as a student long ago). Once settled and with immediate domestic concerns pressing—I needed everything from broom and mop to an entire stock of spices—I set out to explore what my new ‘hood had to offer.
The convenience was startling. Not the American flavor of convenience, our 24-hour, one-stop-shop mentality by which so many enterprises in the States seem to gauge their value, but a different kind, embodied in the variety and proximity of shops and services around the piazza. Walking just one minute from my front door, on those first days I managed to pick up some wonderful, locally roasted ground coffee, have curtains hemmed, buy aspirin and wine, fresh pasta and fresh flowers, post a package to a mate, get a print framed, and find nearly all those essentials lacking in my flat. To check these errands off in my former life would have required a half-day of driving around.
There is something remarkably civilized about the form of commerce I have encountered in this piazza. Run by few people, sometimes family members, these small enterprises and their small spaces compel you to engage with others in a way all too easy to side-step in shopping malls and hypermarkets.
At Torrefazione Caffè Magic, friendly Giuly behind the counter chatted with me to make sure I was getting precisely the right coffee (sans judgment of my preference for a French press over moka), assuring me I would never go back to sub-quality brands, and welcoming me to the quartiere. At the cosy La Divina Pizza, husband-and-wife team Graziano and Roberta demonstrated the same geniality and enthusiasm for quality. The passion with which Roberta talked about her cheese supplier, the best San Marzano tomatoes, good Italian wheat and the flavor and nutritional advantages of slow-rising dough—they use a 15-year-old starter!—had won me over even before I tasted a few of their divine creations.
A relatively young urban construction, piazza dei Ciompi has always been associated with goods exchange and trading, on account of the mercato delle pulci (flea market) established here in the 1950s and recently removed to piazza Annigoni, where it seems likely to remain. Despite the (purportedly temporarily) empty square, a “mercantile” feel lives on thanks to a handful of antique furniture stores’ sidewalk displays, as well as workshops like Il Coltellaio dei Ciompi. While watching artisan knife maker Fabio at work inside his tiny bottega as he talked of an order for clients in California, I thought about the vital role, actual and historical, that craft industries play in Italian society. But mostly I was struck again by the convenience—an expert knife sharpener not 20 meters from my apartment!
Life so far in piazza dei Ciompi feels oddly made-to-order for someone whose social make-up comprises both a love of people and a distrust of crowds. By day it brims with the quotidian, touches of the particular notwithstanding: the colorful corner flower shop Il Chiosco, the sounds of prayers from the mosque, Vasari’s Loggia.
In the evening the scene enlivens, but in just the right amount, with a peaceful, unassuming air prevailing most nights. And when I crave the company of strangers, I need only join the flow of souls progressing cheerfully past this quirky square block of Florence I now call home.
nb: this essay first appeared in The Florentine as “My Piazza dei Ciompi.”