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Growing Up in Florence

“Can you picture yourself rowing in the Arno just underneath the Ponte Vecchio, facing the Uffizi Gallery?”

About half a century ago I came to life in Florence which, I suppose, was very different from the one we experience today. That year, for Florence, was a very happy one. Fiorentina had just won their second Italian championship.

My brother and I shared a bedroom, he is two years older, and my parents were a young couple living their third year of marriage.

It was maybe due to that atmosphere of joy around football that surrounded my birth, that the ball would eventually become my favourite toy for a very long time.

It was thanks to her (in Italian ‘la palla’ is feminine) that I started to discover the world around me.

My first pitch was on my grandparents’ terrace, made of tiles; after came the “oratorio” in asphalt near the local church, and finally, the grass at the Cascine Park, not far from our family house.

The park is still a good destination for a walk in the green, a run along the river Arno, or a quick ride by bike.

My gang of friends and I, a bunch of at least 8 kids between 7 and 10 years old, used to cycle across streets and squares to the park where we used to play among us or challenge some other boys. I still remember my bike, a red Atala HD 2000, which I immediately transformed into something more personal, removing the mudguards, changing the tyres opting for bigger ones, adding a pair of Tommaselli rubber handles and swapping the long saddle for a single one. Oh how beautiful it was! Only later I discovered that HD stood for Harley Davidson! BMX bikes were due to arrive in Italy – right after E.T. aired…

Sometimes, when the grass was fully booked we improvised our pitch in a parking area, right in front of the “tiro al piccione” that was used during the night hours, as a playground where you could play a different kind of game. Even if we didn’t know much about it, we figured that big parties must be happening, due to the big amount of deflated rubber balloons that we would find… I only later discovered that they were not balloons, even if they were in rubber…  

The park was, and maybe still is, the place where some used to practice their ancient job (or ‘art’). At some point we also knew the names of the most famous artists, they were real celebrities among adolescents.

On the way to the park, in Piazza Puccini, on the outskirts of Florence just near the newsagents where I used to buy the “figurine dei calciatori”, was the Lampredotto stall.

I was about to discover the second love of my life, after the ball.

After much time spent watching workers and gluttons eating lampredotto, one day I grabbed a handful of courage, defeated my shyness and ordered my own one. It was the true taste of freedom to go out and order something to eat with my own pocket money! I was 8 and I was increasing my “fiorentinitude”.

Lampredotto remains my favourite “merenda” or “elevenses” and, as I tell everyone coming to Florence, it is the real taste of Florence – believe me my restaurant mainly serves bistecca alla fiorentina!

You can have it with green sauce and the red and spicy one, or just “bagnato” with “sale e pepe”, my weapon of choice. A couple of little panini with lampredotto are also on the menu at our restaurant, to pay it a proper tribute. 

Being a young boy my family considered it very important to practice a sport that would help my body grow healthy and strong, so, after two years in the swimming pool, they decided to send me to the “Canottieri Firenze”, the rowing club right under the Ponte Vecchio.

Well, that was such a good move! 

Rowing didn’t become my passion, even if it helped my shoulders to grow strong and wide, but the club itself was amazing. Can you picture yourself rowing in the Arno just underneath the Ponte Vecchio, facing the Uffizi Gallery? Having a shower under the masterpieces of … let me name some of them: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raffaello and the other Ninja Turtles! How exciting!   

Where else in the world would something like even be imaginable? 

At the age of 11 I started to leave my neighbourhood in the periphery and discover the center of Florence, thanks to my grandfather Giulio’s recommendation of bus number 22 (an amazing double decker) or 17. It was all so intriguing!

As a student, before you end your mandatory studies, at 13, you are already exposed, thanks to the excursions organized by the elementary school and the “scuole medie”, to Palazzo Davanzati, an exemplum of how people used to live in the middle ages and Renaissance, the Galleria dell’Accademia, just to have a look at the original David (there is a copy in Piazza della Signoria and another one at the Piazzale Michelangelo), the huge Pitti Palace and Giardino di Boboli, Palazzo Vecchio, with the amazing “studiolo di Francesco I”, The Specola, that is still such a gem, and the Uffizi Gallery, ça va sans dire.

And if you were lucky, your parents, grandparents, aunt or uncle, would take you to the Giardino dei Semplici, the Museo di Storia Naturale or to the amazing Stibbert.

My love for football, supported by my father, brought me to leave the noble sport of rowing and start on one side to play football in a youth league, and on the other to have a season ticket to our beloved local football team, Fiorentina, in Stadio Comunale, now called Artemio Franchi. Our stadium is, with the Central Railway Station  Santa Maria Novella (the clock that hangs outside, a masterpiece of design, always reminds me if I’m late or not), a bright example of Italian Rationalism. They both deserve a visit. The first, no need to tell you, during a football match! 

On Sundays it was always a joy to have lunch with the whole family at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother Afra was a great cook, as I imagine the majority of Italian grandmothers are. We used to leave before the “dolce” to reach the stadium in time to get a good seat and watch the match, but I always wanted and had my portion of “zuppa inglese” which I left for later.

As soon as I reached 14, my father had enough of going to the stadium, and I started to reach it with my “Ciao” and my company of two-wheeled friends. Having an older brother allowed you the privilege of always having hand me downs. So I began with a red-brick “Ciao”, and then I passed to a navy “Vespa 50 Special” with three gears and the smaller wheels (for the connoisseurs) and then to a dark grey “Sì”. After that I passed to a magnificent Suzuki RV 90 –  never heard of it? Google it! You will fall in love.

This was another very important step in my journey on this planet. Having an engine under my butt widened the border of my horizons! 

The historical centre now became just 10 minutes from home and at that time you could also ride without a helmet, it was real freedom in every way!

I soon discovered all the lampredotto stalls, which at that time were very popular (luckily a few still are), and soon I started to visit churches and museums, remembering details from my school trips. 

In the summer, churches were also a cool respite from the Florentine heat and always interesting as each church hides millions of stories. It became more interesting when in high school I started to study the history of art. It was so simple. Instead of studying in a book, a walk in the centre of Florence was enough to impress your teacher, get a very good grade and fulfill your young soul. 

Even if I didn’t know at that time, I was starting to understand what beauty means. 

It soon became normal to be surrounded by Brunelleschi, Giotto, Masaccio, Alberti, Michelangelo, Michelozzo, and all the others, that beauty wasn’t even an option – for a Florentine beauty is a destiny. 

That makes you a very severe critic about everything. 

Can you imagine when your standard of female beauty is set by “la Venere” di Sandro Botticelli? Or the idea of moral strength by Donatello’s San Giorgio? Or the cleverness in Michelangelo’s David. And why not go back to the idea of modernity of Giotto before and Masaccio later?!

My apprentice as a Florentine still continues. Every day I discover a new story, a new corner, a different perspective and I’m happy to share it with my young daughter who for now doesn’t seem very interested in it.

At some point I was ready to travel. First it was on the buses, then the car, after the train and in the end the plane.

I was curious to see how other people had created their environment. How they developed their villages, cities and towns. What they have made to tell their stories to the rest of the world throughout the centuries. And even a small cluster of houses in the countryside, where people settled to live together to create a community, made me breathe in life.