The beating heart of Italian life is the piazza, where everyone passes through to chat, shop and catch up on the news, usually while sipping an espresso. Having grown up south of Siena and now living in Florence, I have had my fair share of piazza life — and I’ve never known its freedoms to be curbed quite as much as they are at present.
Two weeks ago Florence’s council issued its latest “anti-gathering” ordinance, decreeing that you can only be in a piazza if you are buying food or alcohol at a bar or restaurant. So no more loitering and no more grandmothers standing around gossiping of an evening. These rituals, along with that of the passeggiata, have been temporarily outlawed in an attempt. to stop the spread of coronavirus. The decree bans anyone from even entering six of Florence’s most charming squares — including Piazza SS Annunziata and Piazza Strozzi — between 6pm and 11pm, Thursdays to Saturdays, unless they are a local or are going there to eat or drink.
Residents are not happy. “There was definitely a problem with too many people staying up late drinking and making noise,” one says. “But the piazza has always been a space where, rich or poor, everyone is treated the same. Now it will be about money.” In summer especially, piazzas were a sacred space for those unable to decamp to the coast to escape the unbearable heat of the city.
There certainly has been a problem, especially in Piazza Santo Spirito, on the less touristy, more bohemian south side of the River Arno. It has long been the center of Florentine nightlife, where young people congregate to drink beer and eat pizza on the steps of the basilica, a beautiful 13th-century church given a 15th-century makeover by Brunelleschi. During the pandemic the square’s public loos were shut, which led to people using the cathedral walls and steps as a lavatory. But despite tighter controls, residents are disgruntled at how authorities have spent the £86,000 dedicated to the clear-up.
They are so upset, in fact, that the city mayor, Dario Nardella, has asked them to submit ideas on how to address the problems in Santo Spirito. So far barriers have been put in and a police presence stops anyone from sitting on the church steps — when I hopped on to them the other day to avoid being hit by a car, three. vigil pounced, telling me to move along. Bar owners are cross because the restrictions are killing trade. Another local, Camilla Bellini, says: “I don’t go to Santo Spirito any more because it’s too stressful. If you’re walking through the square and see a friend sitting at a table, and you go to say hello, a policeman comes and says, ‘Sit down or move along.’ It’s the opposite of what these spaces were intended for.”
The Basilica di Santo Spirito, Florence
Aside from the piazzas included in the ordinance, life is picking up in Florence, and the passeggiata is still happening in some places, free from the usual throngs of tourists. Almost all the voices you hear are Italian, as has been the case since March last year. Florentines have reclaimed their city, and there is something lovely about the streets buzzing without being crammed.
Covid is on the decrease, with about 50 new cases a day in Tuscany (there were 1,200 a day in the worst weeks of March 2021), with about 30,000 a day being vaccinated. There is a sense that everyone is ready to have a good time. Pop-up bars with huge screens have been erected along the Arno for people to watch the football, there is live music in squares not covered by the ordinance and men’s fashion week went ahead at the start of the month, peppering the city with fashionistas. The Americans are coming back too, now that travel between the US and Italy has reopened. At Enoteca Bellini, a popular bar on Via della Spada, one client arrived from New York and told the owner: “Get ready, my flight was full.”
The biggest excitement last week was, of course, Italy’s victory against Spain in the Euros semi-finals. There was much horn-honking and dancing on Tuesday night, with the celebrations going on until 4am. Supporters then hopped on to their scooters and went to Florence airport to welcome the squad back from Wembley.
Let’s hope that the joyous mood carries us through Covid and back to normality.
Amber Guinness is a journalist living in Florence.