Monthly Archives: December 2009

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Searching for the Sasso di Dante

I had been looking for Dante’s Stone for years. Not every day mind you, but off and on … for years. The story of the Sasso di Dante has been talked about for centuries. Seven centuries to be exact, because the last time Dante could have sat on his rock was 1302; that year he was banished from Florence, never to return.

Dante Aligieri
Dante Alighieri

Guidebooks told me that the stone was gone. No big surprise. But it was repeatedly reported that a plaque had been placed on a wall where the rock sat and where Dante sat on the rock. It was supposed to be on the wall in Piazza delle Pallottole. I looked on every wall in the tiny piazza. I couldn’t find the plaque.

From the stories that have filtered down through the ages, you would think that Dante never did anything, but jot poems. The Sasso di Dante supports this idea. Dante reportedly relaxed on this stone a lot, either (depending on the source you are reading): 1) watching the cathedral walls go up (the Duomo’s dome wouldn’t go on for another 150 years), 2) catching the cooling wind on summer days (it’s true, it’s one of the few places in town where the air moves in the summertime); 3) writing love poems (first poem at age 18 (1283); then between 1290 and 1293, he wrote Vita Nuova, a book of prose and poetry about his love for Beatrice), or 4) talking politics (Dante entered city government in 1295). But Dante was not always hanging out in Piazza delle Pallottole. He rode a horse into two, maybe three, major battles, managed the family estates, and as mentioned before, served as a political appointee.

No reference book says Dante was watching games of bocce ball from his sasso, but Piazza delle Pallottole is so named because it was a piazza where the game of pallottole, a type of bocce ball game, was permitted to be played.

Today, there is an old trattoria called, not surprisingly, Sasso di Dante, that takes up most of the piazza.

Modern version of Dante's stone
Modern version of Dante's stone

But back to the search for the plaque… One day, about two years ago I was taking a shortcut through the alley alongside the trattoria in Piazza delle Pallottole and there against the opposite wall, blocking a narrow sidewalk, was a huge stone with a metal tag that read “I Vero Sasso di Dante” (incorrect Italian (missing an apostrophe) for The True Stone of Dante). I swear on all three parts of the Divine Comedy it had not been there the month before.

Now I could bring my touring clients to the spot and tell them the most famous story about the Sasso di Dante. It goes like this:

“Tradition says that an unknown person once accosted Dante seated in his favorite place and asked:  ‘What do you like best to eat?’  Dante answered “A hard-boiled egg.”  A year after the same man, whom Dante had not seen in the meantime, approached and simply asked: “With what?”  Dante immediately replied:  “With salt.”

"I Vero Sasso di Dante" The True Stone of Dante
"I Vero Sasso di Dante" The True Stone of Dante

In the late 1800s, the poet Carlo Gabrielli, set Dante’s egg story in rhyme (ottava rima) and ended with the moral:  L’acuto ingegno apporta gloria; / Maggior, se v’é congiunta alta memoria.

I’m not sure this is a tale of great memory or a savant’s selective focus. Dante was reportedly a peculiar guy.

And by the way, I found the plaque. It’s very large, made of marble, and not in Piazza delle Palottole. It’s around the corner, in Piazza del Duomo, low on the side of a store that sells all things sacred (during this season – many crèches) and Catholic. I went in to ask when the marble sign was placed. “Twenty years ago or more.” I had been walking past for more than ten years without noticing – easy to do in Florence where the past comes to greet even the longtime visitor every day.

The "missing" plaque in Piazza del Duomo
The "missing" plaque in Piazza del Duomo

Mangia! Mangia! – Obika, go for the design and the food

On the trendy Via de’ Tornabuoni, nestled in the courtyard of the luxe Palazzo Tornabuoni, is a new restaurant, Obikà, the latest location in a chain of mozzarella bars that has its birthplace in Rome, and now has siblings in London, New York, Kuwait City,Tokyo, Turin and Milan.

Smoke Mozzarella with tomatoes, basil and pesto
Smoked mozzarella with tomatoes, basil and pesto

Obikà has the look of a stylish bar where one can stop in for a snack and a glass of wine.  But it is more.  You can get a full meal – antipasto, primo, secondo and dolce – or you can simply have a hand-pinched ball of the freshest mozzarella di bufala with a side of prosciutto or salame or tomatoes and basil, paired with a glass of Tuscan wine.

Bringing an Italian favorite into the 21st cenury
Bringing an Italian favorite into the 21st cenury

The minimalism of the counter at one end with its clear containers, which hold balls of the mozzarella and colorful vegetables, and even the brushstrokes of its logo suggest a Japanese, more than Mediterranean, sushi bar, not for fish, but for the freshest of cheeses. At the other end of the vast room is a cocktail bar of identical design, serving a full range of drinks.

Obikà focuses on the most prized mozzarella in Italy, small and large balls of mozzarella di bufala, made from water buffalo milk. For some, the smoked affumicata is the best choice, especially paired with a Sicilian eggplant caponata. For others the favorite styling is stracciatella di burrata.

Burrata starts out much like mozzarella and many other cheeses, with rennet used to curdle the warm milk. But then, unlike other cheeses, fresh mozzarella curds are plunged into hot whey or lightly salted water, kneaded and pulled to develop stretchy strings, then shaped in whatever form is desired. When making burrata, the still-hot cheese is formed into a pouch, which is then filled with scraps of leftover mozzarella and topped off with fresh cream before closing. Obikà serves a small glass bowl with only the buttery “scraps” swimming in cream.

Bufalo mozarella with sun-dried tomatoes and anchiovies
Buffalo mozzarella with sun-dried tomatoes and anchovies

Obikà’s mozzarella is served with accompaniments such as Sardinian bottarga, mortadella with pistachios, Tuscan porchetta, Ligurian pesto and seasonal fresh figs. Large salads, tasty pastas, desserts, coffees and a large selection of Italian wines from small Italian producers are also available.

Each evening the large raised communal table is decked with small plates of the freshest snacks, salty and sweet, some with mozzarella and some without.  For 9 euro, guests are invited to eat all that they wish, accompanied by a cocktail or glass of wine to drink.

The communal table and mozzarella bar
The communal table and mozzarella bar

The only drawback to Florence’s Obikà is the service. The staff is either uncaring or poorly trained. Dropped and sloshed drinks, delivery of the wrong order, ignored requests for the bill, staff surfing the music sound track or congregating at the bar to chat, and a bartender who loves the crash the empties into the trash, may be part of any meal. (See 100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do, Part 1 and Part 2) Also, there was a disconcerting architectural design flaw (perhaps, by now, it has been solved) that resulted in all of the collected dirty dishes being periodically wheeled through the tables to a washing facility located somewhere not connected to the restaurant. Neither this nor the service failings should be sufficient to discourage the visitor from enjoying the impressive décor or the superlative cuisine.

Address:  Via de’ Tornabuoni, 16

Phone:  +39 055 277 3526

Hours:  Daily 10am – 11pm

Dove Vai? – The British Institute’s Comfy Reading Room, Library #3

The most Anglo American-styled library in Florence, the Harold Acton Library, is owned and operated by the British Institute of Florence. Contained on 2 ½ book-lined floors, the library allows full access to the stacks and provides knowledgeable assistance to the collection and extensive archives. The full catalogue is computerized and is available on-line. The Acton library contains the largest collection of English-language books in Italy.

Books line the main lecture room
Books line the main conference room used for the Wednesday evening lectures

There is a reading room, furnished with ancient over-stuffed couches and chairs, where both English and Italian newspapers and a variety of literary, economic, news and travel magazines completely cover the coffee table. Computers are available to use for a fee, but it is rumored that free wi-fi may be offered in the future.

Views of the Arno and Florentine palazzos
Views of the Arno and Florentine palazzos

The British Institute of Florence, established in 1917, granted a Royal Charter in 1923, was the first of the post-colonial British cultural institutes to operate overseas. The Institute’s objectives are “to promote understanding between the citizens of Italy and the countries of the British Commonwealth through the maintenance in Florence of a library illustrating Italian and British culture and the promotion of the study of both the English and Italian language and the cultures of both countries.”

The library, with its panoramic views of the Arno River, was born from dozens of small donated collections and has matured into the present compilation of over 50,000 volumes published between the 16th and 21st centuries. About 500 new titles are added each year.

The collection has a strong emphasis in history of art, English and Italian literature and language, history, travel, the Grand Tour (mostly undertaken by Brits and Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries), and music. The library has a couple of thousand literary novels by both American and British authors, mostly from the first half of the 20th century, enough to keep an expat busy catching up on a must-read list of the likes of Wharton, Austen, Henry James and Virginia Woolf.

A mix of the old and the new.
A mix of the old and the new.

The library was named after Harold Acton. Harold’s father, Arthur Acton, well-bred, but poor, was from Shropshire. His mother, Hortense Lenore Mitchell, was a banking heiress from Chicago. When Hortense married Arthur in 1903 they moved into the Villa La Pietra on the via Bolognese in Florence – a short time later she bought it for him.

Harold Mario Mitchell Acton was born at La Pietra in 1904, and grew up in the cultured and cosmopolitan Anglo-Florentine society before the First World War. He was sent to Eton and then to Christ Church, Oxford, where his contemporaries included Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, and Brian Howard.

Harold was an active member of the British Institute. He joined the governing board in 1950 and made available his apartments in the Palazzo Lanfredini (in the Oltrarno neighborhood downstream from the Santa Trinita Bridge) for the library in 1966.

When, in 1994, Harold died, he left his portion of the Palazzo Lanfredini to the British Institute and the Villa La Pietra and its surrounding properties to New York University.

The Harold Acton Library can be visited free of charge and offers a free well-attended lecture series on most Wednesday evenings.  To check out books and use the internet, a variety of fees apply. See the website.

Address:  Lungarno Guiccardini 9

Hours:  10am to 6:30pm, Monday through Friday

Dove Vai? – Tourists are welcome at the Oblate, Library #2

Americans and Brits usually find visiting libraries in Italy both frustrating and dissatisfying. The stacks are not open, so no browsing. You usually have to deal with a surly civil servant who will tell you that you do not have the right paperwork, but even if you did have lending privileges, it will take at least two weeks to obtain the books you are requesting and then you won’t be able to remove them from the premises and there is no place to sit down.

A short walk from the Duomo
A short walk from the Duomo

In May 2007, the Oblate Library (Biblioteca delle Oblate) opened. It is the most user-friendly library in Florence for tourists and foreign students. (Another option is the Bristish Institute Library – better for expats, graduate students and seniors.)

Cloistered calm inside the Oblate Library
Cloistered calm inside the Oblate Library

The Oblate Library is a long block from the Duomo and occupies the newly restored space of a huge 13th century convent of nuns – the “oblate”. Oblate derives from the Latin for “colei che si è offerta” or “she who offered herself”.  The semi-cloistered nuns served as nurses, cleaners and cooks at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital from the time of Dante (the hospital was built by Beatrice’s father) through the 1400s when Leonardo da Vinci was examining corpses in the tunnels that ran below the convent and for over 400 years more – until 1936 – when a new convent was created near the much larger and more modern Careggi Hospital.

Magazines and newspapers outside the children's space
Magazines and newspapers outside the children's space

The convent building was sold to the City of Florence. It first became the new home of the Museum of Prehistory as well as the central city government library that was moved from the Palazzo Vecchio.  Then it was closed for years for a full restoration, which preserved the late-Medieval, early-Renaissance bones of the building while opening the warren-like space up for two libraries – one for studying and the other for lending books, DVDs and CDs.  There is also a reading room where daily newspapers and monthly magazines are available in Italian, English, French and German.

Enjoy a cappuccino at the Oblate
Enjoy a cappuccino at the Oblate

Computers and free WiFi are also available. Children run wild in the spacious colorful biblioteca per bambini. Parents can escape to the adjoining café with a view of the cathedral’s dome. On the second floor the museum of prehistoric artifacts has reopened and can be visited for a fee.

Views from the top floor of La Biblioteca delle Oblate
Views from the top floor of La Biblioteca delle Oblate

La Biblioteca delle Oblate is worth a visit just for the panorama from the top floor or the sense of quiet offered in the walled cloister, but the friendly openness will bring you back to use the reading room, to listen to music in the outside loggia (where the nuns used to hang the hospital’s linen to dry), and maybe, even to peruse the book shelves holding a small selection of English fiction available for checkout for a month at a time.

The website of the Oblate Library is not available in English.

Address:  Via dell’Oriuolo 26  Florence

Hours: Mon. (2pm to 7pm), Tues. (9am to 10pm), Wed. to Sat. (9am to 7pm), closed Sunday.