In stories of medieval knights and castles it is not uncommon to read of defenders throwing large stones and boiling oil down on invaders trying to scale the walls.
Although Florence was a walled city – encircled by the last version of high walls and gates in 1333 – the ruling class worried as much about threats from within as those from outside. To defend the Florentine government from an insurrection by warring rival clans they made the Palazzo Vecchio a completely defensible structure with thick high walls, sturdy reinforced metal-studded doors, small high windows, and because they couldn’t put in a moat or a draw bridge, they added murder holes to the design of the civic palace.
Murder holes, known as meurtrière in French and caditoia in Italian, are high large openings designed for defenders to kill attackers. Projectiles can be thrown or shot at the attackers while the defenders remain relatively safe.
There two classes of defensive openings: holes in floors – murder holes – for dropping dangerous substances or shooting at attackers; and holes in walls, such as arrow loopholes, used for shooting projectiles. For arrows they are called arrow slits or arrow loops (archeres) and for guns they are called cannoniers.
Defenders selected the least pleasant possible items to throw on their enemies. In the popular imagination this was invariably boiling oil, but there does not appear to be a single documented instance of oil being used; some speculate that it was too expensive. Defenders instead would throw or fire objects, such as large stones and arrows, or pour harmful material and liquids such as scalding water, hot sand, quicklime, tar, or molten lead (all of which could penetrate armor more easily than other weapons), down on attackers.
The type of murder hole on the Palazzo Vecchio is the machicolation, piombatoio in Italian (a word that alludes to molten lead more than anything else). It is a floor opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement, a direct conduit to the base of the defensive walls.
The Palazzo Vecchio murder holes may have been added to fortify the building during the short-lived rule of Gualtieri di Brienne, Duke of Athens, brought in by the city’s ruling class in 1342 to realize a medieval version of “draining the swamp”. A fresco by Orcagna (1308-1368), entitled “Expulsion of the Duke of Athens,” has one of the earliest depictions of the Palazzo Vecchio. It is of St. Anne, on whose feast day in 1343 the Florentines rebelled against the tyrant. The murder holes he had incorporated into the battlements of the Palazzo Vecchio did not save him.
The last time the murder holes may have been used was during the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478, when the Pazzi clan, with help from Pope Sixtus IV, sought to displace the Medici family as the de facto rulers of Florence.
The Gonfaloniere of Justice and members of the Signoria (the titular rulers of Florence) successfully barricaded themselves in the Palazzo Vecchio to ward off in the Pazzi and their supporters.
Hidden away on the top of the Palazzo Vecchio is the tapestry restoration workshop of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the agency that oversees all manner of restoration for Florentine museums and the artistic contents of public buildings.
In 1545, Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned twenty arazzi (tapestries) telling the Old Testament story (Genesis, 37-50) of Giuseppe Ebreo, or Joseph the Jew. The twenty tapestries, stretching a collective 260 feet, adorned the walls of the Sala dei Duecento (Hall of the Two-Hundred) of the Palazzo Vecchio, for over 300 years.
In 1882, ten of them were taken to Rome to be exhibited in the Quirinal Palace, the home of the Italian Savoy kings, now the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic, where they remained until the 2015 exhibition.
Why the story of Joseph? The tapestries are masterpieces of allegory, explained exhibition curator Louis Godart, whose study found in Cosimo I de’ Medici, a man who felt he had a lot in common with Joseph.
Cosimo was from the “cadet” branch of the Medici family, one that lived outside Florence. He was almost unknown in the city until he came to power in 1537, following the assassination of his cousin, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici.
After establishing his rule, Cosimo sought to affirm his family’s political, economic and cultural primacy in Florence and in Tuscany. He sought important foreign alliances. He married Eleonora of Toledo, the daughter of Don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, the Spanish viceroy of Naples. He wanted to raise his profile to the level of European royalty like Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Commissioning important works of art demonstrated both culture and wealth.
Louis Godart surmises that the story of Joseph is one in which Cosimo saw many parallels to his own life. For example, Cosimo felt he and his family had been “abandoned” by Florence and its citizens, much as Joseph had been sold off and abandoned by his brothers. Cosimo came to power at 17, the same age as Joseph when he is first mentioned in the Bible. Cosimo used skill to acquire power, much as Joseph became powerful by becoming an important and trusted adviser to the Egyptian pharaoh. Cosimo also, in time, forgave many of his enemies among the Florentine nobility, in the same manner as Joseph forgave his brothers.
In the 15th and 16th centuries tapestries were a common feature in European royal courts and the palaces of wealthy nobles. Cosimo sought out two of the best-known Flemish tapestry masters of his time, Jan Rost and Nicolas Karcher. They had already worked in Italy for the courts of the Gonzaga family of Mantua and the Este Dukes of Ferrara. The preparatory drawings were entrusted to Florentine painters Agnolo Bronzino, Jacopo Pontormo and Francesco Salviati. The tapestries, woven with the finest silk and gold thread, were hung in the Sala dei Duecento, the seat of the Tuscan ducal government, in 1545.
There are some secrets in the tapestries. Woven into the top border of many of the wall hangings there is a ram, Cosimo’s ascendant zodiac sign, as well as a symbol of spring and new birth, an allegorical message for Florence under Cosimo’s rule. Also, in a little visual pun, Jan Rost, who soon after his arrival in Florence was nicknamed l’arrosto (the roast), signed the works with a meat skewer instead of with his name.
The final result of a decades-long restoration process, started in 1985, and carried out by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence and the Laboratorio Arazzi del Quirinale in Rome, was completed in 2014. The lengthy and complicated process had to be carried out by artisans at least as skilled as the original tapestries’ makers. Godart observed, “We have the best restoration schools in the world here. Thanks to our great know-how, we can protect our patrimony and teach others.” Italian experts have been called upon by UNESCO to intervene in areas where there are great cultural treasures at risk of war, natural disasters and wear and tear, but where the local skills to protect them are lacking.
Two videos of the tapestry workshop, located at the very top of the Palazzo Vecchio, can be found here (#1) and here (#2) (narration in Italian).
It seems that in Italy those born in the month of September do not dream of a double chocolate cake as a birthday cake. Instead they have a passion for Schiacciata con l’Uva, the traditional Tuscan sweet baked only as the grape harvest begins.
Schiacciata con l’Uva (or to Florentines Schiacciata Coll’Uva) is a lightly sweetened focaccia bread spiked with the early grapes, especially those known as uva fragola or uva fragolino (strawberry grapes), which is also known in Italy as Uva Americana because it is an New World varietal – vitis labrusca – the Eastern Concord grape. The dish, however, can be made with any red wine grape (frequently canaiolo is used).
Historically, workers in the vineyards of Tuscany cooked up this “poor dish” made of simple ingredients: bread dough, olive oil, sugar, a sprig of rosemary and red grapes. Some say the recipe has Etruscan origins using grapes that grew wild.
Schiacciata means squashed or flattened and in Tuscany it usually refers to a salty, oily focaccia bread, but during the harvest, sugar is added to the bread dough. There are usually two layers of dough, with plenty of red grapes in the middle and on top.
There are two camps of Schiacciata con l’Uva lovers: con semi and senza semi. That’s with or without grape seeds. Those who love the crunch and nuttiness of the seeds claim that it is the only proper and traditional way to eat the sweet. The Eutruscans probably didn’t remove the seeds. But the best fornos usually offer both varieties. Tuscan Traveler’s favorite vendor is Focacceria Pugi in Piazza San Marco (senza semi for TT).
Check out the post and recipe (using rosemary-infused olive oil) from Judy Witts Francini on DivinaCucina.com (above are her wonderful photos of a perfectly made Schiacciata con l’Uva).
Judy also took a photo of another version of this dessert – fig schiacciata – that also makes a seasonal appearance in September.
As Judy says, “At my Florence bakery near the market, Ivana Braschi makes a fresh fig schiacciata which is incredible.”
The Museum of Zoology and Natural History, best known as La Specola (because of the astronomical observatory and a weather station installed in one of the rooftop towers of the palazzo in 1790), is an eclectic natural history museum in Florence, located near to the Pitti Palace on Via Romana. It’s one of Tuscan Traveler’s favorite places to visit, not only for its lack of the crowds that are making popular Florentine museums unbearable, but for its one-of-a-kind collection mostly sourced from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Much of the collection can be traced back to the Medici family and the subsequent Lorraine Grand Dukes of Tuscany. It is the oldest scientific museum of Europe.
Located in the former Palazzo Torrigani, L’Imperiale e Regio Museo di Fisica e Storia Naturale (The Imperial and Royal Museum for Physics and Natural History) was founded in 1771 by Grand Duke Peter Leopold, with the aid of the abbot Felice Fontana (1730-1805), to publicly display the large collection of natural curiosities such as fossils, animals, minerals and exotic plants acquired by several generations of the Medici.
At the time of its opening, and for the first years of the 19th century, it was the only scientific museum or “wunderkammer” of its kind specifically created for the public to view. It opened on February 21, 1775 to the general public.
Today, the museum spans 34 rooms (24 of zoology and 10 of wax modeling) and contains thousands of zoological subjects, such as a stuffed hippopotamus (a 17th-century Medici pet that once lived in the Boboli Gardens), as well as snakes, birds, alligators and giant tortoises, and all variety of mammals from every continent.
Most unusual is a collection of anatomical waxes (including those by Gaetano Giulio Zumbo and Clemente Susini (1754-1814)), a scientific art developed in Florence in the 17th century for the purpose of teaching anatomy to medical students. This collection is very famous worldwide for the incredible accuracy and realism of the details, modeled and copied from corpses.
The museum also has a large collection of historical equipment for the study of physics, chemistry and astronomy equipment but much of those were distributed to other museums and institutes that occurred between 1860 and 1930.
The Tribuna, on the lower floor, planned and built by the architect Giuseppe Martelli in 1841 to honor the memory of the great Tuscan scientist Galileo, is decorated with frescoes of Galileo in the Venetian court presenting his telescopes to the Doges and pietra dura decorations representing some of the principal Italian scientific achievements from the Renaissance to the late 18th century.
The Hall of the Skeletons (Salone degli Scheletri), inaugurated on the ground floor in March 2001 after 5 years of restoration, is only open by special request. It displays the majority of the ontological, and especially mammalian, finds owned by the Museum. This important scientific collection is consulted regularly by both Italian and foreign zoologists and paleontologists. There are more than 3,000 full or partial skeletons in the hall, some very old – the elephant’s skeleton from the 1700’s, and rare, even extinct animals, such as the Sonda Rhinoceros, a Thylacine ( Tasmanian Tiger), an Echidna (an egg-laying mammal), a Platypus, and giant ant-eaters. There are also primates and human skeletons.
The top floor of the palazzo – and part of the museum – contains an octagonal tower room of telescopes (and great views), known as the Hall of the Storks (La Sala delle Cicogne) because of the decorative carvings supporting the vaulted ceiling. This was the Specola where Grand Duke Peter Leopold had his observatory and weather station. Giuseppe Antonio Slop de Cadenberg (1740-1808), a Trentino astronomer and teacher, designed the observatory, choosing the stork as a symbol of knowledge.
The collection includes a metal sundial (1784), one of the three existing worldwide (the other two are in Bologna and Budapest), which accurately measures time and date, and is decorated with marble signs of the zodiac, as well as an 18th century telescope used for night sky observation. This part of the museum also requires a special request to enter. (This can be arranged for the same day as entry into the Hall of the Skeletons.)
The visitor who wants to get the most out of a visit to La Specola is advised to call in advance and arrange entry to the Hall of the Skeletons and the Hall of the Storks during their visit to the main museum complex.
La Specola Museum of Natural History and Zoology
Address: Via Romana 17
Phone: 055 2346760 or 055 2756444; Fax: 055 2346760;
Open daily from 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.; Closed on Mondays
A new novel of Florentine mystery and suspense has just been released:
Secret of La Specola by Ann Reavis (The second book in the Caterina Falcone Mystery series.)
It has been 90 years since Salvatore Ferragamo left the U.S. to return to Italy to find the master craftsmen to realize his unique designs for high quality handmade shoes. His company is marking this milestone with an exhibition at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum, called 1927 – The Return to Italy.
The Ferragamo Museum is one of the most creative in the world. This exhibit, curated by Carlo Sisi and designed by Maurizio Balò, sends visitors inside the Roma, the transatlantic ocean liner sailing from the United States to Italy in the 1920s, which carried Salvatore back to Italy. The exhibition seeks to convey the artistic and manufacturing atmosphere of Florence in 1927.
Salvatore Ferragamo was born in 1898 in Bonito, near Naples, the eleventh of 14 children. After making his first pair of shoes at age nine, for his sisters to wear on their confirmation, young Salvatore decided that he had found his calling. He always had a passion for shoes. After studying shoemaking in Naples for a year, Ferragamo opened a small store based in his parent’s home. In 1914, at age 16, he emigrated to Boston (in the belly of a much rougher ship than the Roma), where one of his brothers worked in a shoe factory.
After a brief stint at the factory, Ferragamo convinced his brothers to move to California, first Santa Barbara then Hollywood. It was here that Ferragamo found success, initially opening a shop for repair and made-to-measure shoes, which soon became prized items among celebrities of the day, leading to a long period of designing footwear for the cinema. However, his thriving reputation as ‘Shoemaker to the Stars‘ only partially satisfied him. He could not fathom why his shoes were so beautiful yet hurt the foot, so he proceeded to study anatomy at the University of Southern California.
After spending thirteen years in the United States, Ferragamo returned to Italy on the Roma in 1927, this time settling in Florence, where he began to fashion shoes for the wealthiest and most influential women of the century with a workshop of Florentine shoemakers.
The exhibition fills eight rooms that recall the inside of the ship, where visitors can learn of Salvatore’s influences in artwork by Giovanni Colacicchi, Mino Maccari, Alberto Martini, Thayaht, Giò Ponti, Rosai, Balla and Fortunato Depero, as well as various pieces from Florentine ceramic manufacturer Richard-Ginori. As always, a film was created especially for the show.
The exhibition, as described by the curator, “explores the various elements of Italy’s 20th century visual culture, taking from it the themes and works of art that directly influenced or indirectly informed the poetics of Ferragamo’s creations without overlooking the many cultural and social aspects that characterized the post-WWI period up to the eve of the Fascist regime’s authoritarian rise.” Along with the display of shoes there are the elegant artistic garments of the 20s and 30s and unique designs of printed fabric from the era, as well as finely crafted artistic objects, photographs and advertisements.
A new Salvatore Ferragamo Creations 1927 Capsule Collection was launched in conjunction with the opening of the new exhibition 1927 The Return to Italy at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo. The six-piece capsule collection, $1,090 to $2,900, reproduces original Salvatore Ferragamo designs from this period.
Pan di Ramerino is a Florentine Easter tradition, large chewy rolls flavored with rosemary and raisins. In the past and still today, they were made for Giovedi’ Santo, Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), marked with the Cross, and sold by street vendors outside the churches (often blessed by the priest) and in bakeries throughout Tuscany. It is the perfect combination of sweet and savory.
Florentine rosemary bread was born in the Middle Ages. It is a devotional product and each of its ﬂavors is tied to a symbolic signiﬁcance. It is an emblem of the immortality of the soul and during the Middle Ages it was thought that rosemary kept away evil spirits.
Grapes (raisins), olive oil and grain are metaphors of life and represent Holy Communion. In addition, the bread is cross cut (a hot-crossed bun), which favors leavening, and gives the image of the connection between religion and the bread.
Rosemary, a plant which abundantly grows in Tuscany, results in the designation ramerino (Tuscan dialect for rosmarino). It is also known as panino con lo zibibbo, which refers to the type of grape used in the ancient recipe. A local grape, zibibbo, with seeds was used in the past and now it is more common to use seedless grapes. A more modern version has a shiny, sticky sweet sugar syrup top.
The recipe includes: soft wheat flour, water, yeast, salt, olive oil, raisins and rosemary (the rosemary is roughly ground in a mortar, passed through a sieve, sautéed in oil) and made into the dough. It is divided into pieces which are left to rise under a damp cotton cloth. Before being put in the oven, the rolls are brushed with oil or a egg wash. Baking traditionally takes place in a wood-burning oven. The sugar syrup is brushed on when the cooked buns are still warm.
Production is widespread throughout Tuscany, especially in Florence, where there are more than 100 bakeries. The quantity produced is about 120-140 tons per year; demand and production in recent years are more or less stable. Sales are exclusively local, 80% directly to the public and 20% to local shops.
For some reason I’ve been thinking of Machiavelli lately. Near the end of his life he wrote: “I have never said what I believe or believed what I said. If indeed I do sometimes tell the truth, I hide it behind so many lies that it is hard to find.”
It is time to revisit this great political thinker’s words again. The father of modern political science, he lived in the perfect time to analyze the republican government of Florence (he worked 13 years for the republic as a counselor and diplomat), which was followed by the Medici tyrants (they fired him, imprisoned and tortured him and the exiled him forever from Florence). The Prince was his response.
With The Prince, written in 1513, Machiavelli tried to ingratiate himself with the new Florentine prince, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici. A bit satirical or hypocritical? After all, for the previous 13 years he had declared that a republic was the ideal form of government, not a city-state governed solely by a dictator, a prince.
Of course, Machiavelli never says anywhere in The Prince that he supports the notion of government by a tyrant. Machiavelli’s book is absolutely practical and not at all idealistic. Leaving aside what government is ideal, The Prince takes for granted the presence of an authoritarian ruler, and tries to imagine how such a ruler might achieve power and hold power. If a country is going to be governed by a dictator, particularly a prince new to the job, one who has never tried to govern, Machiavelli has some advice as to how that prince should rule if he wishes to be successful – to win.
Machiavelli recommends, “one must know how to color one’s actions and be a great liar and deceiver.” He concludes that “… it is a general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.” He states that a prince who acts virtuously will soon come to his end in a city-state of people who are not virtuous themselves.
Thus, the successful prince must be dishonest and immoral when it suits him. He states that “…we see from recent experience that those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end, they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”
To walk in the footsteps of Machiavelli in Florence, first tour the Palazzo Vecchio where he spent many years in service of the Republic. Find the Old Chancellery, a small room through a door of the Sala dei Gigli.. This was Machiavelli’s office when he was Secretary of the Republic. His polychrome bust in terracotta and a portrait by Santi di Tito are displayed. They both are probably modeled on his death mask. In the center of the room, on the pedestal is the famous Winged Boy with a Dolphin by Verrocchio, brought to this room from the First Courtyard.
In the Uffizi, look for his portrait high on the wall of the first corridor. In the cortile of the Uffizi find a full-sized sculpture of the political philosopher.
Visit the Bargello where Machiavelli also worked and where there is a marble bust of the diplomat by Antonio del Pollaiolo displayed.
Visit the Palazzo Strozzi, the seat of the National Institute of Renaissance Studies, where the Machiavelli-Serristori Foundation conserves ancient volumes of Machiavelli’s extensive writings. The palace of the Strozzi family was a much more welcoming place to Machiavelli due to their hatred of the Medici. Inside there is a painting of Machiavelli by Rosso Fiorentino.
To get the full Machiavelli experience it is necessary to travel to the medieval hamlet of Sant’Andrea in Percussina situated in the Tuscan hills where Machiavelli went to live and work in exile from his beloved Florence. A wonderful NYTimes pieceIn Tuscany, Following the Rise and Fall of Machiavelli tells of the experience.
Finally, return to the city and walk down Via Guicciardini to #18, in the Oltrarno, to find a plaque on the wall of the last place he lived for a short time (allowed to reenter Florence by the Medici) and where he died in 1527.
Did he really believe the end justifies the means? Go to the Basilica of Santa Croce and contemplate that thought beside his tomb.
“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are,” Machiavelli wrote in The Prince. Again, for some reason I’m thinking about Niccolò Machiavelli today.
Fifteen or more years ago I came to live in Florence. One of the historical tales of a city that has thousands of years of interesting stories was the Great Flood of 1966, known to Florentines as L’Alluvione a Firenze. I read every book I could about the flood, watched videos, searched online and viewed images by famous photographers. One of my favorite books was a collection of art by children who experienced water rushing through their city. This is one of the images.
A forty year old artist and American teacher, Joe Blaustein, found himself in Florence on November 4, 1966 when the Arno overflowed the levees submerging the city and with his camera in tow decided to document in real time what was happening. He accomplished this but the slides remained closed in a box in his home for a long time. After many years those photos were donated to the Archive of the Municipality of Florence, were restored and are now displayed in this exhibit. Their peculiarity is that they are among very few color images that were taken then. See some of them here.
I learned about the 1966 Flood when I was eleven and saw the November 18, 1966 issue of Life Magazine with David Lees’ photographs. (See one of his images here.)
The next time I read about the flood was in a novel, The Sixteen Pleasuresby Robert Hellenga about a Mud Angel, one of the book restorers who came to Florence to volunteer to save the libraries.
In any discussion of the hundreds of hidden towers in Florence, I always want to talk about my favorite tower, Torre della Castagna. It’s my favorite because over the centuries it is the one that hasn’t been changed to hide the original purpose of a tower: to defend those inside.
Towers of Defense: General Information
All of the other towers in the city have been altered to add windows and doors, but back when the towers were built Florence was a lawless town, controlled by families and clans that got their way by force.
A tower was built to protect a family, clan or political body and at different moments in time the now-named Torre della Castagna performed all of these functions.
I can’t find the exact date of its construction, but it must have been sometime between 900AD and 1000AD. It was first known as Torre Baccadiferrro and protected the Baccadiferro family. It was probably much taller than its present 90 feet (about 29 meters).
To look at it now (in Piazza San Martino, on the corner of Via Dante Alighieri), it is easy to imagine how dark and cold it was inside. Of course, there were no windows – to prevent burning arrows and other projectiles from entering. Light and air got in through small square holes (now cemented closed to prevent pigeons from entering). These holes were probably covered with tapestries in the winter and left open in the summer. There are no other openings on the north side of the tower.
On the west side of the square tower, the observant tourist will notice what look like three tall windows high on the wall over the front, and only, door to the tower. The very observant tourist will also see the protruding “stones” at the bottom of each of these “windows” and guess correctly that the windows are doors and that the stones are the ends of oak beams, now cut short, but once hooked this tower to another.
Imagine what it was like to live in a tower. It is tall and narrow and there is little space on each floor. Stairs climbed up one wall of each room. There was no privacy. It was dark, except for the light of lamps and candles. The kitchen and servants’ quarters were probably at the top so that if the kitchen burned up the rest of the tower wouldn’t go with it.
Back to the oak beams. To expand the Baccadiferro family’s space this tower would be attached high in the air to other towers – those of family and friends. In times of relative peace, the doors would be open, a layer of planks would be laid along the beams, and people could walk from tower to tower. (Not only was this a safety measure, but imagine the state of the Florentine dirt streets in a time of no sewer or garbage collection.)
History of Torre della Castagna
Sometime around 1038, the Torre Baccadiferro was given by the Holy Roman Emperor Corrado II to the Benedictine monks of the adjacent Badia Fiorentina in order to help with the monastery’s defenses.
In 1282 the tower became the meeting place of the Priori delle Arti of Florence. The Priori delle Arti was the governing body of the Florentine Republic. Its members came from all of the major guilds (Le Arti), such as those of the woolmakers and merchants, the bankers, the magistrates and notaries, and the silk weavers.
The Priors were elected for two-month terms, during which time they were not allowed to leave the tower unless in the company of another member, ensuring that all contact with outsiders was monitored to reduce the risk of threats or bribery. A quote from Dino Compagni’s Chronicles adorns the north wall of the tower: they then took the decision “to shut themselves away within the Castagna Tower in order to put an end to the threats fom the powerful.”
During this “interesting” election cycle in the U.S., it is appropriate to note that the word “ballot” comes in to common usage because of the Priors. They use a voting system similar to the modern-day ballot, but instead of slipping pieces of paper in a box, the Priori delle Arti used chestnuts and cloth bags.
Chestnuts were placed in bags of fabric that indicated the voting preference of each member. Although the chestnuts were later replaced by balls of wax, metal or wood of different colors, the original ballots inspired the name of the tower, Torre della Castagna (Tower of the Chestnut). In Florentine dialect, boiled chestnuts are known as ballotte. It is short step to the English “ballot.” (The Venetians like to claim credit with their word ballota, meaning a small ball.)
Torre della Castagna Today
When Florence became a free city in 13th century and a republic was founded, all towers were cropped to signify that the age of clans and civil wars was over and to give precedence to the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio. Florentine historian Giovanni Villani (1280-1348) wrote in his history of Florence, Nuova Cronica, that in 1251 the city government decided “all towers of Florence – and there were in big number with a height of 70 meters – to be cropped down to 29 meters or even less; the stones from the cropped towers were used to build houses in Oltrarno.” It was probably in preparation for the habitation (and name change) of the tower by the Priori delle Arti that it was shortened to 29 meters.
Visitors to Florence can explore inside the Tower of the Chestnut on Thursday afternoons because the bottom three floors of the tower are now the Garibaldi Museum (open from 4pm to 6pm).
The museum is devoted to Giuseppe Garibaldi and the veterans of the movement for the unification of Italy over 150 years ago. Flags, clothes, photos, portraits, furniture, guns and so much more from Garibaldi’s Redshirts can be found in this quirky exhibit.
I am also a fan of all things Garibaldi, which can be seen here, here, and here. And I set my short story Cats of Florence in the museum and the tower.
Of course those who love towers and could care less about Garibaldi, get a chance by visiting the museum to imagine what living inside a medieval Florentine tower was like. Climb the stairs, imagine how the rooms would be furnished, think about what living without privacy would be like, and how hard it would be to carry everything up and down the stairs of a 120 foot tower, the work of servants for medieval nobility.
The oldest and arguably most beautiful Florentine tower is Torre della Pagliazza (the Straw Tower). This semi-circular (a unique shape) tower is tucked away in a small piazza in the center of Florence. It dates back to the fortress of the ancient Romans.
When the Roman Empire fell the city of Florence was virtually abandoned. Only about 1,000 people remained. The Roman city walls were too expansive for the smaller town so it was decided to create a second set of walls. The tower, now known as the Straw Tower was part of that second wall, built during the Gothic War by the Florentine citizens of the Byzantine Empire between 541 and 544 A.D.
In 1980, archaeological excavation of the tower revealed evidence of Roman building under the tower, part of the foundation – a caldarium (a room with a hot plunge bath, a hot and steamy room heated by a hypocaust, an under floor heating system) of the Roman thermal baths, which may explain the tower’s round shape.
It was used during the 13th century as the first women’s prison and thus got its name, the Straw Tower, which stuck through the centuries. The moniker comes from the bedding used in the prison to make the women comfortable, an unusual prison practice at the time. Many of the women who were locked up in this tower during the Middle Ages, however, were not criminals, at least in modern terms. For instance, those who refused to marry the man chosen by her parents in an arranged marriage could be jailed.
In the 10th century, St. Michael’s Church was built near the tower, which was used as its bell tower. Over the years the church changed names many times: from San Michele alle Trombe (St. Michael of the Trumpets), because trumpeters of the town resided within its parish, to the Church of Santa Maria della Visitazione (St. Mary of the Visitation), and finally, as the Church of Santa Elisabetta (St. Elizabeth’s Church). In the late 1700s it became part of a private residence.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, three hotels occupied the tower, adding additional walls. The last was the Giglio Hotel. After the hotel’s closure, the building was neglected for years until 1980, when the National Insurance Institute decided to renovate the structure, removing the Giglio Hotel suprastructure and exposed the original tower.
The Hotel Brunelleschi now occupies the tower and the surrounding buildings. It has the dubious honor of having a shout out in Dan Brown’s novel, Inferno: “It was early evening when Langdon made his way across Piazza Sant’Elisabetta and returned to Florence’s elegant Hotel Brunelleschi. Upstairs in his room, he was relieved to find an oversize package waiting for him.” (Dan Brown, Inferno)
A museum has been created inside the Brunelleschi Hotel. Today, the museum is open with no cost of admission on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 2p.m. to 5p.m., where visitors can see ceramic objects, Roman fragments, the site of the thermal baths and various items from Medieval times, which were found during the restoration of the tower.
(Note: The towers under scaffolding in the center photo were the conjoined towers of the Ricci and Donati families.)