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Florence: the Oltrarno district…

Florence: the Oltrarno district…

Georges Rouzeau - 2009-11-16

Oltrarno, on the other side of the river, the Florence of the Florentines, survives thanks to a community of craftsmen who are trying to safeguard their ancestral expertise. Take time to explore this district, which is still managing to avoid “museumification”.

Potted history of Oltrarno
 
It is oltr’Arno (literally “on the other side of the Arno”) that the popular heart of Florence still beats.
 
Once you have crossed the Ponte Vecchio, you enter another world... that of the last Florentine craftsmen to carry on their trades within the city. They are engravers, sculptors, picture framers, gilders and restorers.
 
This district, located outside the city’s walls, has always been home to manual trades, particularly carders, fullers and dyers, who needed water from the Arno. As for the noble city, it was built far from the miasmas and capricious floods of the river.
 
However, all that was to change when Cosimo I bought the palace of the Pitti family, who had been exiled after the Pazzi conspiracy. Eleanora de Toledo, his wife, lost no time in extending this residence, which was already one of the largest in Florence, notably adding the sumptuous Boboli gardens.
 
The nobility followed suit and took over Via Maggio, which was soon lined with magnificent palaces. Today, the ground floors are occupied by the antique dealers most in the public eye, those who sell Bronzinos and Vasaris.
 
Piazza Santo Spirito: the heart of Oltrarno
 
The heart of Oltrarno beats in this square, which boasts one of the most beautiful churches in Florence, Santo Spirito.
 
Behind its bare façade, Brunelleschi’s last work contains a multitude of masterpieces.
 
On the square, life goes at a brisk pace at all times of the day and night: market stalls are set up here every day, the steps of Santo Spirito serve as a meeting place for a colourful crowd (which alarms some tourist guides) and, when night comes, the restaurant and café terraces are full to bursting.
 
Despite all this, the craftsmen did not desert the district, which had always been theirs. You will find them today along Via Santo Spirito and Via San Frediano.
 
In Oltrarno, Borgo San Frediano remains the most working class district in Florence: here you will see washing hanging out to dry at the windows, as in Naples. But for how much longer?
 
All the craftsmen complain of the countless difficulties encountered in practising their activity: a depressed market, a strong euro which deters the Americans, studios threatened with closure by European Union standards, faltering support from the local council, the impossibility of finding qualified workers and passing on their skills…
 
Oltrarno: the finest views of Florence
 
In several places, Oltrarno offers the most beautiful views of Florence, its cascade of russet roofs, its towers, belvederes and bell towers.
 
For example, head up to San Miniato al Monte, a superb example of a Romanesque church whose façade, inlaid with marble, is decorated with a mosaic on a gold background.
 
In the morning, the Boboli garden is another dream terrace overlooking Florence: the light is on the right side and tourists are still few and far between.
 
Lastly, there remains the garden of the Parchi monumentali Bardini e Peyron foundation, along Costa San Giorgio. After decades of neglect, the garden of the famous antique dealer and art collector Stefano Bardini (1836-1922) was restored to its former glory in 2000. The highlight remains the baroque flight of stairs built on the hillside, leading to a small belvedere-terrace from where you can almost reach out and touch the cupola of the Duomo.
 
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
 
Italian State Tourist Board
1 Princes Street
W1B 2AY
London
Tel: (020) 7408 1254
 
APT, Agenzia per il turismo di Firenze (Florence Tourist Information Centre)
Via Manzoni 16
50121 Firenze
Tel: (+39) 055 23320
Fax: (+39) 055 2346286
 
Taxi ride from the airport to the centre of Florence: around €20.

Oltrarno, on the other side of the river, the Florence of the Florentines, survives thanks to a community of craftsmen who are trying to safeguard their ancestral expertise. Take time to explore this district, which is still managing to avoid “museumification”.

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