One day I’ll summon up the courage to bury my face in a lampredotto sandwich. Its visceral, street-level epicurean tradition of stewed tripe of the cow’s fourth stomach warms the heart of most Florentines; its purveyors serve the queues from hidden hatches in stone walls down alleyways or from stalls habitually pitched in full view but where tourists barely notice them.
Everywhere I’ve been, culinary preferences divide the local from the tourist. Short-term visitors go to the loudest and brassier places, the pizzerias or the trattorias where the menu turistico promises a trustworthy deal with a glass of wine thrown in. But Florentines, among whom I’m still on probation as an adopted son, have developed a robust pyschogeographic mapping of the city as it serves them, including what and where to avoid.
Since the 1980s I’ve owned a podere in the Siena countryside. Tired of London (despite a lust for life) a couple of years ago I redesigned my territory to include an in-town studio in Florence. From there I’d have all the advantages of the city likeminded inspirers and collaborators, and pre-Covid, a buzzing social milieu – with the countryside only an hour away. I landed on my feet when I found a space just outside the city walls at the Porta Romana, which I’ve discovered is a town within a town, an autonomous neighbourhood that’s practically invisible to tourists and only a 20-minute walk to the Ponte Vecchio.
The studio itself, a 7m cube with a high single-pitch ceiling, nestles in an ex-industrial enclave of studios and workshops that occupies the old laundry which washed the linen from Florence’s hotels. Trucks would drop off and collect in the open tunnel that is now home to a whole string of artisans’ workshops, a ballet school, tech studios and several architects. My space is tucked away in the bowels of this enclave but with a sunny southern aspect. My neighbour and landlord, architect Claudio Nardi, has embedded his office in the old steam room, and I’m next door.
In urban terms, we’re talking a border condition, as though the old city walls have been breached and the area immediately inside and outside reclaimed.”
Ever since I discovered Superstudio, I’ve always loved Florence. The Porta Romana district has everything a man could want. It’s a real place with real people even during the pandemic. The historic centre still hosts grand cafés and some of the chicest stores – on Via Tornabouni, Prada and Gucci slug it out daily – but much of the centre has sunk to new depths of ennui with the surfeit of pizzerias and gelaterie, now dead zones in a tourist-bound city where their absence has left the economy in tatters and an eerie, beautiful silence.
Throughout the pandemic, Porta Romana has been alive and well. Before work, I slip off to the Cafè Porta Romana where I’m greeted, like every other local, by the two lovely ladies that run it. They know what I want without even asking. I drop into the bakers for bread and milk and buy a paper from the grumpy old newsagent and some fruit and vegetables from one of the two stalls in the square outside the arch, whose stall-holders grow their own produce and come into town every morning. At the weekends I take a walk in the Boboli Gardens by entering through the gate between these stalls and the arch. I imagine it as my own back garden.
Since the days of the Medici, this area has been packed with workshops: wood carvers, gilders, bronze casters, jewellers. As such, it’s much closer to the architect’s sensibility than any palace with a view of the Arno. Porta Romana is part of the cool Oltrarno side of the river, yet retains enough of the past to avoid hipsterised uniformity.
In urban terms, we’re talking a border condition, as though the old city walls have been breached and the area immediately inside and outside reclaimed. Besides the wall and the gate, through which traffic still passes, there’s a giant roundabout that flies traffic off towards Siena and along the avenues that follow the city walls. This roundabout works like a hinge not only for the traffic but for the identity of the area.
Its pinion, a travertine sculpture by Pistoletto of a woman with another horizontal body balanced on her head, points cannon-like towards Florence’s arch-rival city. Alongside the humble vegetable stalls, a third sets up shop daily – the Trippaio Porta Romana. It gets crowded every lunchtime with local tradesman ready to sink their teeth into their own lampredotto sandwich.