When my mind wanders it always ends up in the same place – Florence. In fact, I might consider myself a master Florentine fantasizer. In some daydreams I’m flashing my black card all over Via Tornabuoni. Others involve a declaration of love on the Ponte Vecchio at sunset. Of course my favorite is Meg and I signing a Lonely Planet contract over a cappuccino at Rivoire! Let me tell you this though, in all my years of fantasy spinning I can confidently say that none of them begin or end in Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
Piazza Santissima Annunziata is no one’s favorite piazza. With excessive panhandlers, a dangerous traffic flow on the north side, and an impressively bold dealer who camps out at the southern entrance, it doesn’t exactly exude the romance of the city we know and love. So why bother? Because this piazza, while not as glamorous as its sisters, holds secrets to a Medici murder, provides the backdrop to the centuries-old Festa della Rificolona, boasts one of the most influential works of Renaissance architecture in the world, is home to Europe’s first orphanage, lurks with legends of ghosts, and hosts the best artisan markets in town. Not sold yet? Just wait for the flying monkeys.
Distance: 750 m
Time: 9 minutes
Exit Piazza del Duomo out the northeast corner on Via dei Servi. Stay straight and within a matter of minutes you will arrive in Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
Let’s start with the namesake of the piazza – the basilica. The basilica forms the north side of the piazza. It was only a small church when it was constructed in 1250 by the Servite Order of monks. They named the church after the event of the Annunciation in the Gospel. To most lay people they need a moment to even remember what that event was (when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary). However, to the Florentines, the event is never overlooked as the holy day marks the legendary founding of their city, historic start of their year, and, of course, quite a party.Take a moment to glance to the left side of the piazza. The aptly named Loggiata dei Serviti Hotel displays on its facade emblems designed with the letter S, for Servite, intertwined with a lily, the flower Gabriel is said to have given Mary, as a simple nod to the founders of this piazza.
Now back to the basilica. Claiming such a significant name, coupled with a pretty impressive miracle, the church quickly began to attract droves of pilgrims. What would they do with all of these people? Put them in a piazza of course! And thus the block in front of the basilica was opened up. The church itself, boasting one miraculous image, multiple masterpieces, a saint or two, and one wax museum mystery I can’t quite wrap my mind around, warrants another post for another day.
As you stroll to the east side of the piazza to admire some Brunelleschi don’t forget to peek down Via Gino Capponi, along the east side of the Basilica. Look up to see a raised passageway between the now archaeological museum to the church. The palace used to be home to Duke Cosimo II’s deformed sister. To allow her to attend mass while simultaneously preventing the embarrassment of being seen in the streets, he had this passage built for her. Um, thoughtful?
Now onto the true darling of the Piazza – the Ospedale degli Innocenti. This first orphanage in Europe developed during the Black Death, a time when over half the population of Florence died. Thousands of children were left with no parents to raise them and no resources to survive. The Ospedale took on these instantly orphaned children. After the plague, the Ospedale continued to take in abandoned babies, typically of unwed mothers who could not bear the stigma, or impoverished families who could not afford another child.
Step inside the loggia and go to the far left wall. Here you’ll see a small altar with a grated window below. This is the spot where people left their children, more often than not in the middle of the night. If the child could not fit through the window, however, they were too old to be taken in. Yes, a baby mail slot, if you will.
The Ospedale provided not only food, clothing, and a warm bed, but also an education. Girls were even given a small dowry to ensure a good marriage. And what were these innocent babies called? Well they were given the last name Innocenti of course. To this day in the Florentine phone book you will find a long list of Innocenti (or if phone books aren’t your thing try Facebook). The wealthy Silk Guild would generously foot the bill to raise the babies. Their emblem was a locked door, and it can been seen on the roundel over the arch that spans Via della Colona on the north side of the building.
The Ospedale was not only a beautiful service to the city, but also physically quite beautiful. Today we might see the Ospedale as a simple building, but in the Renaissance, the Brunelleschi-designed facade tickled their obsession with balance and harmony. The architecture was admired and mimicked all over Italy, and most obviously the other structures in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, which quickly followed suit. Although Brunelleschi didn’t finish the project (we’ll forgive him since he went to build the dome), he sparked a monumental revolution in architecture. Not bad Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
While the rhythm and perfect proportions of the arches are mesmerizing, my favorite part of the Ospedale are the terracotta foundlings (abandoned children) by Luca della Robbia that decorate the roundels between the arches.
Oh wait, I take that back. My favorite part is that this is Hannibal Lector’s house in Hannibal.
From swaddled babies to overcompensating men on their horses. Head to the self-made centerpiece of the Piazza – the Equestrian Monument of Ferdinando de’ Medici. Ever since Marcus Aurelius mounted himself on a horse, turned to bronze and was displayed in Rome as her valiant leader thousands of years ago, equestrian monuments have been the ultimate power symbol. Ferdinando took the cue from monarchs, emperors and despots past, but probably most directly from his dad (Duke Cosimo de’ Medici) who sports his very own equestrian monument in Piazza della Signoria. The batch of bees (don’t worry, sculpted, not buzzing) at the base of the statue drive Ferdinando’s power point home. The queen bee that sits in the middle surrounded by the smaller bees embodied Ferdinando’s fantasy of a government where many follow only one. Ok bud, we get it. Ferdinando asked sculptor, Giambologna, to craft the statue. Giambologna died before its completion, but his student Pietro Tacca finished it up and installed it in the piazza in 1602.
Now on to the intrigue! Ferdinando became Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany after the extremely timely death of his whiney, not-so-into-the-duke-thing older brother, Francesco. With Francesco’s passing, Ferdinando scooped up the power and ran with it. Because I am a lover of conspiracy theories and usually choose to believe them despite their validity, I am buying into the common suspicion that Ferdinando actually orchestrated the poisoning of his brother and sister-in-law (the not-so-loved Bianca Cappello). Dig into the conspiracy here!
And now to what you’ve all been waiting for, proof that flying monkeys exist outside of Oz……
I mean seriously! Weird!
The pair of fountains decorating either side of the piazza, were sculpted by the same sculptor, Pietro Tacca, who finished Ferdinando’s equestrian monument, in the early 17th century. Scholars have been trying for centuries to get to the bottom of just what exactly these otherworldly creatures are supposed to be. My favorite explanation comes from my friend Suz’s MA thesis on these little guys. She theorizes that Tacca drew from a variety of “scientific” prints of sea creatures to dream up an animal that, to the 17th-century Florentine, was quite conceivably, swimming around somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Or you can go with my theory that involves time travel, Dorothy, and a mustache fetish.
Along with endless anecdotes, legends, history and art, the piazza hosts dozens of artisan markets that are par to none in the city. Likewise, the must-attend festivals celebrating the Annunciation (taking place March 25, heads up!) and the Festa della Rificolona in September, find no better home than this place.
So while I still may opt for other piazze and ponti for my Florentine fantasies, I will always opt for a visit or two to Piazza Santissima Annunziata on my Florence itinerary. The piazza holds a mystique, a secrecy, an overwhelming sense of history, that only standing in it, not running through, but really standing and taking in, can explain (just watch your pockets).
And hey, did I mention that it’s the favorite hippie hang out north of the Arno?
Exploring around the Piazza? Check out my friend’s Suz’s opinion on the Farmacia SS. Annunziata.