London, Henry S. King & Co., 1877; Transcribed and Photographed, Carolyn Carpenter




Chapter X:  The Ghetto - Mercato Vecchio

Behind the Archbishop's Palace, to the right of the small Piazza dell' Olio, which forms an outskirt of the old market, is an archway leading to the Ghetto, of Jews' quarter of Florence, and where formerly stood one of its four gates.

The word Ghetto is derived from the Hebrew Geth, "separation."  In early days the Israelite was forbidden to show his face in Florence, not from any antipathy of race, but because the Florentine would not brook a rival in his commercial transactions.  The great families of Peruzzi, Bardi, Acciajuoli, and Strozzi derived their enormous fortunes principally from lending money at exorbitant interest; and such were their hard dealings that, at length, the government invited the Jews to settle in the city, on condition that they should not lend at a higher rate than twenty per cent.  They were not then confined to any particular quarter, but chiefly congregated on the southern side of the river, in the Via dei Giudei, near San Jacopo oltr' Arno.  In spite, however, of this restriction on their gains, they contrived to accumulate great wealth by their industry and frugality, which aroused the jealousy of the Florentine bankers, who, in 1495, persuaded their rulers to issue a decree expelling them from the city.  Their vast numbers, and their widespread relations in Florence, made it impossible to carry out this measure, so that, notwithstanding the opposition of the clergy, the law was annulled almost as soon as made.  The Jews increased and prospered until the reign of Cosimo I., whose policy was to deprive the Florentines of every source of wealth or power that could be turned against himself, and who found it expedient to flatter the prejudices of his subjects, by showing hostility to the Hebrew race.  He withdrew all the privileges hitherto granted to the Jews, ordered them to wear a distinctive dress, and prohibited them from practising usury, as well as from engaging in any wholesale trade.  No foreign Jews might remain in the city beyond one fortnight at a time, and in 1571 he confined the native Jews to a quarter built for the purpose by his architect, Buontalenti, which thenceforward was called "the Ghetto."    The consequence of these decrees was, that all wealthy and respectable Jews left Florence, whilst the most abject of the race remained.  The Ghetto consists of two squares or piazzas, surrounded by high houses, some of them attaining nine storeys.  In the centre of one of these squares is a large fountain, around which gather some of the lowest of the Florentine population, who, judging by their physiognomy, are not now confined to the Jewish race.

Beyond the Ghetto is the Mercato Vecchio, the old market of Florence, once the centre of the houses of the nobility and the pride of the citizens.  Here, as related in a recent work85 by the late Commendatore Simon Peruzzi, were the sumptuous habitations of the most distinguished Florentines, who spent six months of the year in their villas outside the walls, whose dress was modest, and living simple, - the Tosinghi, Soldanieri, Nerli, Amieri, Tornaquinci, Medici, Pegalotti, Arrigucci, &c., &c.  Antonio Pucci, a poet, and the friend of the novelist Sacchetti, as well as of the historians Villani, describes the "Piazza" as it appeared in his days, early in the fourteenth century, and soon after the time of Dante.  Pucci's poem is called "La proprietà di Mercato Vecchio," and was written before the "Chronicle of the Villani."  The seventh stanza runs thus:

Mercato Vecchio al mondo è alimento
E ad ogni altra piazza il pregio serra.86
Le dignità di mercato son queste
Ch' ha quattro chiese ne suoi quattro canti
Ed ogni canto ha due vie manifeste.87
Three of the four churches still exist entire, or in part. Santa Maria in Campidoglio, behind the fish-market, adjoins a small tavern, the "Osteria della Croce di Malta," but nothing remains except the double flight of steps leading to the principal entrance, a peculiarity common to old churches in this neighbourhood.  Here, it is supposed, was the Roman Capitol.  San Piero Buonconsigli, more familiarly known as San Pierino, has a fine lunette over the entrance, by Luca della Robbia.  The Madonna and Child are both very lovely, and the two worshipping angels are extremely elegant:  the garland enclosing the group is a faithful study from nature and very beautiful.  A little stone pulpit, from which it was customary to address the people outside, may be observed in the wall; it is entered by a door from the monastery adjoining the church.  San Tommaso, at the north-west angle of the Piazza, was the parish church of the Medici family.  Within is an early Florentine picture on panel, by Jacopo Casentino, representing the Madonna and Child, St. John the Baptist, and another saint.  At the fourth angle of the Mercato, where it joins the Via Calimala, is an old building, once the University or residence of the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries.  A curious old fresco above the entrance has been nearly effaced by time and weather.

The eleventh stanza of the poem by Pucci mentions the list of trades and traders in the market-place:

Medici v' ha d' intorno a tutt' I mali,
Ed avvi panni, lini, e linaioli
V' ha pizzicagnoli e v' ha speziali.88
The Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries was one of the most important in Florence; they were allied with the guild of Wool, as their chemical knowledge was useful in preparation of dyes.  They had extensive relations with France and England, to which countries the Florentine merchants imported spices and other commodities from the East, as well as drugs and medicinal herbs.  This trade gave them so much importance abroad, that in 1277 King Philip III. of France passed a decree extending his royal protection to them on the same footing as to native Frenchmen, and granting them certain privileges.  The apothecaries of Florence not only supplied medicine and medicaments, but were also the undertakers of the city, and furnished everything required at a funeral.  The profession was held in high esteem, and the guild must have acquired great wealth from the money given by the rich on these occasions, and the various articles the considered necessary for the obsequies of their relations.  From the Guild of Physicians sprang the wealthy family, who, retaining the name of Medici, obtained supremacy in the Florentine government.

Pucci proceeds in his poem to observe:

Ed evvi la più bella beccheria
Che sia di buona carne, al mio parer.89
The old Florentine, like his descendants, depended for his sustenance more on vegetables and farinaceous food than on butchers' mea; but whatever the display of beef and veal might have been in the fourteenth century, this part of the market now presents a scene sufficiently disgusting to turn the visitor from his antiquarian researches.  Here, too, poultry is sold, on the spot where probably the painter, sculptor, and goldsmith Pollaioli spent his youth:
Quivi da parte stanno I pollaioli,
Forniti sempre e tutte le stagioni,
Di lepre e di cinghiali e cavrioli,
E di fagiani, starne e di pippioni,
Ed altri uccelli.90
Even worse than the sights exhibited in the meat market is the painful sight of fowls plucked alive - a daily spectacle of cruelty, and one proof among many how much a better training and education is wanted by a people so kind-hearted and gentle, except where the brute creation is concerned.

Next follows the list of those engaged in money transactions, who formerly frequented this market:

E sempre quivi ha gran Baratteria,
E c' ha contar molti barattieri,
Perchè v' ha più da lor mercatanzia;
Cio è di prestatori e rigattieri
Tavole di contanti e dadaiuoli
D' ogni ragion che farne a lor mestier, &c.91
Those desirous of belonging to the guild of Merchants on Exchange - "Arte del Cambio" - had to undergo an examination before exercising their calling or holding a booth or table.  All the furniture required by a money-changer was a table covered with green cloth - tavola di contanti - a purse of money, and a book in which to register their accounts.  This guild was called "The Company of the Table."

After alluding to the squabbles which took place in the markets, sometimes ending in violence, calling for the interference of the police, Pucci also describes the flower-girls from the country selling their goods here:

Non fu giammai così nobil giardino
Come a quel tempo egli è Mercato Vecchio,
Che 'l occhio e 'l gusto pasce al Fiorentino.92
The fruit and vegetables are likewise enumerated, as well as live birds in cages, cats, and rabbits for sale.
The column in one corner of the piazza near the former residence of the physicians and apothecaries, is that which was taken from inside the Baptistery; it supports a modern statue of Abundance, which replaced one by Donatello of the same subject, which was broken in 1721.  The loggia for the fish market, between San Pierino and Sta. Maria in Campidoglio, was designed by Vasari, and built by order of Duke Cosimo I.  The Greek-Ionic columns, with the medallions of dolphins, &c., seem out of place amidst the low houses and stalls of the market.  Dirty and disorderly, however, as this piazza appears, one improvement has taken place since the reign of Victor Emmanuel; for, whereas pickpockets carried on their trade formerly like any other in the market, they have been entirely expelled, and for some years past the purchaser may go on his business without the fear of having his pockets emptied by thieves.93

The districts south and west of the Mercato Vecchio is a labyrinth of narrow streets and small piazzas, with tall, irregularly built houses, some of which are the remains of old towers where once lived the warlike nobles or influential citizens of Florence, but now inhabited by an industrious though poor population.  The street which leads from the market to the Strozzi Palace is called the Via Ferravecchi, and old iron is still exposed for sale in this quarter.  A handsome palace, at the corner of the Via Ferravecchi and the Via de' Vecchietti, is popularly known as the "Palazzo della Cavolaja" - the Palace of the Cabbage-women - and was probably the residence of the "Cavolaja" whose reputed tomb is in the Baptistery.94  The inscription over some of the windows informs the passers-by that the original inhabitants were Vecchietti.  Here Bernardo Vecchietti, a patron of art, received and entertained Giovan Bologna for two years, when he came an unknown artist from Boulogne, in France; this generous hospitality afforded him time to make himself known, and to commence his artistic career in Florence.  Giovan Bologna made the bronze figure of the Devil at the corner of this house, where once stood a pulpit from which Pietro Martire preached when he was said to have exorcised the fiend, who galloped past in the shape of a black horse.  The family of the Vecchietti are among the oldest in Florence, and are mentioned as such by Dante:

E vidi quel de' Nerli, e quel del Vecchio
Esser contenti alla pelle scoverta;
E le sue donne al fuso e al pennecchio.95
    Paradiso, canto xv. l. 115.
The arms of the Vecchietti, five ermines of silver on a blue ground, are repeatedly seen on the adjacent houses; and as the ermines were supposed by the common people to be rats, a saying arose, in allusion to the name of the family, which was quoted at the approach of old age, that So-and-so was assuming the arms of the family of the Rats.  The remains of the towers of these Vecchietti houses may still be seen round the little piazza, now used as a market for fowls and eggs.

Threading the streets south of the Mercato Vecchio, the visitor will find himself in the quarter of the Amieri family.  The Amieri, once among the proudest nobles of Florence, had their palaces and towers within the city, and their castles in the country.  They belonged to the Ghibelline faction, and when the Guelphs gained ascendancy in the state and drove their adversaries into exile, the towers of the Amieri were demolished.  In 1320, the family were allowed to return; but having been declared magnates, they were prohibited all share in the government.  The head of the Amieri was then one Messer Foglia, who built a magnificent palace on the ruins of their former habitations, near the Church of Sant' Andrea, adorning the brackets on the walls with the fig-leaf, in allusion to his name Foglia, "a leaf," which may still be traced on these poor houses.  The last of the family, who died in 1381, was Bernardo di Nicolò di Messer Jacopo.  He was the father of Ginevra, whose story has already been related in the description of the Piazza del Duomo, and we may imagine his daughter seated by night in her grave-clothes at Bernardo's door in this piazza, vainly entreating for admittance.

Sant' Andrea is a primitive old church, reached by a double flight of steps; and adjoining it was the first convent for nuns in Florence.  Within the church was once a picture by Ghirlandaio, now in the office of the Capitolo or Chapter-house of the Duomo.  In the small piazza beside Sant' Andrea is a warehouse with the Lion of St. Mark, as well as the City arms, and those of the guild of Flax-merchants.  Within is an altar of dark pietra-serena, composed of Greek fluted columns, with composite capitals, likewise decorated with the Lion of St. Mark, the patron-saint of the Flax-merchants, "Linajoli," as this was their residence.  The Linajoli formed one of the minor arts.  Their shield is divided perpendicularly red and white.  Their guild included the "Rigattieri," or dealers in second-hand articles, and the two are mentioned together in Pucci's poem, where he gives a list of all the guilds:

L' undici, Rigattieri e Pani Lini,
Ch' è 'nsieme un arte con lor si ragiona.96
Near this spot once stood a beautiful Tabernacle by Fra Angelico, now in the corridor of the Uffizi Gallery.  It was then enclosed in an exquisitely sculptured marble frame, which is preserved in the Museum of the Bargello.

Near the Piazzetta of San Miniato fra due Torri, is the old town-house of the Castigliones.  On the first floor is a handsome stone chimney-piece, and a lavabo, or lavatory, enclosed in the frame of beautiful stone carving.  There is likewise a finely sculptured doorway, leading to what was once the saloon.  The most celebrated of the family was Dante da Castiglione, notorious for his share in a famous duel fought in 1529, when the Imperialist army, urged on by Pope Clement VII., besieged Florence for the restoration of the Medici.  Ludovico Martelli and Giovanni Bandini, two Florentine youths, had aspired to the hand of a young lady, Marietta de' Ricci.  She preferred Bandini, who belonged to the Medicean faction, and had left Florence to join the enemy's camp.  Martelli, to gratify his private revenge, caused his rival to be proclaimed a traitor, and defied him to single combat.  Bandini accepted the challenge, and both armies agreed to a suspension of arms.  The combatants were allowed to choose a companion in the fight; but none of the Florentines in the Imperialist camp would accept the office, until a youth, Bertino Aldobrandini, offered his services, with which Bandini was obliged to rest contented.  Martelli was supported by Dante da Castiglione, a man of powerful frame, and bold, fierce temper, who was opposed to the boy Aldobrandini.  They met beyond the Porta Romana.  Aldobrandini fought with courage, but was soon over-powered, and died a few hours afterwards of his wounds, and Martelli had to yield to the skill and valour of Bandini.  According to Napier, "The Florentines saw in the success of this duel a prognostic of the final issue of the war.  It was Florentine against Florentine.  Both parties suffered and were victorious; the popular side was represented by Dante da Castiglione, the Medicean by Bandini."97

The country house of Dante da Castiglione still exists; a fine old castle on the shoulder of Monte Morello, near the little village church of Cercina.

In the neighbourhood of the Mercato Vecchio is another piazza, called the Piazza di Monte.  Here was the palace of the Lamberti family, who traced their descent from a German baron, who came to Italy with Otho II., A.D. 962.  They, like the Amieri, belonged to the Ghibelline party, and, after their conquest and readmission into the city, were likewise made magnates, and incapacitated from taking any part in the Florentine government.  Their arms in the days of Dante were six golden balls, but they afterwards adopted the lion rampant, holding a red banner between his paws; which device may still be seen on the houses round this piazza and in the neighbourhood.  The octagon basement of the principal palace of the Lamberti gave it the name of the Dado, or Dice, and here was established the first Monte.

The Monti, or Public Funds, date as early as 1222, 1224, and 1226.  The government was at first obliged to offer an interest of twenty-five per cent. upon the capital to obtain a loan, which was registered in a book called the "Libro de' Sette Milioni."  The rate of interest was afterward lowered to eighteen per cent., and in 1336 a consolidated fund was established, called the Monte Comune, which only lasted until 1343, when the government was obliged to incur fresh debts to defray the expenses of war, &c.  The whole debt thus collected continued to be called the Monte, or Mount, and paid an interest of five per cent.98

Leaving the quarter of the old nobles, the first street is the Pelliceria, or Street of Furriers.  This was formerly the goldsmiths' quarter, before they occupied the houses on the Ponte Vecchio; and here lived the father of Baccio Bandinelli, who taught his son the goldsmith's art, and, for a time, took Benvenuto Cellini as a pupil.  The Via del Fuoco, occupied entirely by dealers in charcoal, leads to the Calimala, at the corner of which is a tabernacle, closed to public view, but containing an image of the Virgin, which is supposed to have miraculously arrested the progress of a great fire.  Below it is the inscription:

Ruppe, spezzò l' orribil fuoco, fin quì volando,
Ma l'Imagin pia, poter troncargli in questo loco.99
The Via Calimala is on the site of the former workshops of the foreign wool merchants.  In this neighbourhood twenty warehouses belonging to their guild received the woollen cloth, which was annually imported from abroad.  The name Calimala has puzzled etymologists.  Some have supposed it to be derived from a Latin term for shabby, mean street; but the more probably derivation is from the Greek for "beautiful white," or "beautiful fleece," which idea receives some confirmation from the fact that the finest wool was imported from Greece.

The Guild of the Calimala was formed in a singular manner.  The Emperor Henry I. banished a number of Lombards in 1014.  They were chiefly from the city of Milan, and, in Germany, they formed themselves into a society, assuming the name of Umiliati, or Humbled, in reference to their unfortunate condition.  They applied themselves especially to the manufacture of woollen articles, and on their return to Italy in 1019, they worked together as a corporate body.  In 1140 they formed themselves into a religious confraternity, with priests appointed to superintend their labours, and a president called Il Mercatore.  Their first dwelling was near Sta. Lucia al Prato, but they afterwards established themselves at the Monastery of Ogni Santi.  Other Florentine dealers in retail cloth not only adopted their badge, but learnt their art, and in a short time Florence became famous for this manufacture.  The Guild of the Calimala purchased the raw undressed material, as well as cloth in an unfinished state, from England, France, Flanders, and the East, and after completing the process, returned it ready for sale across the Alps.  This trade continued to flourish until Henry VII. of England prohibited the export of unshorn cloth, and limited the use of Italian manufacture in England.

The residence of the Guild of Wool - Arte della Lana - is now occupied by the canons of Or San Michele, and a door opens into the Via Calimala, over which are the arms of the wool trade, the lamb bearing the banner, and the emblem of the Guelphic party, the rastrello, or rake, with the lilies of Florence.  At the end of the Via Calimala, where it joins the Mercato Nuovo, is a turning to the left leading to the Via Calzaioli, and called Il Baccano, "place of uproar," from the noise made by lads there engaged in their trades, and calling on passing customers to buy from them.  At one time this street was called Cavalcante, because all this quarter belonged to that distinguished family.  Here Guido Cavalcante must have frequently been visited by his friend Dante Alighieri, whose house was only on the other side of the Via Calzaioli, then Cacciajuoli, near San Martino.  An inscription on the southern side of the Baccano states that Bernardo Cennini, the contemporary of Faust, had his printing-office in this street.



Acciajuoli came to Florence 1160
Buondelmonti feud with the Amidei 1214
Cavalcante (Guido) 1230(?)-1300
Chiesa di Sant' Andrea founded 800 (?)
Chiesa Santa Maria in Campidoglio 1000 (?)
Chiesa San Piero Buonconsigli 1000 (?)
Chiesa San Tommaso 1000 (?)
Consolidated funds first established 1326
Dante da Castiglione fought his duel 1529
Ghetto founded 1571
Giovan Bologna 1525-1608
Guild of Physicians granted privileges in France 1277
Lamberti family date their origin 962
Monte (Public Funds) established 1222
Pucci, Antonio, his works  1328-1365


85 See "Firenze ed Banchieri Fiorentini," by S. Peruzzi.

The Old Market provides food for all the world,
And carries off the prize from every other piazza.
 Such is the grandeur of this market
 That it has four churches at the four corners,
 And at every corner are two streets.
Physicians dwelt around for every ill,
And here were linen cloths, and flax merchants,
Pork vendors, and apothecaries.
And here in my opinion is the finest market
For the best meat.
 Here on one side are the poulterers
 Well furnished at all seasons
 With hares, and boars, and kids,
 With pheasants, starlings, pigeons,
 And all other birds.
 And here is always the great exchanges,
 And many money-changers may be counted,
 Since their merchandise is most demanded;
 Such as lenders and dealers in old articles,
 Tables of ready-money, and dice-players,
Of every sort, that each may carry on his trade.
 There never was so noble a garden
 As that presented by the old market,
 Which feasts the eyes and taste of the Florentines.
93 Three new markets are already designed, and in the process of erection, so that in the course of a few years this old market-place, with its historical reminiscences, may be destroyed.
94 See Chapter on the Baptistery.
And him of Nerli, and him of Vecchio,
Contented with their simple suits of buff;
And with their spindle and the flax, the dames.
In those ancient days the great families were satisfied with a simple attire, and wore their leathern jerkins without scarlet or cloth cloaks over them.
 The eleventh, the dealers in second-hand articles and
 The flaxen-cloth sellers
 Who together make one art.
97 See "Florentine History," by Captain Henry Napier, vol. iv. pp. 434-439.
98 See "Florentine History," by Capt. H. Napier, vol. v. pp. 11,12.
The horrible fire broke forth, and destroyed, advancing hither;
But the Holy Image was able to stay it at this spot.
Chapter XI:  The Mercato Nuovo


ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: Embroidering of Pomegranates: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Courtship || Casa Guidi italiano/English || Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Aurora Leigh || Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Florence: || Preface  italiano/English || Poetry  italiano/English || Laurel Garland: Women of the Risorgimento || Death and the Emperor in the Poetry of Dante, Browning, Dickinson and Stevens|| Enrico Nencioni on Elizabeth Barrett Browning italiano ||

THE ENGLISH CEMETERY IN FLORENCE: Tuoni di silenzio bianco/ Thunders of White Silence italiano/English || The English Cemetery, Piazzale Donatello, Florence: || Il Cimitero degli Inglesi italiano || Cemetery I Tombs A-E || Cemetery II Tombs D-L || Cemetery III Tombs M-Z ||

FLORENCE IN SEPIA: Florence I. Santa Trinita to Santa Croce || Florence I Appendix. The Uffizi || Florence II. North-Eastern Quarter || Florence III. Oltr'Arno || Other Tuscan Cities in Sepia || Italy in Sepia || Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Florence || Susan and Joanna Horner, Walks in Florence|| Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Notes in Florence|| Francesca Alexander || Augustus J.C. Hare, Florence || Augustus Hare, Edwardian Travel Writer || Florence's Libraries and Museums || Museums Thoughts||

AGNES MASON, C.H.F.: Agnes Mason, C.H.F., Anglican Mother Foundress || Agnes Mason's Patron Saints || Saints Cecilia and Agnes || Augustus Hare, Edwardian Travel Writer || Holmhurst St Mary ||  I fratelli Alinari: Florentine Photographers] ||

Portfolio|| Florin: Non-Profit Guide to Commerce in Florence || Maps of Florence