On the Piazza della Republica, in Florence, is a carousel with 20 horses and two gilded “king’s carriages.” The carousel is made of wood and is gaily painted in reds and blues. It also boasts two flowerpots with fresh flowers in them. This is the antique carousel of the Picci family (as is stated in a panel along the top), and it goes around and around every day in November through May, from about 10 in the morning to about 8 at night.
I assume I don’t need to convince you to go to Florence. I also assume that before you go, you’ll learn about all of the places you must see—the Uffizi and Pitti museums, the Duomo Cathedral, the Baptistery, and so on. But if you have the good fortune of being in Florence outside the tourist season, you should also visit the antique carousel of the Picci family.
The carousel is run by Carlo Picci, who represents the fourth generation of the family to run a carousel (the fifth generation is also doing so, and the sixth is still at the stage of riding carousels more than running them, but they seem to exhibit a healthy interest). The carousel in the Piazza della Republica dates from the beginning of the 20th century but has been lovingly restored.
The carousel is not too big, and at 20 horses it doesn’t have much capacity, but that’s all right with Carlo Picci. “This way,” he says, “there’s enough space between the horses that the mamas can stand next to the little ones while they ride. Otherwise they might be afraid.” I observed a small girl who was obviously reassured by her mama’s presence, and a small boy who clearly didn’t want his papa standing next to him as he rode, then rode again, then capped it all off with a leisurely trip in one of the king’s carriages, under a gilded crown with red and green gems in it. “A regular,” Signor Picci informed me.
Along with the panel stating the carousel’s ownership and antiquity, the top of the ride has panels with paintings of different Italian cities. I recognized some: Pisa, Rome, Bologna, Parma, Venice, and there were some other places I haven’t been but would now like to visit. There was no music, though, when I first visited. “It’s a little late,” said Signor Picci, “and we don’t want to disturb the people around the piazza. But go, take a ride. Go ahead!”
The last time I had been on a carousel I too had been reassuring a young child, but that was several years ago. I chose a black horse and climbed up. The piazza went spinning about slowly, and as I came around Signor Picci smiled and waved to me, as did his wife in the little ticket booth. I waved back. Signor Picci was right—it would have been difficult to describe the carousel properly without riding it. The horse went up and down and gently swayed forwards and backwards while the lights played over the paintings of Roman gods on the inside column. The cherubs painted on the ceiling flirted with each other. Then the music came on. “I put on the music for you!” yelled Signor Picci from the side, waving again. Accordion versions of Neapolitan ballads—sadly, recorded, but eminently appropriate.
My ride was better than a shot of Botox for injecting a little youth back into me. So much so that I decided I wanted some ice cream. I asked my ersatz grandfather where the best gelati in Florence was to be found, and he directed me to Vivoli at Santa Croce.
I like the Piazza Santa Croce, which is a large open space lined with typical Florentine buildings. Many of these are leather shops, most of which sell goods that are made next door to them. Vivoli itself is a small gelateria on a tiny street about thirty pleasant meters in from the piazza itself (I forgot to mark the name of the street, but just ask a local, they all know Vivoli). I must confess, though, that its gelati are a bit too creamy for my taste. I prefer the gelati on via Calzaiuoli, nearer to the Piazza della Republica, and therefore to the Piazza del Duomo. Furthermore, via Calzaiuoli is an interesting street, running from the Duomo down to the Ponte Vecchio, lined with expensive shops and boasting both an unfortunate Disney store and an innocuous private investigator’s office. I assume that the PI probably spends his time in mundane jobs, tracking unfaithful spouses and the like, but I amuse myself by imagining him as a kind of Italian Sam Spade, uncovering all sorts of Machiavellian plots in the city of the Medici.
One other place I’ll definitely suggest, and that otherwise might go unvisited in your more typical tours, is the central market, in the Piazza del Mercato Centrale. The market is a large stone structure, with soaring iron pillars inside. The top floor is devoted to fruits and vegetables and the ground floor to meats, cheeses and … well, everything else. In the market you can find enormous sheets of raw tripe—a Florentine specialty—as well as buckets of pig ears and even pig faces. The market in Florence is the only place I have ever seen a tray full of pig faces (marked “pig faces” in Italian). An interesting sight. On a more practical note, this is the best place in the city to get good olive oil. There are almost as many types of olive oil in Italy as there are types of wine, and Italians get just as finicky about them. Here, you can taste the different oils before you make your selection and they are not absurdly expensive.
One of the few drawbacks of Florence is that it seems to be overrun with American students who roam the streets in large, loud groups, jostling and joking with each other and pushing themselves into the bushes (OK, there are no bushes, but if there were, they’d be pushing themselves into them). One wonders why they are living in Florence, since they apparently associate with each other, not with the Italians. Perhaps they like being among the pretty buildings? Even in restaurants they generally don’t seem capable of ordering in Italian.
Only once have I heard Italian being spoken with an American accent by a young person, and this was in the marketplace (he wasn’t buying pig faces, though, just cheese). Anxious to have my distasteful impressions dispelled, I approached the young man with the airtight excuse of being a writer (“Excuse me, can I ask you a few questions—I’m a writer,” which is a disturbingly easy way to insinuate yourself into someone’s day). The young man told me that he was a student of economics who was spending a few months in Florence to learn Italian. And because it’s Florence, after all. Upon expressing my admiration for his having learned passable Italian in such a short period, and asking if this was the norm, he admitted that it was rare. He had taken a small apartment in the middle of town, and tried to mingle only with Italians, but then he said that he liked languages, spoke Russian at home and could also speak Spanish. Many American kids don’t even bother to take Italian classes, he said, since you can get by in Florence speaking English.
Alas. If any among you are American students considering some time abroad, I’d like to give you some unasked-for advice: Definitely go, live somewhere else for at least a year, but follow this young man’s example. Shun other Americans, try to blend in, find a small shabby apartment in the middle of town, buy secondhand clothes and dress like local students, learn the damn language … Keep in mind that the best way to accomplish all of this is to have a passionate love affair with someone from your host city. While you’re at it, don’t fall in love with another student; instead, find a person with a dramatically different lifestyle and background to enhance your spirit-bending adventure, and make sure this person doesn’t speak a word of English. Learn your new language in terms whispered over a pillow and you’ll learn things you never would have expected. For example, you might consider falling in love with a local ballerina. Be careful, though … If you do undertake all of this then your life might turn out far different from what you had originally imagined and you may end up 20 years later reminiscing about it, wondering how a kid from Queens managed to deserve all this, while you write curmudgeonly advice in a travel column for a nonexistent person named McSweeney.