Lockdown red became careful orange before turning to a liberal yellow, and a midday stop at an osteria once again became a possibility. I enter Osteria di Santo Spirito, at the upper right tip of the piazza, and ask if the fellow I’m meeting has arrived. A finger points to a table in the corner with two place settings, both empty, tables strategically set away one from the other. “That’s his,” the long blonde-haired lady says, her eyes smiling, though whether her mouth is doing the same is unknown, hidden as it is behind an oversized surgical mask. I take my place in the corner seat, double-masked as usual, and take in the tavern-like surroundings. A deep terracotta orange enlivens the walls adorned with a few paintings and etchings, and even a tea rack that seems to have escaped from a New York East Village 1960s trattoria.
And then he enters, middle aged, shorter in stature than I imagined him to be, stylish. It appears he is actually part of this painting that is this osteria, captured in time, a Florence of the hip Sixties. So fashionable is he that I am reminded of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s Italian Sketchbook as he went about distilling the essence of the colorful Italian from his early 20th-century visit, for this man seems to have escaped off those pages. The restaurant’s owners, arm-bump and backward-hug the man so that faces never connect, but hugs abound all the same. It is clear they know him well and love him so. He approaches “his” table, and I am amazed how this man, who tells me that he is 54, blends into the surroundings so effortlessly, as if it has always been his.
We sit. I just have some tea, but my host takes a ribollita, a hearty bread and vegetable Tuscan soup, perfect for this midwinter Florentine day, along with a glass of wine that he barely sips throughout our conversation. He then begins to tell me his story.
Andre Thomas Halyard was born in Queens, New York to an accountant mother, originally from North Carolina, and an IBM programmer father, born and bred in the city. His parents were determined that Andre want for nothing, and they worked hard to send their son to the best of schools and to be the best that one can be. Andre tells me about his friends from the old days in New York—Asians, Jews, African-Americans—a typical New York experience of the 70s and 80s, but the friends are never drawn as caricatures. They are fascinating personalities in Andre’s evolving artistic story.
I ask questions about how Andre came to Florence. He answers to the effect that life has taken him in amazing directions. While he always had music in his soul, he remembers how he became a fashion buying and merchandising student at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, showing talent at craft at an early age, before working for Giorgio Armani, among others, checking in with orders in Florence, making sure that fabrics and shipments were ordered and would arrive as planned.
Meeting with other local artists, Andre Halyard, “Dre Love” to his fans, found a crew with the newly born Italian hip hop/electronic music scene. He became one of the first to investigate hip-hop in this part of the world, crafting a style of powerful storytelling and a smooth, listenable, easily produced voice. He is known as the “American hip hop ambassador”. Listeners took note and 30 years in, he still produces, sings and collaborates on musically savvy, lyrically audacious and unusually welcoming combinations of a melding of musical worlds. Andre also co-founded Black History Month Florence, now in its sixth edition.
Artwork by Dre Love
Then, Dre Love reaches into his satchel on the floor, angled up against his chair. He pulls out a glass bottle, surely blown by hand, perhaps even ancient. It is decorated with textured colors and layers. The round-bottomed bottle has its own story, as if it had been visited by flowers that took up residence and remained. There is a musical fluidity to the decoration, so it comes as no surprise that Dre Love is responsible for the work of art. As he begins to explain the methodology, I remember that this musician began his artistic life as an accessory designer. He explains that the appliqués are made from colored clay that are applied to the surface in storytelling fashion and then baked. The result is magical, fitting right into our surroundings as if it too is part of the painting that has sprung to life. Without missing a beat, Dre Love is Andre again, speaking in a masterful artist’s New York cadence, explaining technically how the art form is accomplished, and that he is building the creations into a design business, something in which he was trained.
It is right then that I am struck by where I am, what I am doing and who I am with: piazza Santo Spirito, in the middle of the Renaissance and speaking with a true Renaissance man.
Watch Dre Love perform in live streaming in Florence’s Sala Vanni on February 13.
This article was published in Issue 275 of The Florentine: A Black History Month Florence special.