My family have a framed map of Florence in the bathroom. I think my Dad gave it to me a few years ago, and I gratefully gave it back to him. It was too cumbersome to take abroad. But this Christmas, during a bathroom visit, I found this map absorbing my attention. Yes, it was thoroughly absorbent.
It’s a bird’s-eye view of Florence in the late nineteenth century, looking upstream, from west to east. There’s an irony, I realise, in consulting a map of the city where I live in the country that I left. But sometimes you need to get away to get perspective. Case in point: I noted two little arches in the south-eastern (top right) corner of the map, one marked P. S. San Miniato and the other P. S. San Niccolò. San Miniato was more central, the gate that opens onto that thigh-twanging climb to piazzale Michelangelo. I could have sworn Porta San Niccolò was that one, and the edifice down the road, I dunno, Torre San Niccolò. A Northern Irish poet once said to me: “You think you know your language, but trust me, you don’t know your language.” Turns out I don’t know my city either.
True, a lot of Florence has been renamed over the last 150 years: viale Belfiore, where I work, appears on the map as viale Re Umberto, after united Italy’s first king. But Porta San Miniato, a quick Google search showed, was entirely my own mistake. So while I was Holmesing in on the map, I thought I would dig deeper around the city gates. It’s been a while since Florence vied with the Visconti or fought with the Sforza; or even with Lucca, which has seven portals, all squatting inside some bloody big walls. Florence’s defences are pretty piecemeal now, completely flankable. But it’s an interesting question: if those walls had been standing during the first Covid wave, might the gates have found a use again?
Defensively defunct they may be, but the gates matter, if only as landmarks. People say, “I live near Porta al Prato” or, if they’re lucky, Porta Romana. Whenever I cycle back from lessons in Soffiano and Isolotto, I always feel a rush of homecoming at the sight of Porta San Frediano. And Piazza alla Croce, the arch that parts piazza Beccaria’s streaming traffic, links two of my favourite streets in borgo La Croce and via Gioberti. The gates may no longer draw the line between civilization and Here-Be-Dragons, but they still mark something, a mental border between the forum and the faubourgs. It seems like you’re entering a slightly different community, whether that’s true or not. In a country famous for campanilismo, any monument becomes an excuse for civic hair-splitting.
So, how many of Florence’s gates can you name? I’ve got Porta al Prato, Porta San Frediano, Porta Romana, Porta San Miniato (ahem), Porta San Niccolò, Porta alla Croce and piazza della Libertà’s Porta San Gallo, which squares off against the much grander Arc de Triomphe on the other side of the pond. Time to turn to Eve Borsook and The Companion Guide to Florence (1966), which I picked up at the Harold Acton Library, and look up Porte in the index. Blow me down if I didn’t find three entries I’d never heard of: Porta Giustizia, Porta Rossa and Porta San Giorgio.
Porta Giustizia is every bit as macabre as its name suggests. It used to stand in piazza Piave, on the opposite bank to San Niccolò, next to the stuggy and surviving Torre della Zecca. This was the site of the gallows; according to Borsook, the nearby via dei Neri gets its name from “the pious company of black-robed lay brothers who comforted the prisoners on their last walk through Florence”. A painting by one Fabio Borbottoni shows us how the piazza looked back in the nineteenth century before it was concreted over by a T-junction. The walls extend unbroken from Torre della Zecca, next to which is banked a rather curious mound of earth. One hopes this wasn’t where the corpses were dangled as an example.
As for Porta Rossa, well, I’ve learned that it now exists in name only: the number of times I’ve taken via Porta Rossa without ever troubling to learn what the street was called. The gate itself opened onto via de’ Tornabuoni, a part of Florence we all know so well that it’s hard to picture differently. There’s no obvious trace of it today. Porta San Giorgio, on the other hand, is very much with us, Renaissance lunette and all. But again, if you had asked me to visualize a walk up to Forte Belvedere, I would have included no gate in my mind map. Maybe I just Don’t Look Up.
The gates show us just how much has been lost over the years, razed and demolished. They function as a sort of negative print. Look at Porta San Frediano, believed to be the work of Andrea Pisano, and imagine having those studded oak doors slammed in your face. Now imagine how formidable it would look if it were your sole passage into the city, a tollbooth that you couldn’t avoid and could probably barely afford. Or Porta al Prato, with the Medici palle punched into a metal flag. Florence may be one of the busiest thoroughfares in the world, but the gates remind us that it still looks after its own.