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Florence Secrets and Curiosities

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This Every Day Life Guide will help you understand terms, traditions, proverbs and curiosities while in Florence:
» Popular Traditions
» Useful Italian Words and Phrases
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» Florentine "Proverbi", Expressions and Behaviour
» Florentine Secrets and Curiosities

Florence Secrets and Curiosities

Name: Palle

Description: The “palle” of the Medicis are the symbol of this powerful family which led Florence through the most fascinating and original times of this city and  forged it for ever. But where does this symbol come from?: it is said that...

  1. ... during those times oranges were a very popular fruit and under Piero Di Bicci the spherical form was adopted as the symbol of the Medici Family.
  2. ... at the beginning, a considerable time before the official first Medici member in Florence started the Medici name, Piero Di Bicci, the family, original from Mugello (but also present at the Tumulto dei Ciompi...) had eleven red balls on a golden base as a symbol.
  3. ... a legend from the XVI – XVII century granducal court tells about an Averardo de’ Medici, said to be the family founder in the Medieval ages, who had to kill a giant called Mugello; during the fight, the giant hammered his toothed arm (a ball of the scourge) in Averardo’s golden shield.
  4. ... at the beginning there used to be eleven red balls on a golden base; during the period under Cosimo Il Vecchio they were changed into eight balls, and under Piero “il Gottoso” (the Gouty) only seven: six forming a triangle and one of blue colour with a white lily of France painted on it, in the centre. Lorenzo il Magnifico changed their number into six balls and their position by putting the blue ball on top. Finally, Cosimo the 1st positioned them as an oval.


  1. Piero “il Gottoso” had received the lily of France from King Louis XII as a symbol of diplomatic relationship, and this symbol was adopted by Piero as a blue ball with a white lily of France painted on it.
  2. Balls can be found in many ancient family heralds, and the quantity depended on the number of their members.

Name: Iris

Description: The “iris”, also known as “giaggiolo” in Florence, which has been the symbol of the city of Florence since the period of the first “popolo” in the Middle Ages, must not be confused with the lily of France. The iris is a very common flower which grows on Florentine countries in two colours: white and lilac. The symbol used to be a white iris on a red backgroung, and it remained such until the conflicts between Guelfi and Ghibellini finally led the Ghibellini to take that symbol as theirs and Florence then adopted the red iris on a white base. And it remained and still is Florence’s symbol, which Florentines are very proud of.

The Giardino dell’ Iris, located near Piazzale Michelangelo, is open to the public on May, the month of iris flowering. It has been hosting since the 1950’s the Concorso Internazionale, where the best new varieties of irises are awarded, perhaps with the intent of going on with the secular research of red iris hybrids? With no results so far... In the meantime, the spectacle of colours and smells is definitely worth a visit.

Name: Firenze

Description: The name of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It comes from Fiorenza, which was given in honour of the flowering time. Fiorenza, on its part, has its origin on the latin name Florentia.

The period of the official foundation of the city by the Romans coincided with the blossoming time in Spring, and the Romans dedicated the celebration, the Ludi Florales, to the goddess Flora. From the Floralia, then, comes the name Florentia.

Name: Borgo

Description: The streets “borgo Ognissanti”, “borgo Albizi”, “borgo Pinti”, among others, take their name from the original “borghi” of the Middle Ages. The word “borgo” derives from the germanic “burg” which meant a small complex of houses and buildings...

Name: Buca

Description: There are several “trattorie” and “osterie” which are called “buca”, generally followed by the name of the owner. “Buca” means “hole” in Italian, because these places used to be or still are under ground...

Name: Frescoes

Description: One of the frescoes which arises more curiosity these days in Florence is Dante’s “real” portrait: it is in the headquarters of the Arte dei Giuducu e dei Notai, by Via del Proconsolo. According to it, Dante had dark skin and a long but not aquiline nose...

Name: Greek perfume merchants

Description: Since the Middle Ages Greek perfume merchants used to live in Florence, where?, exactly where “Borgo de’ Greci” is today. Herbs, perfumes and all other ingredients used as medical and beauty remedies were an important element in commercial relationships between the Romans, and then the cities and regions which developped throughout the centuries, and the Greeks...

Name: Tuscany

Description: The name “Tuscany” derives from “Toscana”, which, on its part, has its origins in the 10th century. The original name was “Tuscia”, being this one of the eleven regions of Italy in Roman times...

Name: Cantinette

Description: Cantinette (cellars) of Florentine palaces were also the place from where wine and olive oil were sold through small windows to the people on the streets.... Several of these places developped through time into spots where to eat and taste wine, which still exist nowadays...

Name: Banca

Description: the name “banca” (bank) derives from the “banche”, “panche” (wooden benches) placed along the palace walls on the streets where people rested and a few... took the opportunity to lend and exchange money...

Name: Lorenzo Il Magnifico

Description: Lorenzo Il Magnifico sang...out of tune, and...had no sense of smell.

Name: Olive Oil

Description: Olive oil was the main ingredient for medical recipes and for well-being in the Roman empire:
- olive-tree leaves were used as astringents and purifiers, and against ulcers and headaches
- boiled with honey was good for curing inflammations
- with wine and water, for red eyes
- the water of the burnt tree trunk, for healing
- the tree roots mixed with honey, for expectorization
- for massage after a bath
- for covering the body before physical training

Olive trees were considered sacred even by the Etrurians. Olive oil was so respected among Christians that it became a religious symbol, giving solemnity and depth to all religious rituals.

Its importance was forwarded through times by monasteries and this precious oil was used for lighting the altars and for all rituals regarding Christianity, including those concerning the Templars.

In what concerns physical trainings in the Roman empire, men used olive oil for covering their bodies, so that their muscles and whole body kept warm... but this is not all... According to Plinio, the mix of sand, olive oil and sweat removed from the body was much used for medical purposes...

The Florentine streets “della Vigna Vecchia” and “della Vigna Nuova”, right in the centre of the city, derive from some of the multiple locations of the vines which developped during the Middle Ages.

Name: Wine

Description: Wine in ancient times, like olive oil, was much used as a medical remedy for different conditions:

  • in Roman times and at the beginning of the Middle Ages it cured wounds, fever, it served as a purge and a diuretic and was also considered as a nutritional beverage
  • during the Middle Ages it consolidated its therapeutic functions and was also used to cover the bad taste of other medicines.

Name: Importuno

Description: On a cornerstone of the right wall of the Palazzo Vecchio, close to the steps to the entrance, there is a sculpted profile of a man...who had been called throughout the centuries the “Importuno”, the “bothersome” or “annoying”. This man used to interrupt Michelangelo’s walks on this very place.... One day, while this man was again annoying him, Michelangelo lent on the wall of the Palazzo and sculpted the man’s face on the wall behind himself... and there “l’importuno” has remained for ever...

Name: Ponte Vecchio

Description: Ponte Vecchio,before acquiring the actual aspect, which has been since the Renaissance, was built and rebuilt from Roman times until the XIV century four times: it was destroyed the first and fourth time by two important floods, and the second and third times by two fires...

During the Renaissance, the Ponte Vecchio hosted all the butchers of Florence, who were moved from the centre, and consequently the meat market, because it was considered that the waste and strong smells produced by their work were better diluted and eliminated on the river.

They even started to create their own small rooms on the bridge, which are evidenced by the wooden poles still propped up in the bridge...

...but after a while, they were moved again... and were substituted by the goldsmiths and host jewellers ever since.

Name: Lumicino

Description: Lumicino (tiny light, generally produced by a candle) -tiny candle lights were put in front of the Church of Oratorio di San Martino, in the Middle Ages, to signify that they had finished the material resources to keep on helping the poor they gave hospitality to in their fraternity, and asked for the help of the community...

Name: Vergogna

Description: Means shame. From “ver-gogna” that in Renaissance times was referred to those public acts in which the wrongdoer was exposed to the mockery of the people.

Name: Loggia and Mercato del Porcellino

Description: Loggia and Mercato del Porcellino take this name from the bronze “small pig”, which actually is a wild boar. In Medieval times it was called Mercato della Seta (Silk Market) and then Mercato della Paglia (Straw Market). In the Renaissance it was called Mercato Nuovo to be distinguished from the Mercato Vecchio, which was in Piazza della Repubblica.

Name: Bischero

Description: Bischero is a very Florentine word, and its origin is not sure; there are a few hypothesis:

  • some say the masculine genital organ used to be called like that
  • some say it used to be the last name of an ancient Florentine family who failed in financial investments and was mocked... for ever; actually, it is said that this family had to move from Florence to the region of Emilia Romagna and changed its name into one that meant almost the opposite of what they represented...
  • some others say it is the key used for regulating musical instruments
  • and it is also said to be a shrub which grows in the marshes

Anyway, a “bischero” has made a “bischerata”, which is not exactly a successful thing, it has resulted in a failure, and that because this person hasn’t thought enough before acting..

Name: Civic Numbers

Description: In Florence, civic numbers:

  • of the streets parallel to the Arno go from the lowest to the highest following the direction of the river
  • of the streets perpendicular to the Arno go from the lowest to the highest starting from the closest to the river

Name: Sferomachia

Description: The ancient Greek game “sferomachia” (game with a sphere, a ball) is the original and first football game in history. This game was transferred to the Romans, who gave it the name of “harpastum” (lit. “harshly teared”) because it was played hand-to-hand, commonly raising sand and dirt... That’s why it was very apreciated by Roman legions too, who considered it a highly entertaining exercise...

...and it is perhaps them that introduced “harpastum”, which in the meantime changed its name into “calcio” (lit. “foot kick”) in the colony Florentia, into other territories such as Great Britain, which modified some elements and transformed it into the modern “football”. The characteristic of hand-to-hand football still exists today in rugby, modern football and “calcio fiorentino”... and the hand-to-hand fight can be found in modern wrestling..

Name: Rificolona

Description: The word “Rificolona” comes from the poor joyous countrywomen, who descended from the countryside for the festivities of the Santissima Annunziata and whom the Florentines called “fierucolone” or “fieruculone” (and sang “...ona, ona ma che bella rificolona...”, “...what a nice “rificolona”)...Why?, because they actively participated at the fair, “fierucola”, of Piazza Santissima Annunziata, together with their voluminous backs...

The association of the word, which gradually became “rificolona”, to the colourful shaped lanterns was clearly due to the lanterns the countrymen used during the entire period of the fair.. which then acquired the varied shapes, again, for the colourful shapes of these women...

Name: Civic Year

Description: Even though the gregorian calendar had already established the 1st of January as the first day of the year, the beginning of the civic year in Florence was the 25th of March, which was also the beginning of Spring, a typical “Florentine syle” administrative establishment... Only in the XVIII century (exactly 1752) Florence adapted to the universally established date, being this such an extraordinary event that it was immortalized in a marmour block in Loggia de’ Lanzi (Piazza della Signoria), where it still is...

Name: Annunciazione Legend

Description: A legend recounts the the face of the Virgin Mary in the fresco of the “Annunciazione” in the Church of Santissima Annunziata is painted by the angels…

Name: Calendimaggio

Description: Calendimaggio is the “calende di maggio”, the first day of May, an ancient and very popular and colourful Spring festivity. During the festivities young people sang the “maggi” (songs) and walked in groups, called the “cantamaggio”, following the “queen” or “bride” of May from house to house with bunches of flowers decorated with ribbons, the “maji” (representing Spring), to give to all engaged young girls. The singers were called “maggiaioli” and specifically serenades were called “maggiolate”.

During the Calendimaggio of 1274 Dante met Beatrice for the first time....

Name: Fra’ Girolamo Savonarola

Description: A memorial round stone in Piazza della Signoria, close to the fountain, indicates the exact point in which Fra’ Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burnt. Originally, after the frair’s death, a marmour block was there, on which the “Saracino” was placed during the “giostra” (joust)..and it was commonly covered with flowers in memory of “il Savonarola”’s death.

Name: Arte dei Fornari

Description: The ancient Arte dei Fornai (the “art of the bakers”) had San Lorenzo as their patron:

  • they dedicated to him a painted image on one of the columns of Orsanmichele; the Saint, indeed, is portrayed almost natural size with their emblem of an eight-point white star on a red background
  • most of them lived and worked in the area around the Church of San Lorenzo and during the festivities of the patron Saint they prepared the most creative and original breads possible... even the “lasagna” was very popular and usually prepared for this festivity
  • there even was a religious association of bakers, who prepared and distributed the blessed breads.

Name: Befana

Description: Befana is a modification of the word “epifania”, which in Florence became the feast of the beginning of Carnival. This feast included processions of masked people engaging in “misteri” (lit. “mysteries”), medieval religious representations, dedicated to the religious event of the “manifestation”, and more specifically to the Three Kings. Their chants and songs were called “befanate”. The religiousness of these processions became feebler and feebler through time, until the Befana became a grotesque sort of ragdoll and eventually the popular witch it is today, and the festivity, carrying the significance of good and bad, fear and mystery, principally involves children:

  • good children receive sweets, toys and others
  • bad children receive charcoal, ashes and...big red onions...

Name: Carnevale

Description: Carnevale (from which also derives the English word “carnival”) comes from the original latin word “carnem levare” (lit. “to eliminate meat”), relating to the last banquet before the abstinence of Lent...

Name: Via dello Studio

Description: Via dello Studio (lit. “studies street”) takes the name from the first University of Florence, called Antico Studio Fiorentino (ancient florentine studies), dating back to 1348. In the same building of Zecchi is a representative fresco.

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