This is the second part of the article in which we continue to reveal the hidden, enigmatic, and unconventional side of the city of Florence through a series of short stories based on historical accounts and sometimes on simple anecdotes.
Here you will find the first part of the guide on Secrets and legends of Florence
Hidden Details of Florence’s Baptistery
The Baptistery dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, is located in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Piazza San Giovanni.
There is a hidden detail on the side facing Via Roma. In the bottom left corner, a bas-relief representing a naumachia (naval battle) is visible. It is probably an ancient Roman sarcophagus, filled in the wall to recall Florence’s Roman origins. It appears that a temple dedicated to Mars, the Roman god of war and patron of the city in ancient times, was once situated on this site.
Another curious element found in the Baptistery dates back to the Lombard era.
On the right of the main column, the one facing Via Calzaiuoli, a sort of imprint can be seen about half a meter off the ground. According to legend, the king of the Lombards Liutprando devised a method to guarantee the regularity of commercial transactions. He fixed the length of this new unit of measurement by reference to the size of his feet, which were 43.6 cm in length. In fact, the chronicles report that the so-called “Pes Liutprandi” was used in northern Italy at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The Damnation of Santissima Annunziata
On the corner of Piazza Santissima Annunziata and Via dei Servi there is a red brick palace called Palazzo Grifoni. Although this building may appear to be no different than many others, there is a particular window on the facade of this building that is always open. One of the many Florentine legends relates that toward the end of the sixth century, a scion of the Grifoni family went off to war, which was not something uncommon at the time. The wife ran to the window to greet him one last time before he was leaving. She did not move from that place the rest of his life. She stared out the window and awaited the return of her husband. Her husband never returned home, and when she died, the window was shut.
There are two versions to this story. According to the first, the neighborhood was so touched by the profound love story that it decided to reopen the window.
The second argues that when they closed the window, objects inside the room began to fly and furniture began to shake. But as soon as the window was reopened, everything returned to normal.
There is a marble bust without identification on the side of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore that opens onto Via dei Cerretani: this is the bust of Mrs. Berta!
There are two legends. The first argues that the bust represents Berta, a woman who sold vegetables and who had a stand in front of the church. It is believed that she was so sick of not knowing when the doors of the city would be closed that she donated to Santa Maria Maggiore a bell to alert merchants of the opening and closing of the city gates. As a sign of gratitude, the Florentines made her a small bust.
The second legend tells a more tragic story and is known as the “Damnation of Cecco d’Ascoli“. Unjustly condemned of heresy, this philosopher was carried in procession along Via de ‘Cerretani, before being burned at the stake in Piazza Santa Croce, stopping in front of where the bust is now located to ask for water. Overlooking this area from a small window, a woman named Berta warned the people not to grant him any requests because he is an alchemist and a servant of the devil, and because even a little water would make it impossible to burn him.
The man angrily told her that he would never lifted his head from there!
The Origin of the Nickname Bischero
In Tuscany, the nickname bischero refers to a person that is not very astute. This meaning is related to the Florentine family of Bischeri, which was one of the wealthiest in the whole city and whose properties were located in the area between Piazza Duomo and Via dell’Oriuolo. When the Florentine Republic decided to build the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore at the end of the third century, the Bischeri owned many properties in the area. For that reason, the government offered the family a large sum of money to buy its proprties, hoping to raze the area and start building. It is said that the family refused, trying to increase the price of purchase. After some time, the Florentine government grew tired of the delay and decided to expropriate the properties by refunding the Bischeri with very few guilders as compensation. According to another version, a fire completely destroyed the area, leaving the Bischeri with no property and no money. Since that time, the term “bischero” refers to a person who is definitely not very clever and very naive.
The Chant of the Devil
On the corner of Via dei Vecchietti and Via strozzi is situated the Vecchietti Palace. Constructed at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the palace belonged to one of the most influential families of the city, the Vecchietti family, mentioned in the fifteenth verse of Dante’s Paradiso.
However, the “energy” that makes this building so fascinating can be attributed to Giambologna, who was commissioned by Bernardo Vecchietti in 1578. Giambologna positioned on the facade the family’s coat of arms, which consists of five silver ermines on a blue background, a symbol of incorruptible purity, as well as a bizarre flag carrier in the form of a little devil made of bronze. The original artwork is located in the Bardini Museum. According to legend, there was once on this site a tabernacle where St. Peter of Verona frequently gave sermons. One day, during a sermon, the Devil interrupted the preaching by frightening a black horse, which then dispersed the congregation that was listening to the saint’s address. Peter managed to calm down the faithful and went on preaching to them. From that day on, people began to call the place the Canto del Diavolo (Chant of the Devil). Giambologna was so inspired by this story that he designed the flag carrier after it.