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Florence: A (free) medieval graffiti walking tour

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A "Signori Otto" plaque at Via Verrazzano. Photos by Laura Mongillo.
A "Signori Otto" plaque at Via Verrazzano. Photos by Laura Mongillo.

When you visit the historic center of Florence, it can sometimes feel like you’re  following your map from one must-see destination to another. But Florence is full of fascinating details, and it’s worth it to stop and look around.

In this walking tour, you start and end at two key sights in Florence (the Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza Santa Croce), stopping along the way to look at the walls. Why the walls? Because if someone took the effort to write something on a wall (especially in the Middle Ages or Renaissance), it means that it’s definitely worth remembering.

Can you spot Michelangelo's mini-portrait?

Michelangelo’s mini-portrait

Start: Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza Signoria

After admiring Botticelli’s masterpieces at the Uffizi Gallery or learning about the bold Florentine Republic at the town hall (Palazzo Vecchio), go ahead and start this interesting stroll that will bring you to another site surely on your list, Santa Croce.

1. Michelangelo’s mark on the Palazzo Vecchio

If you’re facing the Palazzo Vecchio, go up to the right corner of the building, towards Via della Ninna and the Uffizi. You’ll notice that there’s a profile etched into one of the massive blocks of the Palazzo (the second in from the corner, about 12 feet up).

There is more than one version of the story, but in any case, the man bold enough to carve into Palazzo Vecchio was Michelangelo. One version states that he etched his profile into the stone with his back turned on a dare. Another variation has it that he carved the mug of a particularly hated acquaintance so that Florentines would never forget the man’s face. (Choose to believe whichever version you prefer.)

2. Flood marks at the Via dei Neri

Continue down Via della Ninna into Piazza del Grano (the exit for the Uffizi), cross the street, and start walking up Via dei Neri. When you come upon the first street on the left, Via di San Remigio, take a look at the left wall at the corner of Via dei Neri.

The ancient flood markers

The ancient flood markers

You’ll see two plaques high up on the wall, one from modern times and one that looks much older. They will be hard to read, but take a good look: They mark the water levels of two separate floods of the Arno River.

One marks a flood on November 4th, 1333, and the second marks the famous flood of November 4th, 1966. (Coincidentally, both floods happened on November 4th and reached a similarly destructive height.) If you come across a friendly Florentine over the age of 60, go ahead and ask about the flood of ’66. You will hear some amazing—and frightening—stories.

The Gelateria dei Neri

The Gelateria dei Neri

3. Snack break at the Gelateria dei Neri

Slightly farther ahead on the left, stop for a refreshing gelato at one of the best gelateria’s in Florence, Gelateria dei Neri. The gelato is made on the premises and there’s a wide range of flavors that changes depending on the season. In the winter, the creamy Crema di Giotto or the spicy Mexican chocolate with peppers is delicious, while summertime calls for something more fruity, like passion fruit or green apple.

4. A Christian declaration near the Piazza Santa Croce

Take a left onto Via de’ Benci (and possibly stop for an aperitivo at Moyo if you’re passing at the right hour) and head towards Piazza Santa Croce. When you’ve arrived at the edge of the piazza, facing the church, head to the first street on the left, Via Verrazzano.

A "Signori Otto" plaque at the Via del Fico

A “Signori Otto” plaque

A few paces in from the piazza, you’ll see a very old-looking stone covered in writing in the middle of a yellow wall. For all you Latin nerds, go ahead and try to read the old calligraphy. For all the rest of you, the stone tells you that in the year 1300, God graced all Christians by giving them back control of the Holy Land that had been in the hands of the Arabs, and to commemorate this grace, Pope Boniface decided to absolve all the sins of any Christian who made a pilgrimage to Rome. The last line (in Italian), states, “And Ugolino went with his wife.”

5. Renaissance-era warning signs

Final Stop: The Piazza Santa Croce

Final Stop: The Piazza Santa Croce

You’ll find the last stop on the corner of Via Verrazzano and the next street up, Via del Fico. On the corner of Via del Fico, above all of the modern-day graffiti, you’ll find a plaque similar to many others you’ll find in Florence signed by the “Signori Otto,” or the “Eight Men.”

These “Eight Men” kept order on the streets of Florence in the Renaissance era, and you’ll find their plaques all over the city, banning various inappropriate activities such as playing with balls in the street. In this particular case, the Eight Men are banning the “meretrici” (prostitutes) from living on this street.

End: Piazza Santa Croce

Now that you’ve examined many of Florence’s lesser-known attractions, you can go back to your regularly scheduled tours of museums and churches. Just don’t forget to look at the walls surrounding you!

About the author

Laura Mongillo

About the author: Laura Mongillo holds an Undergraduate and Masters degree in Italian Studies from NYU and has been living in Florence, Italy for three years.

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