Exploding in shades of magenta, mauve and violet, unfurling iris blooms dance on the breezy slopes of Viale dei Colli, one of the few green areas in this stone-built Tuscan city. Each spring, locals meander along stone paths shaded by olive trees, admiring entrants to the Concorso Internazionale dell’Iris, a competition celebrating the city’s emblematic giaggiolo flower.
“This is one of my favourite places,” enthuses author Kamin Mohammadi. “It’s only open for two weeks of the year and I always worry I’ll miss it.” An Iranian exile who worked in London as a magazine journalist, Kamin moved to Florence 10 years ago on a whim. Her recently published memoir, Bella Figura, details an ensuing love affair with the city. She paints a romantic picture of lively conversation, serendipitous encounters and simple, home-cooked food so delightful that it feeds the soul.
For beyond the fancy façades and posturing of this proud city is another Florence, whispering from the shadows of quiet courtyards, rather than shouting from the top of medieval towers. For such a compact city, she’s surprisingly hard to find. But Kamin will be my guide.
As we climb higher to the 1,000-year-old church of San Miniato, we are greeted with a heavenly view of Tuscany’s museum-piece capital. A battalion of cyprus trees on the left bank of the Arno gives way to a crush of grand palazzos, marble bell towers and terracotta rooftops across the water. Brunelleschi’s burnt-orange cathedral dome dominates the skyline, dwarfing even Monte Morello and the shimmery peaks of the Apennines. Named after the city’s patron saint, San Miniato is a finely dressed Romanesque basilica illuminated by glinting Byzantine mosaics and the soft melody of monks chanting vespers. It’s a beautiful, calming place.
Away from the frenetic commercial centre, this side of the river is where Florence exhales a sigh of relief. Crowning the left bank, San Miniato was a comforting compass point for Kamin when she moved here, guiding her home to San Niccolo, a neighbourhood of artists and artisans at the bottom of the hill.
When we enter through the stone archway of an ancient city gate, I’m overpowered by the smell of jasmine trailing from the terraces of smart trattorias and trendy aperitivo bars. “All this is new,” explains Kamin with mild lament. The old-fashioned plumber’s workshop, butcher and grocer she fondly describes in her book have since disappeared, but a spirit of innovation lives on. In an open studio, Tommaso Brogini studies a canvas, adding brush strokes to one of his latest works. “For a while, he would only paint Michelangelo’s David,” whispers Kamin. Further up the road, cogs whirr and bells chime from a gothic cave where goldsmith and sculptor Alessandro Dari channels his imagination into jewels and metals. His family has supplied Florentine nobility and the church with pieces since 1630, and today his eclectic influences range from Luca della Robbia’s glazed pottery to steampunk Victoriana.
Unlike his neighbours, street artist Clet Abraham borrows nothing from the past – although the city’s street furniture did provide his first canvas, Kamin points out. Using stickers, the Frenchman subverts traffic signs, transforming a Turn Left arrow into an electric guitar and using a No Through Road as a crucifix. His studio sells the designs on T-shirts and notebooks. Although they are fiercely modern, I can’t help thinking these three artists are tapping into a legacy shaped by Donatello, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci more than six centuries ago.
According to Florentine historians, the Renaissance started here in 1401, when Lorenzo Ghiberti wowed judges with his three-dimensional biblical scenes, winning a competition to design the bronze baptistry doors. Thanks partly to the patronage of the Medici and wealthy guilds, the city was fertile ground for artists whose works are on display in the Uffizi, Italy’s most popular art museum, on the busy right bank.
It wasn’t only freedom and tolerance that gave Renaissance Florence its creative buzz; it was the abundance of inspiring subjects, too. Sitting in front of a window framing a Tuscan landscape, Filippo Lippi’s Madonna wears a distinctly elegant blue velvet Florentine cloak, while the flowing blonde locks of Botticelli’s Venus belong to Simonetta Vespucci, a local noblewoman who died tragically young, her beauty forever frozen in time. Similarly striking women waft through the city’s cobbled streets today, wearing floaty Cavalli dresses, huge shades and a swish of lip gloss. When she arrived, Kamin was mesmerised by these characters who paraded straight into the pages of her book. “Her gait, her composure, the very tilt of her head is an ode to grace and self-possession that makes her beautiful, whatever her actual features reveal,” she writes.
It’s an attitude embodied by the Continentale, a chic hotel inspired by Italy’s Fifties cinematic sirens, where I hope to soak up some of that elegantly feminine vibe. From my bedroom window overlooking the Ponte Vecchio’s jewellery shops, I’m in the thick of the action: Vespa horns blast impatiently, haughty signoras click their kitten heels on cobbles and Cimbali coffee machines purr in that irresistibly Italian way.
Florence has a long relationship with the world of fashion, and vestiges of its once-powerful guilds can be found all over the city – from the coats of arms stamped above doorways to street names reflecting trades – although only a few traditional artisans remain in operation.
By special appointment you can visit the Antico Setificio Fiorentino on Via Lorenzo Bartolini, where master weavers still use wooden looms to create silks for the Kremlin and Claridge’s. Enraptured by the luminosity of their colours, Kamin insists this is one of the few places where “you can touch the Renaissance”.
Or there’s the Scuola del Cuoio, a small leather workshop hidden at the back of Basilica di Santa Croce, yards away from the tombs of Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Rossini. Since the 13th century, tanned hides have been shipped along the river to this piazza, and after the Second World War, Franciscan monks decided to open part of their church as a leather school for orphans. Inside, a sweet scent coils through vaulted corridors, where craftsmen cut bags and belts beneath religious frescoes.