Cafe’ society: The Giubbe Rosse

Tiffany J. Nesbit
October 31, 2007

Like the White Horse Tavern in New York City, and Café de Flore in Paris, the Giubbe Rosse in Florence’s Piazza della Repubblica has long been a gathering place for patrons of the arts. Once famously known as the Florentine headquarters of the Futurist movement, the establishment’s entire literary and artistic history is quite remarkable.

 

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Florentine government decided to modernize the square and dedicate it to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy. Part of the renovations included a new open-air café opened by the German Reininghaus brothers.

 

It was the first establishment to open in the new Piazza della Repubblica, and it quickly became a hub for the growing German community. Giubbe Rosse, a name coined by local people unable to pronounce the names of the owners, came from the red (rosso) jackets (giubbe) worn by the waiters.

 

The café consisted of three rooms, each home to a different crowd: the first was a sort of German social club; the second was frequented by international travelers who stopped in to reconnect over coffee or a meal; and the third was reserved for a chess club. Florentine residents and visitors kept abreast of current events thanks to the café’s display of numerous international magazines and newspapers.

 

It was not long before the Futurists, perhaps inspired by the Giubbe Rosse’s lively and interactive environment, came to use the third room as their ‘office’.

 

In 1909, Futurism began to spread, thanks to the writings of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who used technology, speed and modernity as inspiration for his manifestos that glorified the machine age and war. Tradition and history became the enemies of this new movement that has often been associated with the rise of Fascism. In one of his most well-known documents, Marinetti declared: ‘We intend to found Futurism in Italy because we want to free this country from the fetid cancer of its professors, archeologists, guides, and antiquarians…’

 

This manifesto made the movement very popular and it soon spread all over Europe. Giovanni Papini, a Florentine writer, was one of the leaders of the Florentine branch of Futurism. Together with fellow writer Ardengo Soffici, Papini founded Lacerba, a Futurist journal composed at the tables of the Giubbe Rosse. Just step inside the café and you will see early covers still on the walls.

 

Among other patrons of the Giubbe Rosse was English poet and painter Mina Loy. After her move to Florence in 1907, she began frequenting the café along with other expatriates. Loy plunged into Futurist literature and began to transfer their ideals onto her satirical poetry, which was inspired by Papini and Marinetti. Her time at the café is commemorated by letters written on Giubbe Rosse letterhead, currently displayed in Yale University’s archives.

 

Solaria, an important anti-Fascist literary journal, was founded at this grand café in the 1920s. It was published for almost 10 years before police deemed it politically rebellious, and ceased its publication. During this period, the ‘genius loci’ was poet Eugenio Montale, who could often be found sitting at a table, smoking a cigarette and drinking wine as captured in a photograph now displayed on a column in the center of the café.

 

The year after Solaria was banned, a third literary journal, Letteratura, was conceived at the Giubbe Rosse. A year later, the editors of the journal Campo di Marte used it as a meeting place. The café now had a significant buzz surrounding it, which caused Fascist authorities to become suspicious of the intellectual crowd gathered there. Even the waiters became Fascist’s targets, and were ordered to wear white jackets instead of the signature red. 

 

Things changed again in 1944, when American troops turned it into a social club.  It would be three years until the café reopened—this time with the waiters once again wearing red jackets.

The Giubbe Rosse continued to be a platform where many writers, artists and activists began their careers, and it is a must-see for any literary traveler. Pulitzer Prize–winner Charles Wright visited several times and eventually wrote a poem about it, With Simic and Marinetti at the Giubbe Rosse.  In it, he remembers a time when he had lunch with fellow poet Charles Simic while discussing the entire history of the café:

 

Where Dino Campana once tried to sell his sad poems

Among the tables Where Montale settled into his silence and hid,

Disguised as himself for twenty years,

The ghosts of Papini and Prezzolini sit tight

With Carlo Emilio Gadda

  somewhere behind our backs.

Let’s murder the moonlight… (Lines 1–8)

 

Have a coffee at the Giubbe Rosse and you will no doubt find yourself surrounded by books and papers, maybe even an exhibit or performance taking place. Better still, you might just find yourself sitting amongst the authors of the next school of thought.

 

 

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