Always and in all ways

Finding family in Florence

Larry Basirico
September 11, 2014

Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire. No matter where you go or turn, you will always end up at home. —Italian proverb


Dr. Larry Basirico lived in Florence in the fall of 2013 while serving as visiting professor at Accademia Europea di Firenze and teaching his students to observe the culture and institutions of Italy. According to social scientists, culture is, loosely defined, a ‘way of life’ that includes its norms, values, beliefs, language, symbols and technology. Cultures are sustained and embodied through social institutions—the routines and practices pertaining to family, religion, government, economics, education, health care, arts and leisure, and sex and gender. This is the conclusion of Basirico, professor of sociology, former chair of the department of sociology and anthropology and former dean of international programs at Elon University.


For anyone who has lived in Florence, can there be any question that the heart and soul of Italy is the family? Yes, the ubiquitous art, the ghosts of the Renaissance at every turn of the corner, the ever present bells of Giotto’s campanile, the architecture and rust-colored rooftops, the Arno framed by the Tuscan sky and book-ended hills, the wine, leather and ceramics captivate us. But, ultimately, our source of fulfillment in Florence is the genuineness of the people. This genuineness is central to the sense of community that underlies the genius loci of Florence, which I wrote about in TF digital 199. Genius loci is an ancient Roman concept that originally denoted the guardian spirit of a place; its underlying character. Although not the only source of Florence’s genius loci, the centrality of the family is unquestionably a key ingredient.


Luigi Barzini wrote in The Italians (1964), ‘Scholars have always recognized the Italian family as the only fundamental institution in the country, a spontaneous creation of the national genius, adapted through the centuries to changing social conditions, the real foundation of whichever social order prevails.’ This seemed especially true for us in Florence.


What impressed us most were our observations of family loyalty and displays of affection. We saw these shine through at meal-times, in leisure, business, and value and respect of the elderly. Our first observation of family unity was when we became swept up in Festa della Rificolona, the festival of paper lanterns traditionally celebrated on September 7. People of all ages frolicked through the streets of Florence as children carried paper lanterns they had spent months preparing. This 12th-century tradition began when peasant farmers and their families would come to Florence to celebrate the Virgin Mary’s birthday, pray at the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata and bring their agricultural products to town to sell.


Whether it was getting a panino at I Due Fratellini on via dei Cimatori, being invited in for a glass of wine while perusing leather at family-run David 2 Leather on via del Corso, hearing about their family’s jewelry traditions at Fratelli Piccini on the Ponte Vecchio, speaking for an hour with Mario Baracchi, the avuncular optometrist at the recently closed Umberto Dei Ottica Fotografia on via dei Pecori across from the Duomo, about his lifelong love for his deceased British wife, or hundreds of other experiences, we learned that there is no separation between family, business and life itself.


Family-like affections infuse everyday culture, even among new acquaintances, with a greeting kiss on both cheeks. At first taken aback by this practice, and sometimes by more overt gestures of endearment between young lovers, my students soon learned that these are symbolic of Italians’ value of the human connection, nurtured within the family, at home and, especially, during meals. Unlike the ‘fast food’ culture of Americans, Italians are more likely to embrace the slowness of the meal, structured by l’antipasto, il primo, il secondo, il contorno (side dish) and il dolce (dessert). It took us a few weeks to understand that unless we specifically requested ‘il conto, per favore’ (the check, please), waiting for 30 minutes or more after completion of the meal did not mean poor service, but respect and encouragement of taking the time to slow down and enjoy life. Similarly, it took us time to understand that closing the stores for a few hours in the afternoon for siesta, a common practice in many southern European countries, is not for need of a nap but for taking time in the middle of the day for the things that are important, primarily family and food. The practice of young adults living at home with their families often well into their 30s is not seen as odd, but reflects past and current economic restraints and, especially, the centrality of the family in Italian culture.


While cultures and institutions change slowly over time, the heart of Italy remains the family. As Barzini commented in 1964: ‘Of course, something of the new ideas will stick, something not quite essential. But the spirit of the old ways will survive somehow. An Italian will still choose to stand by his family, in a crisis, against the carabinieri, the police, the courts, public opinion, and even, at times, his own conscience, because the family has for so long been the only reliable vessel on a sea of troubles, which will always float to safety with all its crew and contents.’


Among other reasons, the unique juxtaposition of Florence’s busy, sophisticated and profoundly historical urbanity with the intimacy of small village traditions provides a context that nurtures this quintessential Italian social institution.

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