Unforgettable places and special works of art

A hidden jewel

Jane Fortune
October 19, 2006

Tabernacles are lovely frescoed or sculptured niches shaped like small temples. During medieval times they were placed on almost every corner and usually contained a sacred image— often of the Madonna and Child. Tabernacles have been important since the 1200s but became particularly important in 1348, after the plague wiped out more than half of the Florentine population. The Church, to keep up morale, had these ‘shrines’ decorated with religious images so people could worship outside. Their intent was to keep the sickly masses out of the churches as to not spread the disease. Donatello’s Madonna and Child located on Via Pietrapiana is one of the many tabernacles commissioned by wealthy Florentines during this time.


In the 1800s, terra cotta became affordable to the masses, and this is one reason why 1,200 tabernacles are found in and around Florence—many in the Oltrarno district. According to Anne Holler in her wonderful book Florence Walks, one of the most famous examples is the 15th-century ‘tabernacle of the five lamps’ (tabernacolo delle cinque lampade), at Via de’ Ricasoli and Via de’ Pucci.


Oil lamps were originally placed in front of tabernacles to prevent street crime. For five years after their release, prisoners were obligated to finance the oil for these lamps and keep them in working order. Oil lamps were the city’s the only source of light until 1783, when public street lights were installed here and the last tabernacles were built. Today, flowers and candles are placed in front of the tabernacles’ images and still remain part of many a Florentine’s life.


Blue Guide Florence, by Alta Macadam, lists some of the city’s most famous tabernacles.



Comfort in a cup


I Barberi: At the corner of Via Palestro and Via il Prato

Open 7am to 7pm Monday - Saturday

A beloved community establishment since 1985, the small family bar I Barberi, run by Pinnucca Redditi and her son, Riccardo, both genuine, warm people, serves up the best coffee in Florence. According to Joe Wolff, who, during research for his book Café Life Florence, tried many cafes in Florence and Rome, the coffee at I Barberi is the best anywhere. We now have our coffee there almost every day when we are in Florence.


Book ends

I am often asked what books to read before coming to Florence to get a feel for the city, and The City of Florence by R.W.B. Lewis is one choice I always try to recommend. I love this wonderfully passionate book. It’s a delightful, deeply personal, and learned look at the city of Florence, encompassing its cultural, civic and artistic legacy from the Middle Ages to the present. Lewis, who died in 2002, discusses Florence’s designs and principal designers, as well as special sites and neighborhoods and their inhabitants (particularly Santa Croce, where he lived for many years). It gives the reader a taste for artistic history and the feel of this unique city. Lewis, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Edith Wharton, was an American literary scholar and critic, and a professor at Yale from 1959.

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