If you are terribly rich and bursting with ideas for holiday presents, skip this article. If you’re not, read on and relax. I’m going to suggest gifts that are both Italian and affordable.
Are your card-playing friends losing patience with paper-thin cards that lack the snap needed for a good shuffle? Do them a favour. Buy them traditional, high-quality Dal Negro playing cards. They’re sold in tabaccherie such as the one between the pharmacy and Edison bookstore in Piazza della Repubblica, which even carries my favourite small-size solitaire cards.
For the lass who loves to adorn her tresses with clips, barrettes and fancy combs, go to the profumeria in via Ricasoli, north of via Pucci. It must have the world’s biggest supply of hair ornaments. The window is full of them, looking like treasure spilt out of a pirate’s chest. (But study the display carefully before going in. Salespeople are low on patience at this time of the year.)
How about ‘made-to-measure’ bath oil for someone who delights in these luxuries? D.ssa Russo, at the Erborista San Simone in via Ghibellina, will make it up to your specifications. On the spot. She can also concoct a skin cream to meet your requirements, but that process is more complicated and takes several days.
Piggy-banks are never out of fashion with children, especially if they are rattling with coins. Piggy-banks in the shape of the distinctive Italian mailbox are a novel interpretation of the traditional form and available at any post office in town.
Are you looking for something unusual for the youngster who is captivated by stories of dragons and sorcerers? Pay a visit to the chemist Bizzarri in via Condotta, where you can buy a tiny piece of something intriguingly named sangue di drago, dragon’s blood (which is in fact a red resin used for staining violins, but such mundane explanations can be suppressed for the occasion). Put it in a small glass vessel and present it with a tall tale of mythical origins and properties. It will be a magical gift.
Do you know a little girl who plays with dolls? For a few euros you can buy a 50-gram ball of the prettiest wool, which will suffice for knitting a cardigan to fit a medium-sized doll. A 50-gram ball or two of wool will also make a winter cap for a child or adult. Wool shops are fast disappearing, but one survives in Piazza San Lorenzo, in the corner to the left of the church.
If you know someone who sews, have a look at the delightful children’s buttons in the shapes of animals and fruit offered in various mercerie such as Zuffanelli, just across from the south side of Orsanmichele. Another store that has a good selection of buttons is the merceria in via S.Elisabetta. (You’ll also find a mind-boggling assortment of beautiful lace and other trimmings.)
I’m sure you’ve seen paintings of the Christ Child with a piece of red coral dangling from his neck. These amulets to ward off evil, called corni or cornetti, are still made and worn here. I found tiny ones carved from red coral (the darker the colour the higher the quality) at the goldsmith Puliti in Piazza S. Elisabetta.
No one ever has too many key-chains, and it’s easy to find ones that are both inexpensive and imaginative. There are key-chains to suit every type of person: elegant ones in leather and whimsical ones with different forms carved out of wood. I’ve even seen key-chains with miniature ballet slippers, in the window of the dancers’ supply shop, Il Ritmo del Successo, on via dell’Agnolo, just east of via dei Pepi.
Is there someone on your list who is crazy about liquorice? If so, your worries about what to buy are over. Italy is practically the liquorice capital of the world. Italians, who love the stuff, have been preparing it for centuries. (There is even a liquorice museum in Calabria, the Museo della Liquirizia Giorgio Amarelli.) Amarelli is the most famous liquorice firm in Italy, and you’ll find its products for sale in specialty shops such as Alessi in via dell’Oche. Should you see an Italian with a twig between his teeth, it’s likely that he’s chewing a piece of raw liquorice root as a mouth-freshener. I’ve spotted these bastoncini di liquirizia at Pegna, in via dello Studio, on the shelf behind the spice counter.
If you have time for handmade gifts, try making your own Florentine greeting cards. Press leaves or plants that you found on a walk, arrange them in an interesting pattern and scan them. Or assemble some of your memorabilia (bus tickets, receipts, photos, a map of your Florentine neighbourhood, etc.) to resemble a trompe l’oeil image, like those painted by artists from the Renaissance on, scan the composition, reduce it to card size and print your cards on thick paper. (But first buy your envelopes, so that the formats match.) Happy Holidays!