A picture of the past

A picture of the past

Florence has abundance of beautiful piazzas, churches and museums that speak to the city's importance in centuries past. However, as Marc Justin discovered, the city's small, less obvious spaces often tell an interesting yet rarely told story.   I'm walking along via de' Pecori near the Duomo.

Thu 30 Jun 2011 12:00 AM

Florence has abundance of beautiful piazzas, churches and museums that speak to the city’s importance in centuries past. However, as Marc Justin discovered, the city’s small, less obvious spaces often tell an interesting yet rarely told story.


I’m walking along via de’ Pecori near the Duomo. The street is so crowded that I feel like a salmon wiggling upstream. I pass the usual array of chic shops and other wallet-bending ventures, but then I notice a store that is not quite like the others. Its window display is teeming with space-race gadgetry and its very vintage sign says ‘DEI.’ Intrigued, I press my face against the glass and decide I must investigate.


I ring the bell and the lock goes click. I walk in and a cowbell clangs above my head. The smell of ancient cardboard fills my nose. It feels like an attic or a damp garage. Then the door shuts behind me and there’s silence.


An old man appears in a white lab coat. His loafers scrape the floor as he takes tiny steps. He makes it to the counter and then looks at me as if to say I’ve made it here; now what the hell do you want? Oops, I realize, I have no reason to be here. I realize that this could upset this kind of guy. I see a shirt and tie beneath his lab coat. He is a man of principle.


I scan the shelves and try to think of something. I see antique cameras and what looks like many thermometers. I notice that the man is losing patience so I ask him about the store.


He reaches under the counter and plops an envelope in front of me. ‘Open it,’ he says. I reach inside and pull out a photo. It’s him surrounded by men in suits. ‘That’s the mayor,’ he says. I look a little closer. Then he points to a certificate on the wall. ‘The Oldest Store in Florence, Founded in 1910 – The Mayor.’ I act impressed because, frankly, I am. He pulls something else from the pile, the sepia headshot of a boy. ‘That’s me during my apprenticeship in 1943. I made 135 lira per month. That’s 7 cents today.’ I consider this a good time to introduce myself so I extend my hand. He shakes it. ‘Mario,’ he says.


The cowbell clangs and two girls walk in. They look curiously at their surroundings and make their way to the counter. One of them pulls an old camera from her bag. ‘Do you have film for this?’ she asks. Mario replies without even looking. ‘Polaroid, don’t have it.’ The girl asks where she can find it. ‘Internet,’ he says.


The girls leave and I try to explain the hipster movement and resurgence of vintage photography to Mario. He shrugs and invites me to come behind the counter. ‘I want to show you something,’ he says. He pulls up the leg of his pants and points to his bare calf. ‘See this?’ He says something about a landmine during the German occupation of ’44 that I don’t completely understand because of my limited Italian. ‘They bombed the bridges,’ he says, sounding quite angry. ‘I ran through the streets while snipers shot from rooftops. But I kept the store open,’ he says. ‘The Germans were good customers.’


He asks me where I’m from, and when I tell him I’m from Canada, he switches to near-perfect English. ‘My wife was British,’ he says. His eyes brighten for a second as he shows me her photo. ‘We went to London 52 times together,’ he says. ‘Do you know what the problem is today? Couples are afraid of being together.’


I ask him about the flood of ’66 and he places his hand on the wall. ‘The water was up to here,’ he says. He takes out another photo and shows me his ruins. I hardly recognize the store. ‘I lost everything,’ he says. I ask about the government. This makes him chuckle. ‘They gave me 200 euro, just enough to dry the walls.’


He begins to put the photos back in the envelope and asks me what I need. On impulse I say, ‘Film.’ He reaches behind and puts a small yellow box on the counter. ‘Tell me something,’ he says. ‘Do you like it here?’ I tell him I do. ‘Then here, regalo.’ He puts the film in my hand. ‘Next time, you show me some photos.’


Umberto Dei Ottica Fotografia first opened its doors in 1910 on via Calzaiuoli. Mario Baracchi has owned the shop since 1966. He still makes lenses and performs repairs on all optical instruments. The store is located at via de’ Pecori 19.



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