Le Murate

Behind closed walls

Deirdre Pirro
January 17, 2013

Within walking distance or a short bus ride from the historic centre and covering the entire block between via Ghibellina and via dell'Agnolo, just before viale Giovine Italia, Le Murate is one of Florence's major architectural success stories of the past 20 years. Based on plans made in 1998 by the renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, Le Murate is also one of the best new places in the city to hang out. Since its official opening in April 2011, the complex, which includes public housing, parking, shops, restaurants, bars and open spaces, has become a cultural and recreational hub. At the Caffé Letterario Le Murate, with its wide-ranging programming, one can meet friends for coffee or a glass of wine; enjoy live jazz, rock or classical music; view art, sculpture or photography exhibitions; attend readings by authors and discuss their latest books; hear poetry readings; and watch a film. At the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which recently moved its European headquarters to the complex, people can attend seminars, workshops and the monthly Human Rights Tuesday Night meetings.


But Le Murate did not begin its long history as a cultural and entertainment hub. Far from it. It began life as the Santissima Annunziata alle Murate and Santa Caterina convent. Built in 1424, its purpose was to accommodate the Benedictine nuns who, up until then, had lived in small cells on the old Rubaconte bridge (now replaced by Ponte alle Grazie). Because the bridge frequently flooded, they had to be relocated, and because these nuns had voluntarily chosen a cloistered religious life, they were said to be murate (‘walled up'), thereby giving the place the name it still has today.


After the Habsburg-Lorraine rulers were deposed in December 1807, Tuscany was annexed by France. Florence became the prefecture of the French Département of Arno from 1808 up until the fall of Napoleon in 1814. Upon taking control of the city, the French quickly suppressed the religious orders and, for the purpose of assisting Napoleon in financing his wars, confiscated their property. The nuns at Le Murate, being no exception, were unceremoniously sent packing.


Not long after, Le Murate again became a place for being ‘walled up,' this time more bleakly, when, in 1845, the buildings were redesigned and fitted out as a jail for male prisoners. It was used for that purpose until 1985.


Not exclusively the home to villains and ruffians, during Italy's fight for independence in the mid-nineteenth century, Le Murate became the temporary abode of such political prisoners as writers and patriots Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi (1804-1873) and Carlo Bini (1806-1842).


A century later, during World War II, political prisoners, dissidents and partisans captured by the fascists were again imprisoned there. Never as notorious as the Villa Triste prison on via Bolognese, where the thugs of Mario Carità's militia tortured and even murdered similar inmates, Le Murate was often the antechamber to their arrival there.


When, on November 4, 1966, the Arno river burst its banks, the lives of the prisoners locked up at Le Murate were in grave danger. Fearing their charges would drown in the rising floodwaters, the prison guards opened their cell doors. Not so lucky, the jail's governor, his wife and children remained trapped inside their lodgings. Seven ‘liberated' prisoners, at considerable personal risk, swam to rescue them and several other entrapped prisoners. They were later pardoned by then president of the Republic, Giuseppe Saragat. One of them, Alessandro D'Ortenzi, nicknamed Zanzarone (‘big mosquito'), was an accomplice of the infamous Magliana criminal gang in Rome.


However, most of the prisoners were taken in by local residents or given refuge on the rooftops or in upper-storey flats around via Ghibellina. Once the emergency was over, almost all voluntarily surrendered to authorities. Only three prisoners did not: one drowned in what may have been an attempted escape whilst the other two went on the run, later to be recaptured.


Crumbling and overcrowded, Le Murate was the site of a major inmate revolt on February 24, 1974, when a group of detainees managed to climb onto the prison roof. Reacting too quickly, a guard fired his machine gun, killing one prisoner and wounding four others. Instead of quelling the insurrection, it ignited even more and incited public support for the rioters. After a night-long siege, order was finally restored, but conditions within the prison remained dire until, a decade later, it was finally closed, the inmates transferred to a modern facility at Solliciano, southwest of the city (today itself afflicted with the serious problem of overcrowding, which also afflicts prisons nationwide).


When next drinking a cappuccino or sipping an aperitif at Le Murate, look around at the walls and just imagine how many tales they could tell, if only they could speak.

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