The “fiaccherai” of Florence

The “fiaccherai” of Florence

"Fiaccherai" and animal rights activists saddle up for summer debates

Mon 16 Jul 2018 12:53 PM

Meet Doc Wise. Strong, dark and virile, he turns heads and prompts comments from passersby; gazes of both women and men linger on him as he swaggers through the streets of downtown Florence. You might say he and his type are notorious for taking people for a ride: Doc is a 17-year-old trotter horse who entertains tourists of all nationalities with carriage excursions through the historic center.

His owner, Claudio, has been a licensed fiaccheraio—the Florentine term for carriage driver—since 2002. Carriage driving has always been a family affair for Claudio, whose fiaccheraio father inspired him to pick up the reins.

He is joined by 11 other certified fiaccherai who disperse themselves between piazza della Signoria and piazza Duomo, where they wait for tourists to climb aboard their carriages, either for spontaneous rides or scheduled transport. Spur-of-the-moment riders pay 50 euro for a standard 20- to 25-minute jaunt through the streets, which drivers may pepper with commentary on the scenery: “Here we are on the main boutique boulevard of Florence,” Claudio calls back jovially to a couple he’s escorting down via Tornabuoni.

A folkloric relic and popular tourist activity in travel destinations around the world, the horse-drawn carriage, for all its charms, has also been a frequent topic of concern for animal rights groups. In Florence, rising temperatures at the height of tourist season have often sparked discussions regarding horses’ suitability for such work, and how their well-being is ensured. Outright protests of the practice—including one in piazza San Lorenzo, held on June 23 and organized by the Movimento animalista della Toscana—are not uncommon.

City policies on carriages and proper treatment of horses are outlined in the Civic Regulations for the Protection of Animals (Regolamento comunale per la tutela degli animali), City Council resolution n. 285, introduced in 1999 and modified in 2002 and 2014. Title IX of the policy document deals specifically with horses, with articles 41, 42 and 43 regulating carriage activities. Article 41 covers breeds deemed fit for this type of work—Doc is a trotter and among those approved. Articles 42 and 43 respectively mandate eligibility examinations for both horse and driver, and set limitations on horses’ hours and working conditions.

43 is most relevant in day-to-day procedures, as it states that horses can work no more than six consecutive hours, allotting for adequate break time, which must take place in the shade come summer. Water must be provided to the horse at regular intervals, and no rides can run when temperatures exceed 35 degrees Celsius. “Sometimes it gets hot,” says Alessandro, a San Frediano native and “old school” fiaccheraio who’s been in the business, like his father and great-grandfather before him, since the rides were more function-focused and departed from via Pisana. “But we carry thermometers now, and we take care of our animals. I’m of the mind that if you’re going to have an animal”—his is named Don Carlos—“you have to look after it well. If a horse is not fit for this type of work, you simply don’t take him out.”

“We carry out our work in broad daylight,” Claudio says. “We’re in a beautiful city, doing a nice thing, and we have nothing to hide.”

Hiding would be largely impossible, anyway, since Article 43 also confines ride routes to the UNESCO-defined historic center. Weaving through crowds is the most challenging aspect of the job, Claudio adds, right as he hits the busy shopping stretch of via Calzaiuoli. As if on cue, upon turning into piazza della Signoria, Doc picks up the pace to a near-gallop and lets out a noisy neigh as tour groups look on. “He’s fully in tact”—not neutered—“and likes to make himself heard!”, Claudio laughs.

Seeing such vitality in Doc is rewarding for Claudio, who says the former racehorse was a powerful runner once destined to be sold on the black market. Had Claudio not intervened, Doc would have been transported southward by truck to take part in unregulated asphalt racing. “Many animal activists don’t want to talk about these alternative situations {in which carriage horses could have landed},” Claudio explains.

Florentine fiaccherai have their foes, but Rome is where much of the controversy has historically been concentrated. In the Eternal City, opposition to carriages—called botticelle locally—recently reached a peak when associations including LAV (Lega anti vivisezione) and the ENPA (Ente Nazionale per la Protezione degli Animali) presented a petition of over 10,000 signatures to the city’s Mobility Commission, calling for the abolition of all carriages. As reported by Il Messaggero, the proposal was rejected by city officials in late April, in a move that surprised many activists: eliminating botticelle had been a talking point during Mayor Virginia Raggi’s electoral campaign and was written into the Movimento 5 Stelle’s animal rights plan of action.

Claudio concedes that carriage rides in Rome “could be more problematic {than those in Florence}: there’s more cars and confusion and the roads are wider,” and thus more exposed to the sun. In the Tuscan capital, by contrast, arranging one’s route through narrow side streets kept shaded by tall medieval buildings is easier to achieve, he says. Potential strain on the horse might occur “when stopping and starting.” But Claudio aims to minimize this type of exertion by never moving uphill—steep inclines are relatively easy to avoid in the mostly flat center.

Provisions like these are not always enough to please critics. Sonny Richichi is President of the Italian Horse Protection Association, a nonprofit rescue center headquartered in Alberi, hamlet of Montaione. {The horses’} being under the sun per se is not what he finds objectionable: “Horses are incredibly adaptable animals,” he wrote in an email, a sentiment echoed by the fiaccherai. “The problem is not the heat itself, but when they’re forced to stand immobile or when pulling the carriage is the one and only activity they’re allowed, when their nature would require an entirely different situation—large spaces, room to run.”

Cristiano and Nando

Creating and maintaining an “entirely different situation” is not always so straightforward, however. Cristiano, another fiaccheraio with six years in the saddle, can attest to this, sharing his senior horse Nando’s backstory as the pair took a break near the Baptistery.

Nando is another former racer. Like Doc, he is a trotter, one of the four breeds listed as appropriate for carriage pulling (others are Italian Rapid Heavy Draft Farm Horses, abbreviated in Italy as TPR, for ‘Tiro pesante rapido’; Lipizzaners, typical of the Spanish Riding School; and Maremmani, a breed traditionally associated with butteri, livestock herders of the Maremma region of southern Tuscany and northern Lazio).

“The lifespan of a trotter is usually from 23 to 25 or 26 years,” Cristiano explained as Nando slurped water from a bucket bag, the strap slung over his head for easy access. “After they reach the age of 26, they’re not able to make good race times, so they become scarti”—cast aside in a discard pile, so to speak. (Ed. Richichi asserted after this story was published that horses “are used on the racetrack only up to the age of 10 or 11”).

Once that happens, Cristiano continued, “there are basically two options: either someone takes them on and gives them something to do, as we do in our profession, or they go straight to the slaughterhouse. This is something I’d like for animal rights activists to know,” he emphasized. “This horse, I saved him from that fate.”

Aging Nando’s new station in life is also not an automatic path to working past his expiration date. Ermes Dall’Olio, one of the founders of online magazine Carrozze & Cavalli, has explored the subject of carriage horse retirement in his writings. In one Dall’Olio article dating from July 2016, Dall’Olio announced a public sendoff party for then-new “pensioners” Priscilla and Cesare; the pair was supplied apples, carrots and well-wishes after 11 and 13 years of piazza work, respectively. Both horses entered the equine equivalent of a retirement home: a “tranquil and wide pasture not far from Florence” where they joined four former “colleagues” of varied ages and breeds, all of whom had been grazing there for several years already.

Dall’Olio argues that the fiaccherai code of ethics can be seen playing out in that pasture, citing the case of Ghibli, a 13-year-old who worked for a relatively brief five years. “As with humans, not all horses are the same,” Dall’Olio writes. “Some have more solid builds than others and, all work being equal, varying the retirement age is a good move.”

Dall’Olio, who ran an equine center in Montese (Modena), held an unused City of Bologna carriage license for over 25 years, and led packs of hunting dogs with his trusty horse through the Bologna Hunt association, is a staunch advocate for well-regulated carriage driving. One archived piece of his, Ferri da Cavallo di Ieri e Oggi, highlights how poor-quality horseshoes and overly heavy carriages have pronounced negative effects on even the healthiest horses. In the same vein as Claudio’s comments on Rome, he’s able to curtail his passion when analyzing certain carriage contexts: “In a modern city like New York,” Dall’Olio told The Florentine, “it’s not a pretty sight to see the ‘poor beast’ pulling a coach, moving slowly, breathing in carbon monoxide. But in Florence, Rome, Lucca and many other cities with thousands of years of history and centers closed off to automobiles, the carriage is like cacio sui maccheroni” (cheese on macaroni).

Neither carriages nor actual cheese sits well with Vittoria Sonnino, the representative of the Movimento Animalista della Toscana who organized the June 23 protest in San Lorenzo. Her kindest assessment of the industry was “anachronistic”; a less forgiving one uttered at various points was “shameful.” Sonnino and co-protestors also took pointed jabs at carriage customers: “Many of you are overweight anyway,” she spoke through a megaphone. “Florence is beautiful to see on foot; walking would do you good!” (Civic regulations do not explicitly define weight limits; instead Title IX, Article 43 prohibits drivers from transporting more people than there are seats in the carriage. Claudio’s maximum is three adults, not including himself; Alessandro says no carriage can handle more than four, driver excluded).

Although sparsely attended, the San Lorenzo protest caught the attention of the fiaccherai. Cristiano, for one, is accustomed to the occasional demonstration, he says, particularly in summertime. “For us, this is our work,” he says. Pointing to Nando, he adds, “I treat him with the utmost respect.”

Dall’Olio is more blunt with his response. “{Pointing fingers} at carriages and their drivers is ‘smoke and mirrors’,” Dall’Olio wrote in an email, going on to highlight petty crime and unregulated street sales as larger tourism-related problems. “The carriage in our current age, when used in the correct setting and with the right regulations, is one of the many fine vehicles of Made in Italy tourism promotion. This is the ironclad opinion of an expert,” he concluded. As ironclad, perhaps, as Doc’s, Don’s and Nando’s shoes.

Editor’s note, July 16, 2018: A version of this article appeared in the summer 2018 print edition of The Florentine and suggested that Sonny Richichi of the Italian Horse Protection Association does not object to horses “working” under the sun. Richichi later clarified that he does not object to their “being” under the sun, but is “against any type of exploitation of horses, especially these carriages.” 

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