Thrill of the hunt: looking for antiques and bric-a-brac in Florence

Thrill of the hunt: looking for antiques and bric-a-brac in Florence

Florence's flea markets are filled with antiquities, bric-a-brac and hidden treasures, if you know where to look.

Tue 27 Feb 2024 2:28 PM

I was lurking about in a forest of wood, dust and gold in what seems like a makeshift construction on the banks of the river Arno. Moving this way and that, determined to unearth a prospect of incredible value or incredible beauty (not necessarily in that order), I make myself into a schiacciata fiorentina to squeeze through a sliver of space forged by the aged back of a towering piece of furniture butted up against soot-covered glass frames obscuring eclectic canvases. Barely a metre from the crevice stands what might be an ancient maiolica vase with serpentine handles. I take a deep breath, pull in a pasta-fashioned midriff and succeed in slithering through the miniscule opening. Almost tripping over a protruding canvas frame on the floor, I manage my way to the prize, only to wonder if it might say “Made in China” when I turn it over.

La Mecca ph. Hershey Felder
La Mecca ph. Hershey Felder

Before I touch the trophy, I hear someone call my name. Once, twice, then finally a third time, each calling louder and higher-pitched than before. I don’t recognize the voice. I can’t ascertain where the voice is coming from, but I can sense it originates somewhere behind a large credenza to my left. Even though the voice knows my first name, I am inattentive because the credenza, unseen until that moment, is an aged painted beauty. Dark cream with burnt umber and cerulean blue arabesques dance on the piece’s facade. I am able to reach out and feel the surface of the centuries-rich layered varnish, creamy to the touch. I allow my left hand to follow one of the arabesques, slowly feeling the artist who might have painted it. I need to investigate this credenza. Is it “real”? Or is it just a year- or two-old, left unwanted in some backyard, exposed to the elements that hurried up the illusion of its charm.

I open the lower right cabinet door. The metal fixtures are uneven, handcrafted for certain. The mid-shelf is lined with fine green diamond etchings on addled cream paper, browned along the edges, disintegrating to the touch. Gently, I allow my open hand to caress the interior wood to feel for unevenness. I offer my nose to take in the scent of last week or previous centuries. I look carefully at the chipped edges of the credenza molding. How many layers? And what do those layers appear to be made of? I can see and feel degrees of underpainting, layers of gesso, hand-finished wood-working… I call out.

“Marcello? Where are you, Marcello? I need to know! When is this piece from?” I have entirely forgotten the female voice calling out my name a few minutes before. I am “in the zone”. “Marcello!” I call out again. Where is he?

La Mecca ph. Hershey Felder

Marcello emerges as if sprung forth from a crack in one of the makeshift edifice’s walls. He is a lanky character with an aged face, a full head of slicked-back curly salt-and-pepper hair and clear youthful eyes. Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a 1950s Elvis-style leather jacket, he fits in perfectly with his surroundings. He has an answer to my query.

“Eh, something from the early 1800s.” I can tell he has absolutely no idea about the provenance of the piece. I push him further. “All I know,” he finally says, “is that the Florentine lady who owned it died months ago and her children needed to get everything out of the house. This is how most things come to us. This new generation, they don’t want memories. They want everything to be easy. They don’t want to have to worry about big heavy things when their whole lives are on a small telephone and TikTok.”

“How much?” I ask.

“Eh, 400.” He says. I balk. He retorts. “What? The lady died in her nineties. She was from an ancient family in Florence. Is 400 really that much for something that might have belonged to a Medici? It probably comes from one of the Medici palaces. I am sure it is older than what I was thinking. For sure.”

“But it looks to be of Venetian design, in the traditional florid painted and flowing movement of Venetian lacquered furniture.”

“Well, yes,” Marcello says. “The Medici fancied Venetian art.” Really? Now that’s something. I smile, loving Marcello’s storytelling, none of which is based on reality. But the fantasy plays beautifully.

Nevertheless, 400 euro? I was ready to pay double and consider it a serious bargain. But bargaining is part of the game. I offer a hundred less on his original proposal. He looks at me with disdain. I say that I am a loyal fixture in Florence, that I have furnished a house with things from this very spot. At this point, it should be given to me as a gift for being such a spend-easy customer. “Ok,” says Marcello. “350.” “Sold,” I say. A deal at even twice, three times the price. Is it a “good piece”? Is it something that could and should be restored and placed in a museum, or re-finished and sold at one of the exorbitantly priced antique shops on via Maggio? It doesn’t even cross my mind because it’s beautiful and I have exactly the place for it in my ever-dwindling available places for such things, given this obsession with adventuring through vast collections of someone else’s garbage to find treasure. I wonder about who else might have touched the credenza. Who painted it? How many times was it painted over to fit new decor? What was stored in it? What dinners, joys and tragedies did it witness? What might I be adding to its history?

I remember the maiolica vase to my right. I rub away some of the dirt. I can see it is hand-painted, uneven, individual. I carefully turn the vase over and find a signature. AB. Firenze, 1896. “Marcello!” I scream out, excitedly. I stand on an overturned copper pot to be seen above the forest of “things”. I lift the Maiolica above my head. “How much, Marcello?”

“35!” I reply, “Sold!”

I hear my name again. This time from behind an oversized canvas, the subjects looking like they emerged from some Eastern brothel with heavy bold lines accented in red. I cringe. But I hear my name again. Suddenly from behind the canvas a face pops out. I vaguely recognize the face.

“It’s me,” the lady says. She gives her name. “We sat next to each other at dinner two weeks ago at our friend’s house on the viale dei Colli!”

Out of my mouth comes, “But you were so elegantly attired in your Ferragamo and so perfectly coiffed, sharing tales of purchasing your villa here. What are you doing in this joint?”

“Same thing as you are,” she says, “following an obsession. Finding pieces of history lurking amid the trashy and faux.” I reply, “But no doubt you could find these things in one of the fancy shops on via Maggio, or in Paris, Milan or New York! I’m a workaday artist. I come here to find something that will soothe my soul, make me happy and not call on me to spend what I don’t have. You can go anywhere.”

“But where’s the fun in that?” the lady says. I see the wildness in her eyes, the same that I recognize in my own on coming into this mystical collection of who-knows-what bathed in the scent of old wood and the dust of time. Lanky Marcello suddenly appears. “What else?” “That’s it for today,” I say. “That’s all the budget allows.” “Are you sure?” he says. “For today, yes. But you know I’ll be back.” The lady interjects. “Of course he’ll be back. We all come back.” She looks at me. “Where else do you go? I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.” 

And I remember my wife of years saying to me, “Well, if you are going to have a vice, this is not such a bad thing.” As she looked around realizing that my vice is what surrounds us in the place we call home.

Where to go bric-a-brac and antique hunting in Florence

La Mecca Contovendita e Compravendita (via Poggio Bracciolini 8/14) is the place mentioned by Hershey in this piece.

Santo Spirito market every second Sunday of the month (9am-7pm) where 100 antiquarians and restorers show their wares.

The flea market in largo Pietro Annigoni is open daily from 9pm to 7.30pm for old lamps, antique furniture and plenty more curiosities.

Indipendenza Antiquaria is an antiques fair held every third Saturday and Sunday in piazza Indipendenza from 9am to 7pm.

Head to Il Rigattiere Mario Grillo in via Pisana 23R to pick up pieces of the past.

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