A Peek into Florence’s Backstreet Humanity

It is a very ordinary street in Florence, via Sant’Agostino. Some may say it’s dirty, or even unpleasant. Graffiti is scrawled on nearly every wall, outdated posters look like they’ve been scratched at, and the stones on the street could use some repair. Cars and bikes roar past on their way from via Romana to via de’ Serragli as if they can’t get through fast enough. And people on the sidewalks briskly walk toward Piazza Santo Spirito or some other, more pause-worthy place of excitement.

But, as with any street in Florence, if you slow your pace, you’ll catch a glimpse of its rich character—as I did, walking down the via Sant’Agostino one bright and beautiful afternoon.

We have to start with the ex-church, close to via de’ Serragli. The old brown graffitied doors of the former (‘ex’) chiesa di San Carlo dei Barnabiti is now an art space. Past events include a show with photography, jewelry, and poetry in one setting; an exhibit of paintings from prisoners from Sollicciano Prison; and a show proclaiming itself as ‘an experiment in art and sound.’ The building’s seventeenth-century origins as a church for the clerical order of St. Paul (the Barnabites) pale behind this new artistic energy.

Across the street, two men have a smoke and chat outside the Pasticceria Sant’Agostino. A group of Americans whiz by, talking fast. I keep walking, having the vague goal of the forno at the other end of the street.

Mark Roberts writes, in his Street-Names of Florence, that the ground I’m walking on was once filled with orchards, tended by Austin friars. The friars belonged to the nearby St. Augustine convent attached to the church in Santo Spirito. As cars and bikes zoom by, it’s hard to imagine this place quiet, with only the sound of olive leaves rustling.

Just past the ex-church, at number 19, is a door with several nameplates. All are civic groups: Casa S. Lucia offers housing to women in need and their children; Nosotras helps immigrant women find housing and jobs; Angeli della Citta’ gives food to the poor. It’s as if the building houses a congregation devoted to public service. Perhaps something is left of the spirit of St. Augustine.

I pop into Simoncini, a thrift shop stacked with clothes, hats, shoes, old postcards, books, dishes, and some very cool purses. Next door is the lovely antiquarian bookshop Fonte del Sole (no. 28/r), which has an English section.

The window of Ortofrutticoli (nos. 26–28) displays treats in glass jars: red peppers, whole peaches, garlic cloves, green olives. The guys who work there run around filling up the baskets outside or talk with shoppers inside.

Thinking about the fritelle ahead, I walk on. On the corner of via Maffia is an old religious painting covered in glass. I’ve never seen one as worn as this. I can’t even tell the subject. In the glass, I see the reflection of the green neon sign for the trattoria across the street. The menu for Trattoria Sant’Agostino, 23, tells me it’s a chic spot: the hamburgers go for 19 euro. Food & Wine magazine gave it a high recommendation last year when the restaurant opened. As I’m reading, getting hungrier, a grey-haired man walks by, smoking and talking to himself. All layers seem to converge on this street.

I turn around and see the grand old structure of the Bagno Comunale (no. 8). Though currently closed for renovations, these communal baths have been open since 1911. Fratellanza Militare, a public assistance group, has a home here, too.

And finally, I arrive at the Galli forno. I step into that familiar aroma of schiacciata, fresh pane, and, of course, those sweet frittelle. The warmth of the place always hits me, and it seems that every time I am there, the regulars are, too.  I take some frittelle filled with cream.

Outside again, I notice that next to the forno is an Asian market. And just behind me, a kebab shop. This is the new Florence, sliced in with the old. Despite the graffiti and fading religious painting, via Sant’Agostino isn’t in a state of decay. The vibrant art scene at the ex-church, the many nonprofits serving the people of Florence, the friendly chatting in the shops, the new trattoria—these are all positives. Though the religious elements have fallen from the foreground, this street has plenty of spirit.

This article was originally published in The Florentine.

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