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Look up!

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

By Jennifer Williams

My husband is fond of quoting my mother whenever we walk around Florence. With the uneven, cobblestones streets, slim sidewalks, dog “presents,” throngs of pedestrians and motorcycles whizzing by, it is easy (and wise!) to fix your eyes on your next step. But, whether she was having a passegiata (leisurely walk or stroll) or sightseeing around town, my mother would often stop her companions and encourage them to look up and see the beauty.

Next time you are strolling through Florence, take time to “look-up” for these two things: one old and one new.

Clet's whimsical art in Florence

The New One

Street signs seems like an unusual medium to create art but that is exactly what Clet Abraham has done. Clet, as he is known, has been living in Florence for twenty years. After trying other mediums, on a whim one day he transformed a traffic sign into a unique work of art, and the rest is history.

Florence has the largest number of Clet’s artwork (New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Hong Kong also have his artwork), but it is also the place where he has been sanctioned numerous times with tickets for vandalism and taken to court several times. He has persisted, however, and he even has his own studio/store in Via dell'Olmo, 8r, across the Arno from Santa Croce.

With bright colors and a definite sense of humor, his works are poignant, creative and plain fun! Look up!

The Old One

Scattered all over Florence, high on stone walls in piazzas, courtyards, small alleyways, and bridges are quotes from the Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). It would be hard to overstate Dante’s importance to Italians in general, and to Florence in particular. The father of the Italian language, Dante was born in Florence and lived in the city for forty years before his political ideologies forced him into exile. Although he never returned to Florence, his complicated relationship with his hometown loomed large in his writings. Florence has embraced Dante as a cherished native son, even though he is buried in Ravenna (another interesting story!), and it is hard to visit Florence without stumbling upon something related to Dante.

In 1900 the city of Florence decided to place a series of plaques throughout the center of town, featuring quotes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. There are 34 plaques, according to most sources, although some say 40. I have only been able to find 29 (after days of searching!) but it was great fun to wander all over the city center, camera and in hand, looking for history.

Each quote on the plaque relates, in some way, to events that happened at that location. For example, one of the plaques is on the Ponte Vecchio (the Old Bridge). A statue of Mars, the ancient patron of the city, stood there during Dante’s time. At the feet of the old and mutilated statue, Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti (say that five times!) was murdered on Easter Sunday, 1215, which plunged the city into decades of turmoil. The plaque quotes Dante’s reference to the event: “But it was fit that in her last hour of peace Florence should give a victim to that battered statue which stands guard upon the city (Paradise XVI).”

On the Ponte Vecchio

Another plaque on Dante’s house reads, “I was born, and grew up, on the lovely river Arno, in the great city (Inferno XXIII).”

Following the “path of the plaques” leads you all around the Medieval city center which is remarkably like Florence today. So when next you are in Florence, look up! And enjoy two unusual and unique Florentine sights!

On Dante's House

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