Alleys and Streets that Recount Florence's Secrets

From Bargello to Pratello

I have often heard from a pretty old neighbour, whom I can truly consider a sort of encyclopaedia of the local history, this Florentine expression, equivalent to “out of the frying pan into the fire“. When I asked what this damned “pratello” was, she didn’t know how to answer, but she only told me that she had always heard that.

My curiosity was so big that I found it out by myself eventually, while I was arranging a new cultural trail in the old town, in Florence…

From Bargello… The Bargello is a massive and austere building, which now houses a wonderful museum of sculptures that I invite you to visit, since it displays masterpieces of Donatello, Michelangelo and many other sculptors. In the past, this building – a little bit scary, let me say – was home to the courthouse and jail. In its undergrounds various means of torture were practiced, in its yard several death sentences were carried out till the mid-fourteenth century, when other places for executions were found. The first of these was still inside the walls in the current Piazza Piave in front of some military barracks (today home to a quiet park). It was the so-called Pratello.

…to Pratello. How did they get there? In a warm afternoon, I tried it out. The convicted were held both in Bargello and in the jail Delle Stinche, home to the theatre Verdi nowadays. If they left the Bargello, travelling along via Ghibellina, turn to Canto delle Stinche and then made a common path to get to the Pratello. The route implied taking Via San Giuseppe, which flanks the Church of Santa Croce, continuing straight in Via della Giustizia – later renamed with the evocative name of Malcontenti (“unhappy”), at the end of which they turned right and came to the famous Pratello where they waited for execution. Years later, the gallows were moved outside the city walls, beyond Porta della Croce, at the intersection of Via Gioberti and Via Cimabue. The executioner lived in Borgo la Croce instead, at number 4, and his home was marked by an emblem with a rooster, as the executions took place in the early morning, and a cross symbolizing the divine justice.

Along these routes, I suggest you admire some tabernacles, where the convicted stopped to pray, before they get to the gallows.The one at the end of Via San Giuseppe, at the crossroads between Via dei Malcontenti and Via delle Casine is particularly nice. Especially touching the one placed in Borgo la Croce, where the convicted passed when the gallows were moved outside the city walls. This tabernacle – recently restored – shows a very simple Madonna, more human than divine, stretching out her hand as if to reassure the convicted that She is at their side, waiting for them in heaven.

At the end of Borgo la Croce, there is now Piazza Beccaria, dedicated to the famous author of the essay “On Crimes and Punishments” – not by chance. In the centre of this square you can see the Porta alla Croce, one of the ancient gates within the city walls that were destroyed when Florence turned into the capital city and the people from Turin – the previous capital city – encourage the city to make room for new roads, following the example of the “Grands Boulevards” in Paris. The last death sentence on a thief was carried out in 1759 and on the 30th of November, 1786, three years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo abolished the death penalty and Tuscany was the first state in the world to do away with the capital punishment.

That is the reason why, on the 30th of November every year, we celebrate the “Festa della Toscana”, a regional holiday, celebrated with special openings of the Regional Council to all citizens, as well as conferences, studies, meetings on various topics.

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Sira THE FLORENTINE TEACHER

Born in a small town in the outskirts of Siena, since very you...

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