Piazza Santo Spirito

Piazza Santo Spirito

As I walk through the narrow street leading into the piazza, surrounded on the tight sidewalks by people, motorinos and dumpsters, I see the plain façade of the church and I know that I am almost free of the confining cramped road and will soon emerge into the open air of Piazza Santo Spirito. I am here on a November afternoon for the Santo Spirito flea market, which occurs in this piazza on the second Sunday of every month. People come from all areas of the city during the daylight hours to browse the various stalls, which contain everything from dried fruit to sunglasses, ashtrays to sport coats, and a myriad in between.

I see that a crowd has developed on the steps of the church, overlooking the piazza and the masses of shoppers, a crowd made up of both tourists and native Florentines. I join the group on the steps in order to better observe the passersby as they stop at each vendor’s stall, some picking up knick knacks made of bronze or silver, some more interested in the second-hand clothing on display. Three young men my age, who judging from their appearance are most likely American students like myself, are especially intrigued by a collection of cheap sunglasses. They take turns trying on increasingly ridiculous pairs of glasses, some large and bulbous, some brightly colored, some fake versions of otherwise expensive and fashionable designer brands. Each pair they pick up from the table encourages a loud outburst of laughter, and even the occasional exchange of high-fives.

Eventually one of the vendors notices me and, mistaking my close observation for an interest in what he is selling, he approaches me with a handful of watches and sunglasses. I politely decline his offers, but at the same time I decide that it would be best to move on rather than argue with this seasoned salesman. Besides, there is still much more of the flea market to see before dark.

I have been to this flea market twice before, and both times it was the same as it is now. The merchants are arranged in two circles around the piazza’s central fountain, forming an inner and outer ring of tables on which there is an enormous variety of merchandise for sale. Beads and jewelry can be seen at nearly every turn, followed by dolls and statues, scarves and jackets, even vinyl records and comic books. At the southeast corner of the piazza, food vendors cater to the hungry shoppers and keep them nourished long enough to spend more money before finally returning to their respective homes.

I walk around the piazza and between the tables, within the corridor created by the two circles. The crowds of people hunched over all of the various items for sale make it nearly impossible to see what they are looking at. It seems that most are simply perusing the goods for their own amusement, with no intention of actually buying anything today. They show their friends a poster – humorous because it is Italian – or an old camera with some of the pieces missing, then put it back and continue walking.

Eventually I come to a man selling many different types of hats. An elderly couple has stopped and the white-haired woman tries to convince her husband to buy a new hat. He seems reluctant, but he tries one on anyway, then another. Eventually a satisfactory hat is found, and the woman buys it for her husband, despite his contention. They move on to the other stalls, but I notice that he does not put the hat on his head.


It is beginning to get dark as the sun is setting. The sun sets earlier this time of year, and quickly too. Lights are on around the piazza and inside most of the vendors’ booths, so that they will continue to attract potential customers before closing time. I feel that I have seen enough of the merchants on this side of the circle, so I walk into the central area of the piazza, which is focused around a fountain; the fountain has been turned off, maybe only for the winter season, but perhaps indefinitely. I sit on the edge of the fountain, where I can observe the inner circle of merchants and the crowds of people casually moving past them. Next to me a sign reads: “Questa bella fontana non è per i rifiuti.” As the sun finally sets, the crowds begin to disperse, and the vendors pack up their goods for the next time the market will be open.

Piazza Santo Spirito is located south of the Arno River in Florence, in the heart of the area known as the Oltrarno. Today, even though it is considered the historical center of the Oltrarno, the piazza remains a lively gathering place for people from all regions of the city. Musicians, merchants, and students use it as a regular hangout, in addition to the monthly flea market that attracts even more people to the area, and it is one of the most unique parts of Florence.

This essay was written Nov. 2005 for the NYU class “Culture of the City: Italian Urban Life.” Photos by Daniel Lehman.