By Cinzia Dugo
Florentine glories in...a cup of coffee
How can we possibly ignore the heights Florence reached as a capital of culture, especially at the beginning of the 20th century, when the spread of new ideas and the presence of many artistic and literary celebrities in the city led to the opening of several coffee bars and splendid beer houses that were to give new life, vitality, light and colour to the capital of Tuscany, still so closely linked to its facetious, shrewd and somewhat ingenious past. As far as the Florentines of the time were concerned, the apparently desolate and uninteresting urban character of the city did not simply require changes but needed to be drastically trasformed, as in fact happened with the opening of several bars in the city centre. The monochromatic prospect of the city which, until then, had offered little public amusement, apart from the odd cinema or variety theatre, various kinds of night club, theatres and concerts, frequented by a rare few, changed almost overnight with the opening of these bars which soon became well known international rendez-vous.
Nineteenhundred. The years of revolutionary scientific discoveries, the amazing invention of the cinema, inaugurated, not surprisingly, in a famous Parisian coffee bar, the formation of new fashions and tendencies, closely linked to the complex political situation that was shortly to explode into a serious international crisis, the bitter prelude to the First World War.
The Giubbe Rosse
Florence 1910. Fashionable tightly fastened calf-length trousers and white starched collars were aired with pride on feastdays, when the city squares were invaded on Sundays by noisy and triumphant musicians whose audience was often composed of young women who went there on purpose to flutter their eyelashes at their clumsy heroes. All this and more contributed towards the success of the Florentine coffee houses, whose fame was also partly due to their regular customers, composed mostly of artists, writers and poets who used their favourite bars as meeting places for spouting their ideas and political opinions or for forming artistic movements, turning them into centres of art and literature, and sometimes even into political hideouts for plotting subversive deeds. This dive into the past reminds us of two of these early 20th century coffee houses - the Giubbe Rosse and Paszkowski - that became famous as meeting places for some of the greatest intellectuals of the day and contributed towards the lasting effects of the fervid cultural environment in Florence.
The name of the bar that we know today as the Giubbe Rosse actually only dates back to 1933 when a bright new red and gold sign was placed above the entrance; it was previously called the Reininghaus, after the two Swiss brothers who apparently founded it in 1900. Let us however go back to the beginning of the century. As far as the regular customers of the Giubbe Rosse were concerned, to sit down as companions and friends at the tables and take part in the intellectual atmosphere that reigned unopposed in the famous bar, was a delightful necessity, rather than just a boring habit; thus the café became, as never before, a sort of domestic foundry of dreams and passions during the feverish years of the Futurist movement: every day, with religious punctuality, these delightful and extravagant giants of the literature and art of the first decade of the 20th century enlivened the bar with their conversation and arguments, showed off or made self-expressive declamations, though they often forgot to pay the bill. What was it that made the interior so familiar and welcoming? Once inside the solid revolving door clients could linger at the tables in three rooms that composed the bar: the first, illuminated by soft pink lighting, had a peaceful meditative atmosphere, like an international literary clubroom; the second was usually used as the restaurant, while the third was the scene of the rowdy debates involving whoever happened to be speaking and opposed by the murmers of his listeners; chaos often reigned, exasperating the proprietors and above all disturbing the utter silence of the chess tournaments that were organized by elderly pensioners and noblemen at the coffee bar to while away the time. Naturally the witty and somewhat mischievous Futurists thoroughly enjoyed shocking or annoying them, by freely and disrespectfully shouting out their poetry: “Giubbe Rosse is the place / where Futurists go / if they are arguing nothing can stop them / you just have to stop playing chess...” (Ardengo Soffici). As I said above, some of the most important exponents of the Futurist movement were regular customers at the Giubbe Rosse: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Giuseppe Prezzolini, Giovanni Papini, Ardengo Soffici, Aldo Palazzeschi, the painters Boccioni, Carrą, Severini, Balla and many others. These artists later organized an exhibition (1913) to divulge the principles of the movement. Well known visitors to the show describe it as being a huge success; in fact long queues formed outside the entrance to the exhibition, composed not only of art experts but also of the simply curious, all desirous of being absorbed by the shapes, colours and sensations proposed by what was to be confirmed as a new artistic movement.
For a while, after this, the Giubbe Rosse lost much of its former lustre, only to gradually regain its popularity during the post-war period when other illustrious exponents of literary and artistic movements, Arturo Loria, Giuseppe De Robertis, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Eugenio Montale, Felice Carena, Ottone Rosai, Libero Andreotti etc., became regular customers. This was in fact when the Giubbe Rosse really reached its greatest heights and it is still, even today, one of the best coffee bars in the city; in spite of its ‘age’, it it has not forgotten the great lessons of the past and continues to promote qualified exhibitions of painting or sculpture, literary meetings and to present books by contemporary authors. It continues to do this, perhaps out of a subtle form of nostalgia and an ancient but constructive rivalry with the bar whose name the Florentines found so difficult to pronounce that they made it sound more like a noisy sneeze, preferring, with their typical inborn irony, to call it “pazzoschi”.
Inaugurated in 1907, CaffŹ Paszkoswski, the property of a Polish businessman, first opened as a beer house in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II (today’s ***Piazza della Repubblica***). It gradually acquired a regular clientele who were not former customers of the Giubbe Rosse or the Gambrinus, but part of a new social class that was neither working class nor bourgeoisie and fully intended taking part in the new ideas launched in the three large rooms of the bar. In later years, the coffee bar became such an attraction that it was almost impossible to find a table without having to wait; bewildered or impatient clients were welcomed inside and guided to a free table by an efficient army of waiters who, however hard they tried to be pleasant, never managed to win the public over, in spite of the bar’s growing popularity. In fact, one of the main criticisms to be made about this coffee bar at the time was the disagreeable coldness of the staff who, with icy gazes and dismal dinner jackets, almost seemed to delight in their sinister appearance; they were, as a result, treated almost rudely by their clients who made no bones about loudly tapping their teaspoons against their coffee cups in order to attract them to their table.
Thus, apart from becoming one of the most famous literary coffee bars of the period, Paszkowski’s also became a sort of haven for artists, writers and musicians who dropped in there when they felt like it and not because they wanted to found or consolidate a group or movement. Even so, we should also remember that several of the writers involved in important Florentine magazines often gathered together around the tables of the bar; La Voce, founded by Giuseppe Prezzolini between 1908-10, and Lacerba started up in early 1913 by Papini, Soffici and other writers who later gave life to La Difesa dell’Arte, an anti-Futurist literary paper, edited by Mario Carli, Emilio Settimelli and Virgilio Scattolini, with the collaboration of Count Bruno Corra, a regular customer at Paszkowski’s. This group occasionally became the centre of attention when it was joined by the exponents of different if not opposing schools of thought; such meetings often led to arguments and debates that usually exploded after they had spent an enjoyable evening in apparent harmony sharing their common but very different interest in wine and food.
However Paszkowski’s reached its greatest popularity during the years immediately before the First World War when the bar was transformed into a sort of ‘headquarters’ for those supporting Italy’s partecipation in the war against Austria. This led to a change of atmosphere in the coffee house, it was used to spread the revolutionary ideas introduced by the so-called anarchists as well as by the interventionsts, who met there daily to reinforce their political ideas in public. The bar continued to remain in the limelight for many years until the curtain dropped on these activities after the end of the Second World War. Nowadays the premises of this elegant and refined coffee bar, so popular with Florentines and foreigners alike, are still large, but certainly smaller than in the past and divided into two splendid rooms enlivened by music from the pianobar. Apart from its pleasant and helpful staff, reknowned quality and wonderful long drinks, this historic bar is also famous for its delicious and freshly made cakes and pastries. In the summertime, when the orchestra is playing in the square outside, it fills up with writers, artists and musicians just like it did half a century ago, however, more than anything else, it will always be an attraction for all those who know only too well that this glorious Florentine bar can never fall into oblivion.