I walk past the Pescaia di Santa Rosa each day along the sidewalks that follow both sides of the riverbank. It points like an arrow southwest to San Frediano in Cestello in the Oltrarno, northeast past Ognissanti (pictured above with its bell tower). The weir is rocklike but not a rock. Its solid span of concrete crosses the river Arno like a grey shelf, the cascade of water creating vertical spines of foam.
How the forthright and simple pescaia in Italian becomes a weir in English seems a trickery of language to me. I can imagine Roman soldiers casting for trout on a pescaia. I cannot imagine who might have been running around England looking for a weir to fish from.
Salmon weirs are a thing in Seattle, minor workarounds for the great dams and locks of the Cascade basin; the sloughing fish struggle up the ladders. In ye olde days wer meant to dam up. Weir looks like it is missing a d, seeking that long-lost friend so that it can become weird. I wonder if weird derives from weir. Something that is dammed up, strange, not flowing freely. That’s weird. (Never mind. Wyrd, a contemporaneous word, means destiny, but came to mean unearthly sometime during the reign of Victoria when the well-heeled were quite given to holding séances at home.) But I digress.
Centuries ago some monks built the weir to support their woollen mill, in an age when sheared Florentine brocade was the very height of comfort and fashion. Those mill wheels did not turn themselves, however, and the abbot applied to the city priors to alter the course of the river for the purpose of powering their mills, making possible their livelihood while enriching their coffers. The city fathers were shrewd and quickly saw how much more valuable the river as a resource could be, in the service of enterprise rather than, say, the sand harvesters upstream at Ponte San Niccolò, or the fishermen who plied the current with nets thrown from their flat-bottomed punts to pull in piles of glistening tench. They gave the abbot permission to reroute the flow of the the city’s very artery, as though splicing an aorta, to funnel the energy elsewhere. Away it went. The woollen mill was shut down, one assumes, sometime during the Industrial Revolution, if Italy had one that was contemporary with those of the UK and US. But the weir remains, a vestigial creative solution.
In the summer the Arno dries to a near trickle and the weir transforms into an urban beach with sunbathers in various states of indulgent undress, couples and singles and clutches of impossibly beautiful teenage girls with long, straight hair. Fishermen cast directly off the concrete bar. The sun is direct and hot – too hot for me to be tempted by that flat iron. At dark, city ghosts slide in to tag the walls with bright, indecipherable graffiti.
Come winter the river veers unruly and the weir disappears under the rush of brown water, foam, driftwood, trash, bobbing soccer balls. The sky steel grey and hung with low clouds, It is hard to remember what the beach on the weir looked like.
Anthony Bourdain’s last public picture was take on the weir, a few days before he died by suicide in Strasbourg that summer three years ago. I sometimes feel I sense his ghost, smiling into the sun, his eyes twinkling, greying curls aloft in the breeze. Something twitches every time I walk by those stairs on the south side of the river. No reservations, I hear him say. I felt like I knew the man. It still makes me so sad we lost him before his time.
I love the Pescaia Santa Rosa – the St. Rose Weir. It keeps me anchored to place, year round, through every season, as the Arno connects Florence to the seasons, its umbilical to the Mediterranean Sea. The pescaia is the lens through which I check the river. Days I don’t see it, I feel I have missed something.