Choices, and Their Lack: Mendicants of Santissima Annunziata

I routinely transit la Piazza della Santissima Annunziata each morning when I accompany Eleanor to preschool, and again when I return home to the palazzo where we live.

Perhaps at midday, bringing a critical but forgotten item back up to the kids’ school – a lunch ticket, a felpa (hoodie), a change of clothes. Or meeting Jason for lunch in the blocks around Gonzaga in Florence, most often la Trattoria di San Gallo, or Il Giglio in a pinch for their four-euro fresh pasta plates, consumed next to office workers in suits and workmen in jumpsuits, their hands white with plaster or chalk.

It is a space I now know well, and have come to love: the Brunelleschi arches of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, stretching in uniform conformity along the eastern side of the piazza, each little swaddled putto slightly different than the one next to it, as though to underscore the humanity of orphans and lost children. The western side of the Loggia dei Servi di Maria, and its apartments overlooking their own set of steep steps. The arcades of Michelozzo’s church of the Santissima Annunziata, on the north side, where I often duck in to make a quick petition to God, or any god, or any presence (I fold fast) who might be willing to receive it. The two walrus-man fountains in bronze reign in the middle, and hotels and restaurants line the south side, at the intersection of what I like to call the Gateway to the Molten Tourist Core of Florence. Via dei Servi begins at the south side of the piazza, and its crowded pavement extends all the way to the duomo, visible in slices between tall buildings crowding the narrow street.

Walrus fountains, Santissima Annunziata.

And yet, for all these flagstones and fountains and architecture, what captures my attention is the name: the most holy annunciation. What has not been chosen, when the lots are drawn. Mary, learning that she’s bearing none less than God’s only begotten Son. No choice there for a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl headed into an arranged marriage.

Tiny tokens once attached to a foundling.

Thousands of Florentine orphans and children of impoverished families passed through L’Ospedale degli Innocenti for hundreds of years, from 1445 to 1875. The museum inside maintains all the records of the babies, and while some of them did grow up and go on to be productive members of Florentine society (artists, statesmen, orphanage administrators), many met an early end as they failed to thrive, shuttled as newborns between city and country, and paid wet nurses. Giovanni died at 13 days old, one tag read. Annamaria died three days after arriving, said another. The tiny tarnished bit of a broken medal on a frayed piece of ribbon all that remained to remember them by. The hope that the two pieces might be joined again one day.

Not all babies met such a quick end; many survived, and indeed, thrived. This was a boon to the Silk Guild, the underwriters of the orphanage budget. There is always a reason. There is no simple charity. What was in it for the powerful silk guild, the owners of not only the bronze statue of St. John the Evangelist that graces one of the outer niches of the Orsanmichele Church, but of the entire loggia of the Orsanmichele itself and the statues of all the other thirteen Florentine guilds, wealthy and working class alike? There is always a reason. Think. Think hard. What could a guild of wealthy and powerful silk merchants want to do with a seemingly endless supply of small, young, nimble hands?

Carding silk. Weaving silk. Being apprenticed to the many textile workshops in the city.

And so the mutually beneficial, if lopsided, arrangement thrived for years, as the child labor of the orphans benefited the business pursuits of the wealthy and powerful silk merchants who funded their home.

So, they had a social safety net, but no child labor laws… win some, lose some. Still, light years ahead of their time, and frankly, a revolutionary concept.

The women who had been met with ruin as unwed mothers and fallen women were consigned to a disturbing fate within the Ospedale, giving up their own baby and being stationed in a wing for newborns, where they would lie in bed, a baby on each side of the bed under the curlicue of a mosquito-netted cot. The women would breastfeed around the clock while a medical nurse attended to them. Having recently returned from six years myself in the Land of Breastfeeding, I mentally uttered a firm nothankyou upon viewing those archival photos.

An aged nun makes her dogged way down
to Santissima Annunziata.

I always see priests, monks, and nuns in these blocks, walking up and down the sidewalks in sensible sandals and habits and robes as they have done for centuries. I thought also of the religious orders, and how getting thee to a nunnery was almost never a free choice, but rather an option of last resort for women without marriage dowries, women from poor families, and orphans. Perhaps the suor was the tenth of twelve children, in a merchant family down on its luck, and the next-eldest sister scraped the last of savings for her marriage. Or more rarely, a wealthy young woman who wished to continue an unusually profound education, but was barred from doing so via the institutions available at the time, so probably begged her father to deposit her dowry in a convent and went there to study and read, or write, or write music.

All these people, all these forced choices. I suppose when a forced choice is termed something along the lines of a most holy announcement, it goes down a tiny bit easier, or much more easily for the faithful. After all, God’s choice. Who are humans to presume to choose the lot they’d like to receive in this life?

Another cast of characters that give me pause for thought are the mendicants of Santissima Annunziata. Staking out a post at the well-trafficked entrance to the church virtually guarantees a profitable day of begging
. There is a fairly standard set I see in the arches and the portico.

An African mother who has been separated from her three daughters by Italian immigration authorities (as best as I can tell from her literature and her science-fair-esque poster display, which is heartrending) hands out flyers and asks for help to pay a huge legal bill that might resolve her issue and reunite her with her daughters.

The Rom women, in their mismatched print scarves and long skirts, socks with cork sandals, and gleaming braids.

A man who looks like he could be Rom, but also possibly a college student, with a level of grooming far too fine to really seem down on his luck.

Another man who truly is down on his luck is frequently seated on the step at the entrance of the cloister, to the west of the main church entrance. His grubby hands and rheumy eyes speak to a lifetime of suffering; his clothes are layered and poorly patched. He watches the street, and one morning, months ago, I accidentally dropped Eleanor’s gingham string bag with her extra change of clothes. I was on my bike, and did not notice until I was at her school. I returned to the piazza, and the beggar had darted out in the street to pick up the bag, and was waiting for me on the step with it in his hands. I thanked him profusely and gave him a euro. A few weeks ago he was perched on his step with two breathtaking black eyes that made me inhale hard when I saw him. He looked as though someone had beaten the crap out of him on a dark street, and they probably had. His injuries were awful, but I see him every day, and he is slowly returning to his normal. The nuns and priests always give him coins, even though he does not position himself at the entrance of the church to preen and curry favor with the faithful like the handsome Rom/not-Rom youth.

I empty out my coin purse to this cast, whether just walking by or opting to duck into the church for a quick five minutes with the thousands of lit taper and oil lamps. One day, I gave the Rom/not-Rom youth a euro on my way out. One of the Rom women (clearly not a friend of his) saw me do it. She quickly sidled up to me on the marble floor under the arcades, following me closely, her entreaties growing louder and more agitated as I repeated, mi dispiace (I’m sorry) until she finally devolved into a few profane threats, and I crossed the street.

The Adnkronos, Lampedusa, Italy.

Another group that drifts through the space are the African immigrants. They are clearly those with the least choice. Even the Rom are swaggering and confident next to the nervous glances of the Africans, toting their trays of tissues and umbrellas from corner to corner, or, if they have just arrived, simply holding out a cap – literally. The situation between Africa and Europe is always in the news, and getting worse; the recent refusal to permit first one, then two, then three migrant boats from landing in Italy while Matteo Salvini crowed that he was somehow taking back Italy. Make Spain and France take those boats! The young men, always under twenty-five, it seems, break my heart. I can see and smell the white salt in their tears, their hands and hair, and I don’t know what to do to help them. The Italian government gives them homes, I am assured, none of them sleep on the street. Yes, but what of their days on the street, on the sidewalk, the utter lack of dignity? The looks and comments they endure? What choice did they have to stay or leave where they came from? I always say buongiorno, and I always feel their resolution to not show weakness, to keep that stiff upper lip, to hold strong on their corner. Can we allow dignity to those who have had no choice?

And to those who say, but they had a choice, I invite you to get out of your comfort zone and try their “choice” on for size, for a month or two, and come back and tell me if it was true choice or a forced choice. Because these are my former immigration clients stateside, and I know all their stories, in both type and detail. What poverty, what violence, what want they experienced where they were born. Go somewhere, if you haven’t been, to see for yourself. See what circumstantially forced choices feel like, look like.

The choices we have, and the choices we do not have, are cast in high relief on the Most Holy Announcement (hilarious and businesslike in English, with little of the Italian solemnity), its church and its piazza. I reflect on my choices and my forced choices in this life – my lot, my inheritance, if you will.

I am fortunate in this life to have accessed a wide array of actual choices – and also fortunate to see when my forced choices were neither good nor bad, but simply a path I followed because it opened up to me, like Via dei Servi between two fountains, down a narrow shaded street, meeting the massive orange cupola of the cathedral as the Piazza del Duomo lays out its grey flagstones on the other end.

Firenze: The Bookseller from Senegal / Il Venditore di Libri di Senegal

I saw him crossing the street out of the corner of my eye. Victor and Eleanor were climbing a heavy, wrought-iron lamppost like two domesticated Florentine monkeys.

He often comes to the park at Piazza D’Azeglio. Dapper, fedora, medium height, well-built, wide smile. He carried small bags and trays of merchandise with him.

I do not always talk with this vendor, but he is far and away the friendliest of the Africans that come through the park, hoping to sell some of their wares to parents, perhaps further convinced by a wheedling child if the vendor is lucky that day.

I have also spoken to his counterparts, who come through the piazza with their children’s books, and sometimes poetry books.

“Do you like it here?” I asked a hard-faced one, a few Saturdays before.
“No. Florence is the worst,” he said to me, scowling. “No work, no money.”

Mr. Dapper Fedora came up on my right side, as Victor swung around the lamppost and Eleanor sat on its Art Deco lion’s knee.
“Buongiorno,” he said.
I greeted him back.
I will confess that, at first, I did not feel like having this interaction. It is fraught with guilt, as I watch the vendors amble around town, trying, trying, trying to sell their bilingual books about Africa, the text neatly laid out in Italian and English on each page.

Vic’s preferred parkour lamppost, Piazza D’Azeglio.

But this vendor is the nicest one. He never intrudes, and does not become angry or frustrated by a “no, grazie,” but moves on to the next parent or small group. I have seen other vendors stalk off in a huff after being rebuffed. I hate to refuse them, knowing that this is their everyday struggle, as well as the routine racism and lack of acceptance I can only imagine they encounter in Firenze. They are obvious outsiders, and unwelcome ones.

African vendor, San Lorenzo.
Getty Images as credited.

My ambivalence about these interactions is also exacerbated by the fact that, very often, I do not have cash on hand for the vendors. Why would I, at the park across the street? I am frequently chasing out two small children for fresh air with nothing more than a soccer ball and the housekey. When I say, mi dispiace (I am sorry) and that I do not have any money, I am regarded dolefully, as though I were lying to evade them. But I am telling them the truth – the days that I have no cash on hand, I really have no cash on hand.

The vendor brought out his books. They were small, colorful, bilingual. It’s ingenious, really. I admire the creative initiative of the person who saw the value in giving itinerant Africans books about Africa to sell, along with their regular stock of Kleenex, socks, and lighters. I have another regular vendor friend, Assan, who sells on the corner of Borgo Pinti and Via dei Giusti, greeting everyone with a smile and a wave. I have bought a lot of socks from Assan that are truthfully too large for me.

The vendor gave a book to Victor, who is old enough to be polite. Victor thumbed through the book.

“Where are you from?” I asked the vendor in Italian.
“Senegal,” he nodded.
“Alors, vous parlez francais,” I said. So you speak French.
He brightened. “Oui!”
“C’est mieux,” I said. It’s better, meaning in reference to my Italian.
“Does he like the book?” he asked me, pointing to Victor.
“No,” Victor said. So much for politesse.
The vendor tried with another book. “Forse un altro libro,” he said. Maybe another book.
Victor thumbed through that book, too, from the lamppost.
“No,” he said.

I discreetly checked the price. At almost seven euros for a thin book that my kids probably would not read, I was not tempted.

We own a similar book that I bought last year. We have read it together at bedtime, all 50 pages or so; the plot treats two brothers and a pack of monkeys that connives against them to burn down their family’s entire cornfield, then kidnaps the smaller brother so that the older brother gets in a heap of trouble with his parents for losing his younger brother in the burnt cornfield. The book goes on to describe how the monkeys threaten to torture and possibly kill the younger brother they have kidnapped, and who is now up in a tree. The family is eventually safely reunited, but it doesn’t look good for most of the book. The last time we read it, the kids had about 50 questions of the what the hell variety. So it’s not on a frequent rotation.

Eleanor spied his bangles in another bag and began touching the bracelets.
“What else do you have?” I asked him.
That was the right question, because out came all his Kleenex, socks, lighters, bracelets of every kind and description.
Victor was also interested in the bracelets. I tried to talk Eleanor into a bracelet I might later appropriate from her, but Victor selected a bead bracelet in a rasta color scheme, and so Eleanor chose one equal to it.
The book vendor had a fancy trick for sizing down the bracelet for small wrists, and with a quick flick, he removed an inch from each bracelet, and slid the elastic over each child’s hand onto their wrists.
I looked in my wallet. I had a fifty euro note and some change. I gave him all my change, which amount to about three euros.
“Va bene?” I said, slipping it all into his hand.
“Oui, oui,” he replied, relieved to have made a sale.
He walked down past the swings to the next family.

“Mommy, why did you buy us these?” Victor asked, stretching his bracelet with his other hand.
“Mommy used to work with people like him all the time. It was my job.”
“What!” Victor said. “When. What ages were you?”
“Hmm, about 23 to 40,” I said. “I helped people like him for my job. It is not easy for him, Victor.”
“What did you help them do?”
“I helped them stay in their homes with their families,” I said.

I have always been proud of my immigration work. It addressed many of my most deeply-held values. Civic duty. Charity. Humility. Awareness, of both privilege and discrimination. Doing what I could to help people along, when I can. Recalibrating social balance. Channeling legal benefits to those who qualify, and need them most. I miss this work, at times. It was also exhausting work. So much need. Such an unfair world. So many awful stories, so many bad hands dealt.

I used the book I Was an Elephant Salesman when I taught my class on immigration and Italy, in Arezzo five years ago. It is well-written, and accessible. The students liked it; it’s an engaging account, and a narrative backstory on the African vendors, albeit a generation has been born and come up into Italy from Africa since then, and things are far worse now for them in Italy than they were in 1988.

I saw the vendor in his fedora smiling and talking to the next Italian family, inside the fence of the playground. I could read their lips. No grazie. No. No. 

“Where do you think he sleeps, Victor?”
“I don’t know,” said Victor.
I thought how to say what I wanted to say next. “Probably not in a bed as nice and as warm as yours. He might sleep outside, or on a floor with ten friends.”
Victor said nothing.
He looked at the vendor.
“Where’s his mommy and daddy!” Eleanor blurted out.
“Not sure,” I said. “Probably in Africa still.”
“Why!”
“They live there. He is older, he would not live with his mommy and daddy anyway.”
Victor looked up. “Let’s go home.”
We crossed the street after a few large buses rumbled by.
Eleanor’s bracelet snapped and broke on the sidewalk, spilling the tiny plastic red, black, and yellow beads onto the flagstones.