Omaggio a Livorno: 

sono nato a Milano ma le mie radici sono 

in via Solferino nella “venezia” di Livorno, 

e ai Bagni Pancaldi…


the first Italian cosmopolitan city

February 2000

Why Livorno? Why talk about Livorno?

There is one good reason for me to speak about Livorno: I was not born there, but I spent all my summers in Livorno until I was 17, and they sure were great summers. Livorno is the city where my father Leno was born and where the family lived and still lives: it’s the city of his and my childhood memories and of his and my juvenile adventures. The place that you always perceive as your place whenever you go back, the streets you know, the voices and sounds you have recorded deep inside, the smell of the Harbour and of the canals in the different seasons.

The mood of the city comes with the wind, happy and energetic, with the sunny skies under the summer Maestrale, moody and tense in the humid cloudy days of the Libeccio, cool and chilly during the crystal clear days of the north wind Tramontana.

Personal memories apart there are very good reasons to talk about Livorno: a unique history makes of this city the first European multicultural city; the character of the people in Livorno and the local culture are clear examples of the peculiar historical background and it’s worth while having the experience. The city-scape, the food, the old medicean Harbour are all worth the visit: Livorno is a nice place where to stay while visiting Tuscany, of the main tourists’ trails and yet in the middle of the Region.

Livorno is on the coast of the Tyrrenian sea approximately 200 km south of Genoa and 300 km North of Rome. Everybody knows where Pisa is: Livorno is twenty km South of Pisa. It is not right though to refer to Pisa in order to locate Livorno. In fact is offensive. Pisa has been the arch-rival of Livorno throughout history and the Livornesi dislike the Pisani deeply and heartily. Meglio un morto in casa che un Pisano all’uscio they say… (better a death in the house than a Pisano at the door).

I Livornesi (a hard “s” like in satisfaction, the soft “s” sounds like Milanesi say Livornesi and you do not want to do that) are tough people: their character is known to be hot and high spirited. Always ready to pick a fight, and always ready to jump into the fire to help a friend. Generosity and warmth live together with a sense of humour bordering on sarcasm and tough irony: the “style” of the Livornesi is rough mockery, in Italian you would say “strafottente e canagliesco”. In Italy they are considered with some fear and respect, nobody daring a confrontation, verbal or physical for fear of the reaction.

A compact history of Livorno starts in 1103 when Matilda of Tuscany (she was the host to Pope Gregory VII at Canossa when he let Henry IV wait for three days and three nights in the cold before granting him absolution, it was January 28 1077,) sold the small fishing village to the Church of Pisa, in the fourteenth century the Pisans fortified the small natural harbour and sold it in 1399 to the Visconti family, They had to “sell” the port to Genoa in 1407 and the Genovesi sold it to Florence in 1421. In 1571 Cosimo I Medici started the construction of the Porto Mediceo and that is the real beginning of Livorno as an original and unique city. 

Livorno was a small fortified castle in the control of the Republic of Pisa: main function was to guard the coast against Saracen incursions and landings by the hated Genovesi. The decadence of the Republic of Pisa as a Mediterranean Marine power started with the defeat at the Meloria rock in 1284. The defeated Pisan admiral Ugolino della Gherardesca is met by Dante in his Divine Comedy and made famous by the verse :

“… la bocca sollevo’ dal fiero pasto

quel peccator forbendola ai capelli

del capo ch’avea di retro guasto…

“…he lifted the mouth from the fiery food

the sinner cleaning it to the hair of the head

he was eating from behind…

He was condemned to eat the body of his son for eternity…

“.. poi piu’ che la pieta’ pote’ il digiuno …”

“… after that more than piety counted hunger …”

After the collapse of Pisa Livorno was bought by Florence in 1421 and from that date begins the history of Livorno as a port and as a city. The contract with which Livorno was bought from Pisa is also one of the last initiatives of Florence as a Republic dominated by the Albizzi, then the Medici’s came back and were in control.

Cosimo il Vecchio, Lorenzo il Magnifico, Alessandro, Cosimo I, Cosimo II, Ferdinando from 1430 to 1737 were all very keen in defending Livorno and in building the port as the most important commercial outlet of the Signoria. Wool, textiles, grains, coral, timber, minerals, fish were the main items arriving and leaving Tuscany from Livorno.

Checking the various edicts and bans there is one recurrent initiative: in the effort to increase the population and to call entrepreneurs, shippers, merchants, caulkers, ship chandlers, master carpenters, riggers and ropemakers, sailors and money dealers (bankers), the Dukes of Florence repeatedly granted protection, tax exemptions and asylum to the persecuted and to those who had “affairs” with Justice in their countries. It was also common practice to deport, red-necks, anarchists, suspected revolutionaries and generally undesired and lively subjects from Florence to Livorno.

Throughout its history the Florentine Signoria tried to grant the neutrality of Livorno: a port available at all times to all nations at war upon the condition that no hostility inside the Harbour was tolerated. The French, the Spaniards, the Dutch, the British and the Americans enjoyed the neutrality of Livorno for their fleets in the Mediterranean sea and that neutrality saved many lives in more than one occasion.

The Florentine Signoria was absolutely unscrupulous and also granted hospitality to privateers and pirates. In 1633 there were intensive talks between H.E. the Ambassador Niccolini assisted by the Colonel De Magistris and a group of 22 pirates seeking a honorable retreat from active seafaring. The result of the talks are not recorded but in November 1633 the Grand Duke Ferdinando II sold a certain number of “square bottoms” to a Livornese Pirate named Antonio Manfredini: they were quite possibly the ships that the Duke received from the Corsairs in exchange for the right to peacefully live in Livorno. It is anyway certain that privateering ships were regularly harbored and armed in Livorno and that the Signoria had stipulated the right to one third of the loot: terzo buscaino was the name. One third to the Captain, one third to the crew, one third to the Duke.

The Jews, persecuted throughout Europe, came in great numbers: even today Livorno has the strongest Jewish Community in Italy and most of the Italian Rabbis have been coming from this city. So came the Catholic English persecuted by the Crown (Henry Percy 9th Duke of Northumberland, Earl of Warwick was a refugee in 1621 just out of the Tower of London where he served 16 years as a suspect participant to the Gunpowder Plot), the Dutch Spanish and Portuguese persecuted by the Inquisition, Swiss money lenders, German merchants. Anyone who has some problem (affair as the edicts wrote with understandable elegance) with the Justice of their country was granted protection and asylum.

To appreciate the substance of these edicts one has to bear in mind that the Signoria dei Medici was not an enlightened regime. Their obedience to the various Popes (some of them Medicis and some of them even more influential because not Medicis) had to be constantly demonstrated and shown with zeal and, most of the time, outright bigotry (Cosimo III was particularly mean). The Jews in Florence and in all the cities of Tuscany could not marry Christians, could not employ Christians, could not live in the same house with Christians. Christian nurses where prohibited to breast feed Jewish babies. On several occasions the Signoria arrested Jews and turned them over to the Inquisition when the pope demanded that. 

Livorno enjoyed special freedom and privileges: the neutrality of the Port granted mooring to all the navies fighting in the Mediterranean, Livorno was a “freeport” for goods and merchandise and several tax exemptions were granted in order to promote the City and the trades settling there.

This explains why the population since the very beginning was a cosmopolitan population organized in “nazioni” or national communities.

It is easy to infer that the social profile of the Livorno population was from the very beginning of brilliant, certainly very intelligent, possibly slightly wicked refugees or persecuted subjects. The kind of people able to “carry through” initiatives and enterprises in the tough world of intercontinental trading and shipping. Daring to the limit of acceptable risk (sometimes beyond) and capable of “cutting” every soft corner in their path. Friends to friends, foes to foes.

It is my strong belief (and not only mine) that these peculiar origins are the matrix of the unique character of the present day population of Livorno. Individual freedom was and is held as the most important value to the limits of anarchism, the power of the Duke or Grand Duke or of the Government is continuously resented and challenged. Interference with local business is not tolerated. The exercise of command even if legitimate is considered almost an insult.

On the other hand solidarity (complicity) against any commanding institution is immediately granted.

The last episode of “cosmopolitan” experience in the history of Livorno is the presence of the USA military from 1944 to 1945 as “allies” and from 1945 on as NATO Southern Europe military personnel.

The co-existence of the anarcho-libertarian culture of Livorno with the Yankees of the US Army has not always been easy. It is a fact though that the two cultures did learn a lot from one another. Sometimes the easy and sometimes the hard way. The stories of the incredible number of jeeps, trucks, tires, spare parts that disappeared daily from the Tombolo storing facilities of the NATO/US military abound in Livorno are the background of the incredible success of the famous mercatino a market of navy/army surplus that is still today an attraction and a must in any visit to the city.

Among the stories that I like to tell about Livorno one is relatively recent (1984) and quite typical of the scapigliatura Livornese.

1984 was the centenary of Amedeo Modigliani’s birth (1884-1920) and great celebrations were staged in Livorno the city where he was born: exhibits, conferences, seminars. Three high school students bought a Black and Decker and managed to shape up a few stones as rough oblong human heads, big olive shaped eyes and long thin mouths. They threw the stones in one of the Fossi (Canals of the port system) and then spread the story that Amedeo Modigliani (the famous painter and sculptor) leaving Livorno to go to Paris in a fit of frustration against the ungrateful city dumped his sculptures in the Fosso. Sure enough the stones were retrieved and all the most important Italian art experts and critics published articles on the fantastic recovery of Modigliani’s sculptures. The Superintendent of Fine Arts in Livorno even organized a special exhibit of the stones that was an international success.

The boys, at that point felt ashamed by the ballooning story, eventually confessed the hoax, but nobody would believe them. It was only when they supplied the press with the pictures of themselves in the process of manufacturing the heads with the Black & Decker that the hoax was finally accepted as such. The embarrassment of the Italian art experts was total: some of them had the courage to insist supporting the idea that their opinion was more credible than the pictures. Some of them preferred a long silence. The story of the Teste di Modigliani is still great fun in Livorno and a good example of how you can do your own artwork, if you really want. Black & Decker ran pages of ads with the fake heads and with the obvious line: it’s unbelievable what you can do with a Black & Decker.

Knowing the mocking character of the Livornesi it should have been easy to pick up the hoax from the beginning, but apparently the excitement for the finding was overwhelming and suppressed any more sedate thinking.

The articles and the pictures published at the time from the beginning to the end of the teste di Modigliani story are a good example of the gullibility of some art critics and of their and arrogance as well. The catalogue of the exhibit is a rarity: if you find one, buy it, because it’s worth a fortune.

Livorno is today a blend of Tuscan mocking irony, of Yankee efficiency, of Jewish pragmatism, with a flair of grandeur Granducale, and a sting of anarchism.

Definitely worth a visit: not a dull city at all!

1247/1860 Chronology

1247 May 3rd Battle of Gorgona Pisa defeats Genoa

1284 Aug. 3rd Battle of Meloria Genoa defeats Pisa decline of Pisa as a Marine Power. Porto Pisano is abandoned by the Signoria also because they did not trust the Pisani to the point of leaving the fleet in their hands.

1431-1434 1st Repubblica Fiorentina (Albizzi Family)

1421 Florence buys Livorno from Pisa the Albizzi start the construction of the Port of Livorno (600 – 800 inhabitants)

1434 -1464 Cosimo the Elder (Pater Patriae) founder of the Signoria di Firenze 

1464 -1492 Lorenzo the Magnificent

1492 – 1530 Charles the VIII Italian Expedition the Medicis are ousted 2nd Repubblica Fiorentina (Pier Capponi)

1530 -1537 Alessandro illegitimate son of Pope Clement VII (Giulio de Medici)

1537 – 1574 Cosimo I (son of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere) First Grand Duke of Tuscany

1574 -1587 Francesco I Second Grand Duke of Tuscany (father of Mary Queen of France)

1587 – 1609 Ferdinando I Third Grand Duke of Tuscany (5,000 inhabitants)

1609 – 1621 Cosimo II (completion of the Medicean Port) (9,475 inhabitants)

1621 – 1670 Ferdinando II Fourth Grand Duke of Tuscany (17,300 inhabitants)

1629 – 1645 Important infrastructure works completed by Ferdinando II in Livorno: the San Marco and Venezia sections built and important Harbour equipment (storing facilities, docks).

1630 first devastating plague

1666 second devastating plague

1670 – 1723 Cosimo III Fifth Grand Duke of Tuscany (20,654 inhabitants)

1723 – 1737 Giangastone Sixth Grand Duke of Tuscany (28,000 inhabitants)

End of the Medici’s Family rule and beginning of the Lorraine

1737 – 1765 Francis II of Lorraine (40,688 inhabitants)

1765 – 1790 Pietro Leopoldo (1789 French Revolution)

1791 – 1801 Ferdinando III French-British hostilities

1801 end of the Lorraine begins the rule of the Bourbons (Spain)

1801 – 1803 Ludovico I di Borbone Grand Duke of Tuscany

1803 – 1814 Carlo Ludovico di Borbone (Maria Luisa Regent)

1808 – 1814 Napoleon rules Italy (50,671 inhabitants)

1814 Napoleon defeated leaves Italy (46,630 inhabitants)

1815 100 days of Napoleon comeback

1815 Napoleon defeated at Waterloo on June 1st and exiled

1814 – 1834 restoration of Ferdinando III Lorraine

1834 – 1859 Leopoldo II Lorraine (92,458 inhabitants)

1859 Leopoldo II leaves Tuscany (April 27 1859) 

1859 Temporary Government of Tuscany

1860 Tuscany is annexed to the Kingdom of Italy

Aknowledgement: documentation, pictures and data were kindly supplied by the courtesy of Dr. Paolo Castignoli, Direttore dell’Archivio Storico Citta’ di Livorno.

Informazioni su matteolilorenzo

Architetto, Professore in Pensione (Politecnico di Torino, Tecnologia dell'Architettura), esperto in climatologia urbana ed edilizia, energia/ambiente/economia. Vivo in Australia dal 1993
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3 risposte a OMAGGIO A LIVORNO

  1. Andrea Terranova ha detto:

    Ma che bello, grazie!! PS : adoro Livorno!

  2. Erica Giacosa ha detto:

    Ecco perché sei così come sei: anche la mia nonna era di Livorno, dé



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