There is No Busking in Florence, Italy
After a very long and much needed night of sleep, we couldn’t wait to play. But duty called– we set out to explore Firenze, as we had decided before hand that we should always take the first day in a new place to get to know the city. It takes a while to get the feel for the busk-ability of a new location, and we wanted to take in enough to be able to wisely choose the best place to play.
That morning our first destination was Ponte Veccio, a covered bridge adorned with jewelry shops and crowded with vendors and tourists. Our friend Giacamo had reported seeing a classical guitarist busk here on a recent visit to Firenze. On our walk there, we were continuously surprised by the lack of musicians. There were tourists everywhere, and so many beautiful piazzas and picturesque bridges. Where were all the buskers? It was quite mysterious. We arrived at Ponte Veccio, sure that someone would be playing there. Nope. No one. Through our time of busking, something has happened to our brains– whenever we see a crowd of people strolling along, taking in the sights, we feel an overwhelming urge to take out our instruments immediately and perform for them. Why weren’t there buskers everywhere? Didn’t all of the local musicians see what an amazing opportunity they were missing out on?
Across the bridge, we found a cafe and ordered “Due cappuccino,” the most delicious, frothy, perfect cappuccino I have ever had, which we enjoyed standing at the cafe counter (the prices listed on the menu are only good if you stand– there’s an extra “cover charge” for a table). Feeling sufficiently caffeinated, we picked up a baguette, plums, and a hunk of cheese from a little market, and carried our breakfast to a nearby piazza, passing several “artists” and print sellers along the way, but still, not a single musician. As we ate, tiny birds hopped beside us, daring to come very close to eat the crumbs that fell from our baguette. “We’re just like those little birds,” said Sean, “picking up the crumbs left behind.” This pleased me, as I strongly preferred being likened to a bird than Sean’s previous analogy of our relationship to the world, which described us as bottom feeders – the fish that suck the algae off of aquarium walls. Sean spoke to a man who was painting nearby. “La musica?” he asked, motioning to the surrounding area. “No, no.” the man replied. Very strange indeed.
On our walk back to the hotel, we came across a classical guitarist playing in the Piazza Repubblica, the same piazza where we had met a gypsy jazz trio the night before. Just as the trio had informed us, this busker had “authorization” – a weathered permit reading “artiste de strata” displayed in his guitar case. We had heard that some cities in Italy require permits, but were unclear as to how the laws worked, if the permits were really necessary, etc. We continued to debate the best course of action. Should we attempt to apply for a permit, or should we just go for it, play, and see what would happen.?
It took just a hint of good old fashioned peer pressure to give us the push we needed to play. We met up with our friends Marya and Daryle for dinner. Marya was in town to attend clown school, and then the two of them were heading to Paris to do some work for a writing workshop they’re teaching together. They couldn’t believe we hadn’t played yet. “Let’s go get your instruments! We’ll be your plants!” Their enthusiasm was contagious and boosted our confidence. After a quick stop at the hostel to get the fiddle and guitar, we were back on the Ponte Veccio, opening our cases and setting up to play. We had seen the polizia strolling off of the bridge as we strolled on, so we were pretty sure that if what we were about to do was illegal, we would find out soon enough. We started our set with “Get Me Away from Here I’m Dying,” a Belle and Sebastian song that Marya loves, and had a crowd immediately. Figuring we might not have much time left, and wanting to make the most of this amazing experience, we launched right into with “I Shall Be Released.” Just into the second verse we noticed the un-permitted vendors who were illegally selling knock-off purses on the side of the bridge roll their merchandise up in the rugs they were displayed on and pull them off of the street, a sure sign that the police were coming. We kept playing, eying the officers, until we saw one of them wag his finger at us and mouth “No, no.” We only understood some of what the officer said, but got the idea that we did indeed need “permisso,” that the musicians who did have permisso were only authorized to play at certain times and in certain places, and we could go apply in the morning. We weren’t sure where. The crowd that had gathered to listen to our set sighed when we stopped playing to talk to the officers, and gave us a final enthusiastic round of applause as we packed our instruments and headed off to dinner.
”Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying,” made a little faster through nerves. Sean glances around for the polizia throughout the video.
After a delicious dinner of pizza and gelato (we had made enough money in our one and a half song set to treat Marya and Daryle to dessert!) Daryl used her little bit of Italian to ask a second pair of police officers where exactly we should go in the morning to get our permit. One of the officers wrote down the name of the piazza and the building we needed to find. We had made progress. Even though our first busking attempt was cut short, at least now we had the information we needed. We would wake up early in the morning, find the office, get our permit, and finally be able to play!
But it was not to be. After a long walk, which was made longer by a few missed turns and difficulties asking for directions in Italian, we arrived at our destination, recited our carefully rehearsed request, “Vorremo permisso per artiste de strata,” (we would like permission for street artist), and were informed that the office we required wasn’t open that day. We should come back tomorrow at 3pm. We repeated this information in Italian to make sure there was no miscommunication. There wasn’t. Grrr.
We walked back to the hotel, working out the harmony for a new song, and trying not to feel too disappointed. We still didn’t have the permit, but we had even more specific information. Permisso would soon be ours!
But… it was not to be. After a long wait in what seemed to us the Firenze equivalent of the DMV, we were finally directed to the desk of the woman who was actually in charge of permits. We once again recited our carefully rehearsed request, and were told… no. There are only three spots in the entire city of Firenze that buskers are permitted to play in, and they are all “complete” through the end of December. I tried to ask if there was anywhere else in the city that we could play without permits, and the woman became rather alarmed, seeming to think that I was telling her that I intended to break the law and play without permission. Sean re-phrased my statement and her response made it clear. There is no busking in Florence.
Now we were disappointed. Tired, frustrated and disappointed. My usual Panglossian attitude had been temporarily squashed. I tend to convince myself, and often Sean, that everything is working out for the best, and I had been holding on tight to the idea that all of this hard work would lead to a busking permit and many magical nights on the Ponte Veccio. Now it was clear that was not going to happen.
Florence would like you to be enchanted by the gypsy jazz trio set up haphazardly in the center of the Piazza de Repubblica. Just like Florence would like you to marvel at the numerous copies of Michelangelo’s David littering the city, out of scale, out of place, but readily accessible. It’s becoming clear that we’re not in a city, we’re in an amusement park. A scratch beneath the surface reveals a power structure that controls street performance in such a way that it can hardly be called busking. There is no spontaneity. No magic. No chance for a few musicians traveling through town to stop and share their music with the people gathered there. It’s all planned. Much like the “buskers” that are hired by Disney to play on the streets in front of the theme parks in Orlando, Florence has taken the freedom away from an art that gains its power from that very freedom. We have seen a total of five separate groups of musicians playing on the streets in the entire city of Florence, two with authorization, three without. The gypsy jazz trio seems to have claim to the Piazza de Repubblica every evening, and the classical guitarist has the same location every afternoon. The unauthorized include a clarinetist who roams from place to place to avoid being stopped by the police, a harmonica playing guitarist who set up in an unpopulated piazza one evening, and an accordion player who was likely hired by the restaurant he was playing in front of. The gypsy jazz trio had told us they had been playing there for ten years, and we had heard the same of the classical guitarist. We were starting to see why our friend David had had such a hard time finding a place to busk in Italy. All of the spots were held by the few and fortunate “authorized,” and all other playing was illegal.
“Where is Florence?” Marya had mused the night before. “I keep looking, but I can’t find the city beneath all of the tourism.” Well, Marya, that’s because it’s been covered up by the layers of artifice. People come, looking for something that speaks to their expectations, their idea of a romantic world of history and art, and Florence is more than willing to give them what they think they want. It’s just a shame that the real thing has been killed in the process.