Via delle Campora is one of the steepest roads in Florence, winding up the hill of Marignolle from the traffic of Via Senese. The gate into Giovanni Anichini’s garden is just past the Santa Maria convent. From the garden you have an uninterrupted view all the way to the hills of Galluzzo, on the road to Siena. The vista hasn’t changed much since the Renaissance.
Anichini is the 36-year-old manager of a hotel in the foothills of Florence. From the end of January 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in Italy, he witnessed, first with disbelief and then with despair, the cancellation of all reservations months into the future. The cancellations represented the disappearance of years of work and, for many, the loss of their livelihood. Ten per cent of the workforce in Florence are (or were) employed in tourism.
Anichini’s response to the first lockdown was to go back to gardening, a side occupation through his years in school and university. He planted several plots of vegetables at the hotel, and asked the owners for permission to increase production. He was soon providing free, fresh vegetables to families in need. Caritas Italiana, one of the main organisations providing support to the most vulnerable, estimated that the number of people relying on food handouts increased by up to 50 per cent in the first months of the pandemic.
During the first lockdown, many of the keepers of Florence’s thousand or so orti sociali (allotments) asked for permission to leave their homes to tend to their plots. According to Cecilia Del Re, a city councillor, ‘the gardens, mostly assigned to the city’s pensioners and to the families in greatest need, are a very important source of support and purpose and came to play an important role for the population.’
Looking towards the coming months – or years – of uncertainty, Anichini says he thinks his former hobby could provide him with a crucial source of income and purpose in the future. Del Re agrees. ‘The green areas of Florence will play a much larger role in the aftermath of the crisis,’ she said. The city is already looking into ways to increase access to existing areas of green space that are not currently used. An expansion of urban agriculture could play a role in a sustainable recovery and looking ahead the plan is to have allotments available for whoever wants them.
Given the depth of the economic and social crisis caused – or exposed – by the pandemic, no one is suggesting that an increase in urban gardening will solve all our problems. But such policies offer a glimpse of a way out that begins to address some of the weaknesses and inequalities that made us so vulnerable in the first place.
At the end of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo says to Kublai Khan:
The hell of the living is not something that will be. If there is one, it is what is already here, the hell we live in every day, that we make by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the hell, and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of hell, are not hell, then make them endure, give them space.