BORGO ALLEGRI: STORY OF A KING, A FAMOUS PAINTER AND HAPPY FLORENTINES

Sometimes it is an occasion, a unique moment in the collective history, to fix a name that will remain for centuries. This is true of nicknames (Cesar, for instance, is a prime example) and also for simple names like Borgo Allegri, that tells of one happy day in the city over 700 years ago.

The King and the Painter

Borgo Allegri is a street that cuts through the Santa Croce neighborhood, from the church up to Piazza dei Ciompi, and according to legend, is exactly what its name proclaims: a street of happy people. It became that on a special day at the end of the Thirteenth Century, that became a holiday thanks to two great figures: one a French king, the other, a Florentine artist.

Charles of Anjou, king of France and Sicily, was visiting Florence, and the citizens were happy to show him the beauty of the city. So they brought him to the man who best represented Florentine art, the famous painter Cimabue. In his workshop, Cimabue was fast at work, but didn’t back out of the visit; to the contrary, he wanted to honor the French sovereign. So he showed Charles of Anjou and all those present the piece he was working on, since no one had seen it yet. Cimabue’s gesture incited the joy of his fellow citizens to the point that the street where Cimabue’s workshop was located took the name of Borgo Allegri (the neighborhood of the happy ones).

The legend was passed down over the centuries thanks to Vasari, the Sixteenth Century artist and historian of art, who tells about it in his Vite, the famous biographies of painters, sculptors and architects. Telling about the meeting between Charles of Anjou and Cimabue and how the painter showed his as-yet unseen work, Vasari says that “all the men and women of Florence with great feasting and with the greatest mob in the world” came to see. He concludes: “There for the happiness that they displayed, the neighbors called that place Borgo Allegri (the neighborhood of the happy ones).”

The Mysterious Work

The curious aspect of this story regards the work that Cimabue was painting when he welcomed the French king. Vasari states that it was the “Maestà” for the Church of Santa Maria Novella, the one that we know as the Madonna Rucellai, from the name of the chapel that houses it. For centuries, no one doubted Vasari’s authority. Only at the end of the Nineteenth Century did they discover, thanks to a document from 1285, that the painter of the Madonna Rucellai (today found in the Uffizi Gallery) was not Cimabue but Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Thus Vasari was wrong about the work, even if in good faith as he himself declares, he trusted the oral tradition (“It is said that…”) and the stories of his predecessors (“and in certain memories of old painters you can read that…”) But the error, even if it is significant from the art history point of view, is of little matter for the name of Borgo Allegri. Whatever the work that Cimabue was painting at the time, the story leaves no doubts about the happiness of his fellow citizens.

A Miraculous Madonna or an Illustrious Family?

It is not only Vasari’s story that explains the origins of Borgo Allegri.

Another legend has yet another sacred image as its protagonist, according to Vasco Pratolini, the Florentine writer who dedicated one of his most famous novels to the neighborhood of Santa Croce, entitled Il Quartiere. This is how Pratolini explains the name of Borgo Allegri:

In days gone by, an image of the Madonna, painted by an immortal fellow citizen and carried in procession, deigned to grant a miracle to the populace, “making them happy.”

Pratolini does not say who the ‘immortal fellow citizen’ was (maybe it was still Cimabue?), and he does not speak of what the miracle was either. But the conclusion of the story is the same: the inhabitants were festive and a street was named after their happiness.

Some give another explanation, simpler and more rational. The street may derive its name from the Allegri family, famous for two people above all: Domenico Allegri, a supporter of the Florentine Republic who opposed the Medici and for this reason was exiled in 1433, and his nephew Antonio Allegri, called Correggio, one of the most famous painters of the Cinquecento. Borgo Allegri in this way would take its name from this illustrious family, following a frequent tradition in Florence for giving names to geographical places.

And they lived…

The charm of the legend about Charles of Anjou and Cimabue is in the spirit of this story: a collective joy that comes from sharing art and beauty that is so explosive it is celebrated in a name that crosses centuries. There could be no happier ending for this story than the one represented by the Florentines, who truly lived ‘happily every after’ in Borgo Allegri.

The places:

Borgo Allegri
Piazza dei Ciompi, where Cimabue had his workshop
Galleria degli Uffizi, where Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna Rucellai is exhibited

We liked the story of Borgo Allegri so much that we named one of our suites “Allegri”. Visit it on our site and if you like it, reserve!

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