For The Love Of Florence

Mary Bly fell in love with the city and her Florentine husband at the same time. Here, the best-selling romance novelist—also known as Eloisa James—takes us on an insider’s tour of her home away from home.

By Mary Bly
The Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, in Florence
Photograph: Photo by: Andrea Fazzari

In Search of Deliciously Feminine Finery
Every year when we arrive in Florence, I take a day to wander the city without thought of deadlines or e-mail. And I no longer spend the morning queuing for museums—I start with shopping and work my way up to cultural enrichment. The MaxMara store has exquisite antique frescoes of Biblical women on the second-floor stair landing; the salespeople in Yves Saint Laurent will coo to you in four languages. But I buy three things in Florence: bras, nightgowns and shoes.
There’s nothing particularly mysterious about American bras, barring the curious fact that almost 90 percent turn out to be uncomfortable. One shop that I love for moda intima is Bisoli on Via degli Speziali, which carries La Perla. (Their bras won’t show, won’t slip, and will give you the exuberant chest of a breast-feeding mother.) Bisoli is nothing more than a tiny room with a counter, a good deal of dark wood and a wall of white boxes. The saleswoman discreetly eyes your chest and lifts a lid to display bras made of pleated black silk. Another box reveals a cherry-colored bra swathed in translucent ribbon. This is the kind of store that once terrified me. But that’s the joy of being over 40: You can waltz into intimidating stores, trusting that a sparse command of language, a credit card and a pair of breasts are enough to buy a bra.
Just a street or two away from Bisoli is a store that sells handmade nightwear. One of my greatest shocks, coming to Italy as a bride, was discovering just how much Florentines iron. They actually hire ironing ladies. My mother-in-law likes her underwear pressed, her sheets folded into perfect squares and tied together with matching ribbons. After we had been married a few years, Alessandro confessed to a longing for ironed sheets, and we added an ironing lady to our cleaning lady. Then I discovered Ferrini’s soft pleated nightgowns, which never need pressing. They come in every style, from jaunty black-and-white stripes to drifting pale pink, and are adorned with superb buratto lace.
Florentines are positively gluttonous when it comes to magnificent trimmings. Passamaneria Toscana has stood behind the stalls surrounding the San Lorenzo market for years; my husbands great-aunt bought her curtains from the owner’s father in the late 1930s. Passamaneria tapestries are justly famous—even walking through the store and eyeing their ruby pillows and gem-colored tassels is satisfying.
Florence is, of course, also famous for its ceramics. But the truth is that Florentines do not buy elaborate painted plates and bowls in their own city. They head 45 minutes east to a little villaggio called Montelupo Fiorentino, where the ceramists live and work. My husband and I started going there years ago and fell in love with an artist named Eugenio Taccini, who paints with traditional Renaissance colors and designs. We used to be able to buy small plates, with wild medieval creatures curling around their own tails, for five dollars. But Taccini has become president of the Arts and Crafts Association of Florence, so now you’ll pay considerably more.
Should you be in Montelupo toward the end of June, the town throws a Festa della Ceramica, in which artisans in Renaissance tights and hats with arcing feathers re-create modern and fourteenth-century designs in the town’s center. No matter when you are there, wander up the hill to the austere medieval castle and chapel that overlook the olive trees surrounding the village. Then treat yourself to some gelato artigianale, or handmade ice cream, from the store in front of the boat-shaped fountain in the piazza.

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