Cleanliness is next to godliness
IRECENTLY spent a week in a Florentine palazzo: you know, painted ceilings, marble chimneypieces, wide stone stairs. However, luckily, my palazzo was on the wrong side of the Arno, the part of Florence where there are no high-fashion shops and no badtempered crocodiles of tourists led by bossy women with grubby flags. In fact, my chosen, historic and beautiful piazza is where the real people of the city live.
Around our square, the medieval buildings had washing hanging out of the windows and brilliantgreen roof gardens that were watered daily. The Italians took their dogs—chihuahuas, spaniels, mixed mongrels and a couple of stately Dalmatians—for walks on the paved square as of routine. An old lady sat on a stone bench each morning to have her coffee and local students perched on the wide dadoes of the old buildings.
The square had no fewer than four open-air restaurants and, on our first evening, as we ate our pasta and drank our Vermentino, the students danced tangos to accordion music played by a group of musicians, a full moon shone down and the cicadas unseasonably tuned up as the sky darkened.
It was a delightful square, with, at one end, the unfinished church dedicated to Santo Spirito designed by the famous architect Brunelleschi, who died in 1446 before it was completed.
But enough of the glories of this city. I want to praise its hygiene. As well as the open-air restaurants, a daily market arrived at about 8am and continued selling vegetables, cheese and salami until two, when everyone packed up and vanished. On Sunday, the market was extended to 6pm and had stalls of, as well as food, bricà-brac, olive-wood bowls and local honey: chestnut, sunflower, lime blossom and millefiori.
Despite the huge littering possibilities of the square, it was never dirty. Each market-stall owner carefully packed up his used cartons and rotting vegetables as did the open-air restaurants. All the rubbish was put in what seemed, at street level, to be small metal litter bins. I wondered how they coped.
The answer, as we discovered, was that under each bin was a huge, submerged metal box the size of a large chest freezer. At street level, there was no clue to its existence. Each morning, a special machine grabbed the litter bin, pulled out the hidden giant and emptied its contents into the lorry’s back. There were six in the square and three were emptied every morning.
In the late afternoon, a sweeping machine came, with two stylish workmen who brushed any neat piles of rubbish into its revolving broom and these, along with dead leaves, were swept into its back.
It was remarkable that, despite the intense activity every day in the square, it was never dirty or messy. It looked like it was: a medieval street scene with everyday folk shopping, eating and watching the world go by.
I write all this because I know that Country Life has been having a campaign to reduce the shameful litter that spoils our ancient cities, our rolling countryside and busy motorways. Why can’t we be tidy-minded like the Florentines? Perhaps because we don’t value what we have. Perhaps, as everyone else just drops their debris, we don’t see the point of taking ours home.
On the way back from Florence, arriving at Gatwick, we followed a small boy who was systematically tearing up the wrappings of a bar of chocolate and dropping the pieces behind him. There must have been more than a dozen scraps in his wake.
Greatly daring, Hew accosted his mother. ‘Can you get him to pick up his litter?’ he asked.
I thought he’d get a rude answer, but no. The mother pointed out the rubbish to the boy, who picked up every piece. There must be a moral there somewhere.
Despite the intense activity in the square, it was never dirty