Mercato Centrale di Livorno, Italy
Much of gentlemanly comportment is linked to good health. And much of good health is linked to a healthy diet, which, in turn, is linked to good food. For urban-dwelling gentlemen, traditional municipal covered markets, which typically sell fresh, unpackaged foods, allow for customers to hand-pick the best produce in the exact quantities desired. The wise, practical, age-old philosophy behind such markets is that shopping for perishable foods should be a daily occurrence, only the ingredients required to prepare the day’s meal being carefully selected. Luxurious municipal covered markets, with their vast and varied offerings, epitomize that approach to grocery-shopping—typically within a beautiful, hygienic, comfortable setting.
There are several world-famous covered markets across the globe. They are the “supermarkets” of yesteryear. They are usually housed in impressive, historic buildings situated in the city-center. Perhaps the grandest and most beautiful of Europe’s covered market buildings is the Mercato delle Vettovaglie (which means “Provisions Market,” but is more commonly known by the Livornese as “Mercato Centrale di Livorno”). To approach the imposing structure—especially from the direction where the building serves as backdrop to the city’s Royal Canal—is to behold the type of edifice that in any other city the size of Livorno would be its museum of fine art rather than its market for fresh produce. But in Livorno, market it is—a veritable living, bustling museum to the art of Tuscan cuisine, and a testament to the Livornese predilection for things Livornese.
Situated in the heart of Livorno (also referred to as “Leghorn,” the alleged English corruption of melodic Italian’s “Livorno,” or perhaps of “Ligurian,” the sea in which the port-city is situated), not at its busy harbor, the Mercato Centrale has always existed to serve, first and foremost, the Livornese people. And it is perhaps that Livorno-first outlook that has served to keep the beautiful market from blossoming into the internationally renowned tourist attraction that it easily could have become—considering that Livorno is not only Tuscany’s premiere port, it is also one of the major ports of the entire Mediterranean. Perhaps another reason for the port-city’s “guarded” outlook is its history: Founded in 1017 as a small coastal fortress to protect Pisa, Livorno belonged to the Republic of Pisa until it was acquired by the Republic of Genoa as the spoils of the 1284 Battle of Meloria; in 1421, Livorno was sold to Florence, and it was not until the late 1580s, when Ferdinand I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, declared the then-fortified town (Fortezza Vecchia was built between 1518 – 34) a free port, that the town came into its own. So taking into account Livorno’s “stepchild” history; six devastating fires between 1284 and the middle of the 20th century; and the almost total destruction at the hands of Allied bombing during World War II, it is small wonder that the Livornese are wary of outsiders, tourists included, and that they allegedly harbor an inferiority complex vis a vis the more famous sister-cities of Florence, Pisa, and Siena, assuming as a result that cruise ship passengers would prefer those cities over Livorno. But on the other hand, Livorno has long been one of Tuscany’s most cosmopolitan cities. In the 1590s, in order to regulate its porto franco (free port) status, the duke’s administration established Leggi Livornine, laws that, in addition to regulating international trade, protected merchants from crime and racketeering. The laws remained in effect until 1603 with the arrival of the Counter-Reformation to Livorno. Leggi Livornine also offered freedom of religion, the city thus attracting Jews and Moors who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 16th century, as well as Protestants from all over Europe (Livorno’s Old English Cemetery is the oldest foreign Protestant burial ground in all of Italy) and Orthodox Greeks. On March 19, 1606, at a ceremony held at the Fortezza Vecchia’s Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi, Duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici elevated Livorno to the status of “city.” From its earliest years as a full-fledged city, then, Livorno has been an international one—so much so that the city has been dubbed “città storica delle nazioni,” much like New York City or Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, the bustling cruise ship capital of the United States Virgin Islands. And, of course, all those peoples brought to Livorno their culinary traditions, many of which are evident in the offerings and ambiance of Mercato Centrale. But perhaps to the market’s greatest credit is the fact that to experience it (and the environs leading to it) is to experience the authentic Tuscany. The experience at Mercato Centrale is beautifully real: the aromas, the colors, the diversity, the sounds, the good, the bad, the ugly, the picturesque, the exotic, the sublime…. At Mercato Centrale, because its client base is quintessentially local—albeit with ancient international origins—vendors expect to see their customers again and again. So smiles are broad and warm, and service is genuine. People are courteous because it is their way. The extra spoonful or complimentary treat—added after the bill has been tabulated—is given as a gift for the unexpected guest, who must be welcomed at the Tuscan table, or to ease the burdens upon a young family.
Mercato Centrale, a classic example of Belle Époque architecture, is testament to post-unification Italy’s campaign for providing and improving public services. By the end of the 19th century, grand public buildings were being constructed throughout the country, Mercato Centrale being one of the most important in Livorno. The 95-meter-long building was designed by engineer Angiolo Badaloni (Livorno, 1849 – 1920), Chief Architect of the Municipality of Livorno at the time. Construction began in 1889, and the market opened its doors on March 1, 1894. The project was lobbied for and then spearheaded by—despite much public criticism—then-mayor Niccolò Costella, at the cost of four million lire. One of the building’s most prominent features is its ceiling: thirty-five meters high with a spectacular skylight of glass and iron, installed by the Gambaro firm. The eight caryatids by sculptor Lorenzo Gori, each bearing the fruits of the earth, are located in the sprawling central pavilion. Made of clay, the caryatids are another of the edifice’s most remarkable interior features. But arguably the most interesting fact about the storied building, even taking into account that it was significantly damaged during the 1943-44 bombing of the city, is that world-famous, Livorno-born artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920 ) is said to have rented one of the building’s large upper rooms at the corner of Via Tommaso Gherardi Del Testa around 1909 upon his return from his artistic sojourn in Paris.
Livorno is a Mediterranean sea-port, and as such its inhabitants are privileged to some of the world’s finest seafood. The Mercato Centrale therefore boasts one of Europe’s best fish markets. [Though the fish section is officially “closed” on Mondays, it is still possible to find an array of fresh fish on that day at many stalls]. And the city’s famous fish soup, “cacciucco alla Livornese,” is one of the delicious byproducts of that marine bounty. But Livorno’s countryside areas are also noted for fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. In years past, the “Gabbrigiane,” countrywomen from Gabbro, would bring fresh produce to the market each day. But that is a thing of the past…. One of the smaller halls of the building is named in their honor. Today, the market’s fresh produce is brought in from all over the world, but especially from Val di Cecina and Val di Cornia, both located in the Province of Livorno. Then, of course, there are all the Italian national delicacies available at the market’s many stalls: prosciutto, fantastic cheeses, wines, fresh pasta, olive oils, etc.,—in addition to the many stalls specializing in prepared, deli-type foods. All the makings, therefore, are there for the Mercato Centrale di Livorno to take its rightful place as perhaps the greatest of Europe’s luxurious covered markets. But like a beautiful—but aging—former prima donna, the market is in need of a cosmetic makeover and a new lease on life. The market still closes at 2:00 p.m., during the week (and does not open on Sundays), as if in the days of old, seemingly oblivious to the fact that today’s city dwellers—men and women—work outside the home and must prepare dinner in the evening, after a long day on the job. A municipal market with extended hours—like San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale di Firenze, which is open 365 days of the year, from 10:00 a.m., until 12:00 midnight—would be far more practical. [Since January of 2015, Mercato Centrale di Livorno has been experimenting with opening until 8:00 p.m., but only twice per month—on the first Wednesday and Friday of each month. But who will ever remember so infrequent a schedule?] And if Livorno’s market marketed itself as a tourist attraction to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who sail into the port on board cruise liners each year, market vendors would thrive instead of just survive on account of new, tourist-derived revenue in circulation each day. Just as tour-operators offer pre-sold packages of Tuscany’s famous cities to passengers arriving at the port of Livorno, there could be more aggressively marketed pre-sold tours of Livorno itself, one of the highlights of which would be a visit to the Mercato Centrale. The market’s original black slate pavement could be polished and made resplendent once again; and the faux red brick flooring that was installed in the center walkway back in the 1950s should be replaced with tiles made of the famous Tuscan marble from nearby Carrara—after all, if Carrara marble was good enough for Michelangelo, it is good enough for “Il Mercato.” And if the market were managed by a consortium or cooperative or association of vendor-owners, rather than as an arm of the municipality, administrative matters pertaining to upkeep, amenities, security, utilities, entertainment, hours of operation, community-engaging workshops, etc., could be efficiently decided and quickly implemented. The building’s upper level, rather than serving primarily as warehouses and municipal offices, could be converted into rent-generating satellite boutiques for the same major retail outlets—Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, La Perla, etc.,—of Florence and Siena that the vast majority of the tourists arriving by ship to Livorno are so keen on rushing off to visit immediately upon disembarking. And perhaps the most obvious of all is that the apartment once occupied by Modigliani could be furnished with period-pieces and decorated as the artist’s studio would have looked in the early 1900s, that one room serving as a mini-museum that would attract thousands of art lovers and Modigliani devotees each year, many of them patronizing the market’s vendors in the the process. The enormous basement level, with its 92 cellars, could be converted into wine boutiques and wine bars, each featuring the major wines from each of Italy’s wine districts—accompanied by live jazz in the evenings, of course. Tuscany’s famous tobacco products could also be sold in the basement level. All this could be financed by a negligible per-passenger port fee. For the market to flourish in the modern era, it must also appeal to the young generations of Livorno, not just to the little old ladies who have shopped their all their lives and want or need nothing else. Instead, the market must be a place where young people meet to socialize. (Caffe Mercato, situated just inside the main entrance, off Via Bernardo Buontalenti, is a perfect rendezvous-point for the young and the beautiful). And once the market becomes a hub, restaurants, bars, and clubs, followed by boutiques, will open in the neighborhood, making it chic and artsy. And as with all great modern-day luxurious covered markets of the world, the Mercato Centrale di Livorno could become a venue for live entertainment, art, and music, all within the context of one of those things that best define a people: food.