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Window on Italy - A Visit to the Antiques Fair in Arezzo, Tuscany

Colleen Simpson

City of Arezzo

City of Arezzo with huge Piazza Grande in upper right corner

One of the joys of living in my village of Piegaro in Umbria, on the border of Tuscany, is that I can easily be at any of the historical places in Tuscany as well as Umbria, within just an hour's drive. I have many favorites, but one of my "most" favorites is to be in Arezzo, Tuscany, on the first Sunday (following the first Saturday) of each month at the Fiera Antiquaria, the largest antiques fair in Italy! Arezzo is fine place to visit any day, but the whole city comes alive when the huge Piazza Grande becomes the bustling heart of the fair. Hundreds of tables under umbrellas are piled high with a jumble of everything imaginable: ancient cooking utensils, wrought iron fireplace implements, art prints, books, fine paintings as well as tawdry knockoffs, candlesticks, collectible fragile glass dating to the 13th century, as well as wood furniture, antique ironworks and jewelry. The fair spills out into many neighboring streets lined with these tables and umbrellas, winding around and around the piazza.

We Set Off For Arezzo Through the Iconic Valdichiana

On the first Sunday of July, 2008, I set off with my friend, Pam, who was visiting from San Francisco, for the antiques fair in Arezzo. This beautiful city is located in the southeast of Tuscany, in the middle of four valleys which radiate off from the town: the Val Tiberina, Casentino, Valdarno and Valdichiana. Our route took us through the iconic Valdichiana with the fields of green patterned crops and manicured vineyards.

Valdichiana

We left early because Pam was on the prowl for antique art prints and I wanted to augment my ancient glass collection for our tourist villa and apartments, L'Antica Vetreria (a restored 13th century glassworks).

The best time to arrive is about 9am when you have the greatest choice, and the best time for a bargain is to be in front of your most coveted items around 3pm when the fair is winding down and sellers are willing to negotiate a good "sconto" (discount). I have always had a problem with this process of bargaining even though it is expected. I heard that Pam was a true artist, and I thought I'd pick up some healthy pointers by watching her!

Arezzo is one of the largest producers of gold and it has a "wealthy" feel to it, because of the glut of jewelers and goldsmiths. With its many Renaissance and Romanesque buildings of ancient red brick, stone and stucco, it is a pleasant place to roam and take in all the architectural details. Originally founded by the Etruscans, it was one of the jewels of their federation and later became a strategically important Roman city, situated between Cortona and Florence. Although it remained a free commune, this powerful city was often in dispute between the Guelf and Ghibelline political parties during the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s reign in the 12th Century. The Ghibellines supported the imperial carpet bagger Barbarossa while the Guelf's backed the Pope's interests. They adopted mannerisms to define their affiliation, such as wearing a feather on a particular side of their hats, or cutting fruit a particular way.

The Town Was Flooded With Market Stalls

When we arrived, the lower town was thriving, with a plethora of glamorous boutique shops of antique furniture and clothing and glitzy farmacia displaying the latest beauty products. But we were bent on the prize at the top of the hill within the old quarter. So strolling up the Corso Italia, pedestrian only, we passed the shops, stepping briefly (it is mandatory) into Pane e Salute, the century old bakery to indulge in a roll with melted formaggio.

The Corso was amazing as it wound up and up with tables set under their white umbrellas starting to crowd the streets. Then we finally arrived at the jewel of Arezzo, the Piazza Grande and the 12th century Pieve di Santa Maria with its large arcaded façade creating one complete side to the square. The gorgeous arches of Giorgio Vasari's "Loggia" crammed full with ancient shops flank another side.

Antiques in the Arcade

More and more tables piled with goods were set under the cool shade of the arcade and loggia in front of the shops. Spread all over the piazza the umbrellas created a ceiling of canvas shielding the sun from fine furniture and the treasures of the fair.

On non-market days, this piazza is a relatively quiet place to people watch at one of several cafes while sipping a cool drink and nibbling on a panini or savoring a gelato. With its beautiful architecture, it is a wonderful place to pause and just soak up the charming atmosphere.

Hunting and Gathering among the Antiques

But this was market day, and we were on a mission! Pam soon spotted an enormous collection of art prints and some beautiful etchings of Pompeii which she said were very valuable, but priced fairly. As she began sorting and amassing the large group for which she would eventually negotiate a sconto, for quantity, I wandered off to search for glass. I managed to find some good examples of very fragile hand-blown bottles with curved bottoms, not yet covered by the traditional woven straw holders called "fiaschi." Delighted with my find, I started the negotiation process, and easily won a great bargain. This was too easy, but maybe just being with Pam was bringing me luck! We had each set a firm amount that we would not overspend for the day, and I was sticking to my budget. I went back to Pam to see how she was doing. There were literally thousands of prints that she was going through, sorting into "certain" and "maybe" piles.

We were in dire need of a lunch break, so, leaving Pam's piles with the dealer, who assured us he would guard them with his very life, we departed in search of food. We did not have to wander far. Settling into one of the few tables available at the large and noisy café facing the piazza, we ordered cool drinks and some favorite little sandwiches of tuna, artichoke and fresh tomatoes. It was nice to sit down and regroup for the afternoon’s continued onslaught of what we called "hunting and gathering."

Arezzo Monthly Antique Fair

We Both Emerge Triumphant!

After lunch, Pam returned to her piles of prints and I continued my search for glass. By mid-afternoon, having visited all the market stalls, I still had not found my one true desire of the day: a large ancient glass vessel of some type. I did not know for sure what I was searching for, but I knew I would recognize it when I saw it. Just as I about to give up with disappointment and rejoin Pam, I spotted a dealer packing up to leave, and there sitting on his cart was a huge green glass demijohn used to store wine, about four feet high. His price was €80 (way too expensive for my budget) and I had only €35 left. Opening my wallet I took out the 35 and explained that was all the money I had. He thought that was only my opening ploy for bargaining, and initially refused, gesturing that I was insulting him as he was certain it was worth over 60! Turning out all the pockets in my shirt and pants, I convinced him I was serious and could only offer the 35. With much shaking of his head and muttering that he would go broke giving in to me, he finally said, "d'accordo"... okay! I told him I was possibly doing him a good favor by taking it off his hands; he did not have to return home with the heavy glass. What I got was a shrug in response. It was a matter of pride for him that he continued the charade. Lugging off my huge treasure, I returned to Pam triumphant! I guessed that my dramatic skills helped drive a great bargain!

Of course, Pam ended up going way over budget, but was very pleased with a big discount on her purchase of antique prints, including the fine etchings from Pompeii. She planned to make a profit by reselling them in San Francisco to collectors, so it was easy to justify the expense and she did receive a fantastic sconto.

Our Reluctant Departure

And so we reluctantly retraced our steps through the Corso in departure. Our treasure finds of the day so heavily burdened us we really could not have carried any more bargains. I was completely out of money and when we stopped for gelato, it had to be Pam’s treat. As we sat and contently ate the cool gelato in the shade created by an ancient doorway, we watched a young child carefully clean and dab at a framed oil print with a wet rag. She sat on an intricately patterned red Oriental carpet, under a large red umbrella that shielded her from the hot sun and valuable pieces of artwork surrounded her. She could not have been over three years old and although we kept looking around in the crowd, she did not appear to have any adult supervision. Loath to leave, we were fascinated with this young child continuing to rub and dab at a valuable oil painting with a rag that she would carefully wet with a plastic bottle of water. We waited and watched her repetitive task.

Child at Arezzo Monthly Antique Fair

Mesmerized, we continued our vigil in the shade. Measured in gelato time, it was several gelatos later that a young man emerged from the crowd, her father returning from his extended smoke break. We felt certain that the surrounding adults in the stalls around her were benevolently and discreetly watching out for her in her father’s absence. And so it was, as we continued to witness this small slice of life and eavesdropped, that we discovered they were indeed a community of vendors who set up stalls together each month at the Arezzo fair. This extended family of antique dealers went from city to city on weekends with their wares, continuing an ancient tradition of itinerant commerce. We supposed the father was tutoring his child in the valuable craft of art conservation by issuing her a rag and a plastic bottle of water. The child certainly enjoyed her afternoon and her father got a lot of smoke breaks!

Antique Fair at Arezzo

Every Month I Make My Return to Collect Fireplace Implements

This was just one visit to the antiques fair, for I made many more over the summer of 2008. I looked forward each month to hunting and gathering, albeit by myself and missing my friend Pam. I added to my trove of ancient fireplace cooking implements to furnish each of our three beautifully renovated fireplaces. I ended up with three ancient sets of wrought iron “firedogs” that had a special design to support the logs and at the ends the traditional wrought iron cradles for jars of beans to simmer over the fire.

Villa Kitchen Fireplace

Once, my husband, Tom, came with me to Arezzo and we spotted a rare 13th century spit for roasting meat that operates with a gyroscope. We had seen one of these at the farmhouse, Mantauto, within the La Foce Estate, Tuscany, where we had stayed for my nephew’s wedding. We were fascinated with the way it operated at that time and marveled that once you put the gyroscope in motion it would continue to turn the meat. So when we saw one for sale amidst a jumble of wrought iron kitchen equipment we pounced on it! The vendor was so impressed that we knew how it functioned; it excited him to set it up for a demonstration. People wandering the fair stopped to look and express interest in this unusual device, but it was ours and no tourist was going to pry it out of my hands! I was glad we had already finished our negotiations before this demonstration generated so much interest.

If you are in the area, I recommend the experience of a first Sunday in Arezzo! You won’t have Pam for good luck, but I’m sure you’ll bring your own, especially if you like to bargain and spend a day hunting and gathering like we did.


Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests.

© Colleen Simpson, 2010

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