The Livornesi have always been a feisty people and never took kindly to being ruled by Pisa and then Florence and somewhere in between being sold to Milan and Genoa in quick succession. The old Tuscan proverb “meglio un morto in casa che un pisano all’uscio” (better a death in the family than someone from Pisa at your doorstep) illustrates perfectly the long-lasting antipathy harbored by the Livornesi for the Pisani.
It goes back to the 1500s when the Florentine House of Medici, as the new rulers of Livorno, developed and strengthened the small fishing port of Livorno at the expense of the old Porto Pisano at the mouth of the Arno. From this point on Pisa declined as a maritime power and in fact Porto Pisano then silted up and became unusable.
Despite being separated by only about 17 miles, the rivalry between Livorno and Pisa continues to this day, hence the comic Italian response to the picture of Trump declaring that he would construct a border wall with Mexico and that Mexico would pay for it. Re-written in Italian the caption reads “we will build a wall between Livorno and Pisa and the Pisani will pay for it!”
The Italians of course were quite the masters at wall building all the way through the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The strange dichotomy of Renaissance Italy is that at the same time as they were bequeathing such beauty to the world they were also busy squabbling and fighting amongst themselves, hiring mercenary armies, building walls, wasting resources and seeking ever-changing alliances with foreign powers, none of which seemed to last very long.
The Medici family was good for Livorno however. Florence’s need for a large port with good access to the sea resulted in a period of significant development for Livorno and led to the construction of the Navicelli canal connecting Pisa to the port of Livorno and the establishment of Livorno as a free port with no duties in the late 1580s. International trade quickly flourished and it became an enlightened, tolerant European city with a diverse immigrant population and one of the most important ports of the entire Mediterranean. This was quickly followed by the construction of a network of navigable canals (the fossi medici) in 1629 and the building of a new fortress, the fortezza nuova.
The canals remain today long after their initial purpose of transporting goods to and from the port, and form the true ancient center of Livorno and the only part that escaped the worst of the bombing during the war. Much of the architectural heritage remains intact along the canals including many of the buildings previously owned by the wealthy merchant families of Livorno. The nearby fortezza nuova is still today an impressive structure surrounded by water and open to visitors.
The Venezia Nuova area has undergone some improvements in recent years including a wonderful piece of urban restoration turning Viale Caprera back into a canal more than a century after it was filled in to make a road. It’s good to see history being respected in this way. The canals are quiet during the day but come alive after dark with bars and restaurants bringing life to the whole area which is also the fabulous setting for the annual festival, Effetto Venezia, now in its 35th year and usually held over two weeks at the end of July into early August. It’s a celebration of summer and one of the most important festivals along the Tuscan coast with a host of events including music, theatre, dance, food and wine exhibitions and of course a spectacular fireworks show for the finale.
This being Italy it would be remiss not to throw in the important subject of food, even in a story about canals, and you can’t have an historic city like Livorno without having an equally famous dish. In this case the dish is cacciucco, perhaps the most well-known fish stew in Italy, a country that’s not exactly short of fish stews. Tradition maintains that there are five different fish in cacciucco, (one for each “c” in the name) and that it should be made from very modest, often bony fish left over from the days’ catch, a working man’s dish in other words with a hearty very rich fishy flavor.
Then, as often happens, the wealthier merchants began to change the dish by adding more expensive ingredients like shellfish and this has continued on today as being a better match for modern tastes given that most tourists are reluctant to mess around with small bony fish.
When the Italian food company Buitoni, (owned by Nestlè) introduced a frozen version twenty years ago that included cod, a veritable cacciucco war broke out between enraged locals and the company, and the mayor of Livorno appeared on television to denounce the product. Perhaps that provided the impetus behind Livorno’s new three day festival which began in 2016 called 'Cacciucco Pride', a fish stew lover’s idea of heaven.
Livorno has other interesting things to see besides the canals and high on the list would be the Mercato Centrale rising majestically up from the main canal just off Piazza Cavour. The main hall is a huge and beautiful space, one of the biggest covered markets in Europe, home to over two hundred shops and stalls. Built in the late 19th century in the attractive Liberty style it is not just a fish market but sells all types of fresh produce as well as having places to eat. It is open Monday through Saturday from 8.00 until. 14.00.
So for those of you who only catch a quick glimpse of Livorno out of the plane window as it descends into Pisa airport or who arrive on a cruise ship and immediately jump onto the FiPiLi (Florence, Pisa, Livorno) autostrada to be whisked away to Florence, Livorno is worth a full day of your time. It’s not a classically beautiful city in the same way as Lucca or Florence (very few large working ports are) but when you are out on the canals you will realize why Livorno was once part of the 18th and 19th century European Grand Tour undertaken by the well-heeled tourists of that era. In addition to being a large cruise ship destination there are ferries from Livorno that will take you to the tiny island of Capraia as well as Corsica and Sardinia.