Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Florentine expressions between history and legend
What does "A UFO" mean? Who were the "Bischeri"? In the in-depth article of our blog this week we talk about the words and idioms born in the Cathedral of Florence. We are sure that you will find it interesting and it will draw you a smile!
Have you ever heard the expression "A UFO?". In Florence it is still quiet used today, but this way of saying is known also in other part of Italy. It has nothing to do with the flying saucers or with Japanese cartoon! In general, it means "to avoid paying something" or, more specifically, getting an entrance avoiding the ticket office. The expression "A UFO" is actually the acronym of the Latin "Ad Usum Florentinae Operae" (for use of Florentine “Opere”): it was the mark placed on goods entering the city tax-free because destined to the public construction sites, such as that of the cathedral. Sometimes, dishonest people of the Middle Ages placed this fake mark on their wagons of goods to avoid paying taxes when entering the city. The expression is not so vernacolar: it is used in both Collodi's “Pinocchio” and Manzoni's “Promessi Sposi” with a more generic meaning of wasting time or money.
There are many expressions that were born around the Cathedral in the years of its construction! Some are quite vulgar and here we avoid to talk about them… others deserve mention. Certainly one of the nicest is the way of saying "it is as long as the Opera del Duomo" to indicate a work that has lasted for a long time and that seems infinite. In fact, the construction of the Cathedral lasted more than two centuries (1296-early 16th century)!
Another Florentine vernacular term born in the Florence Cathedral is “bischero”. All Italians know that in Florence it is used to indicate a stupid person. Do you know the origin of this word? The "Bischeri" was a wealthy Florentine family, which in the thirteenth century had their houses between the present-day via dell'Oriuolo and Piazza del Duomo, exactly at that intersection that is still bears named "Canto dei Bischeri" (Bischeri corner). When the construction of Santa Maria del Fiore began, the new, larger Cathedral should have occupied that area and therefore the Republic of Florence asked the Bischeri to buy their palaces, at an excellent compensation price; but the Bischeri did not they gave in, trying to raise the price. It happened then that their houses were simply expropriated or, according to another version, were destroyed by fire. Whatever the reason "Bischeri" lost homes, money and reputation ...
The event created a stygma on their family (until today) and forced them to move away from Florence. They returned only in the sixteenth century, but changing their name to Guadagni.
If you want to see faces of three members of this family take a look at the St Catherine of Alexandria altarpiece by Giovanni del Biondo (1378-1410 ca., today in the Florence Cathedral Musuem, Room of the Donatello’s Magdalene)! You can recognize them at the foot of the saint... Do they look smart to you?