The Premio Rezzori literary prize — held every May in Florence — is named after the Austrian writer Gregor von Rezzori, who lived for years in the small village of Donnini, east of the city, with his aristocratic wife, Beatrice Monte della Corte. Von Rezzori died some years ago but his formidable wife, now 92, is the doyenne of Florentine literary life and in the first week of May I was summoned by her from distant Bangkok, where I live, in order to be one of five finalists deposited in the Hotel Porta Rossa and groomed on how to behave at an awards ceremony to be held three days later in the Palazzo Vecchio.
The other four of our merry band were George Saunders, David Szalay, Katie Kitamura and Andreï Makine. Margaret Atwood and her husband were there as well. An illustrious cohort, admittedly, and one not disfigured by rivalries, even after we discovered that George had won. But I was nevertheless soon waylaid by other obsessions.
I spent a lot of my childhood in Florence, thanks to a godmother in Fiesole, but the city’s charms have, for me, long declined. The tour groups from Harbin led by little flags have become the new icon of a city sinking into tourist depravity. Only the ice cream and the buildings remain. However, I remembered something about the warren of vaulted alleys just behind the Porta Rossa which had remained lodged in my unconscious.
On a parallel street accessed from the hotel’s back door lies the legendary shirt maker Simone Abbarchi, whose elegant and timeless shop is lodged in the ancient Roman baths, the Antiche Terme, and moreover lies at the edge of a small oblong piazza with the fantastical name of Piazza del Limbo. Here also stands the church of Santi Apostoli, one of the oldest in Florence, which no one seems to visit. Gregorian chants in the morning go well with shirt measuring, that anachronistic form of male therapy.
Abbarchi is considered one the world’s greatest shirt makers and you have to know where he is because the façade of his establishment carries only the words Bagni nelle Antiche Terme and the long-lost name Peppini. You go past this enigmatic façade into a quiet space occupied by Simone and his assistant Gianluca, and filled with hundreds of sample books from textile makers such as Albini, Thomas Mason, Canclini and Monti. It is a little like an undertakers devoted to the rites of dressing up corpses. You step inside, leave behind your ugliness and prepare to enter a sartorial reincarnation.
There is something quite different about an Italian shirt maker when compared with their military-inspired British counterparts. The pursuit of sprezzatura, off-hand elegance carefully hiding its methods, is a world away. In any case, this is where the old spirit of Florence still lingers — in custom-made Abbarchi shirts, in Stefano Bemer and Il Micio shoes and the beautiful silk ties of Pietro Puliti. For Italian men none of this is dandyism. Construction bosses and humdrum local politicians get their shirts made here.
Writers, no — we are the worst dressed people on earth, and proud of it. However, at the awards ceremony a number of strange ancient men in pinstripes came up to me, presumably to congratulate me on my book, and leaning in a little for an ear murmur, said instead: ‘Bella camicia!’