In the fall of ’93, I was studying in Florence, Italy as a metalsmithing & jewelry major. I lived with an Italian woman on a narrow winding street between the Basilica of Santa Croce and the Uffizi Gallery.
A benefit of studying in Florence were field trips to Rome for art history class. While this sounds glamorous and exciting, being dragged through the streets of Rome with a bunch of undergrads to stare at your millionth church gets old quickly.
A handful of us decided to break away and catch one of the last trains back to Florence. A train strike was about to go down and, like the bunch of 20 year olds we were, we just wanted to bail on class. The cabbie took a long route as a main street was flooded with a sea of red flags and glimpses of riot police. Asking what that was, he expressed non-challance at the poliltical demonstration and more annoyance at the impending sciopero (strike). Dropping us off at the train station, I looked at my fellow students, who were already getting on my last nerve, and the sea of people across the street. Taking the chance on being stranded in Rome, I broke off from the group and crossed the street. Making that decision, crossing that street from one known, tiresome situation to an unknown, chaotic and possibly unsafe one, completely on my own, made me into a photographer.
Cliche to say ‘heart pounding in chest’ but it was, I had five rolls of film, not much in the way of speaking Italian at that point, and shaking hands as I got my camera ready. I wandered into the rally and photographed everything I could, weaving in and out the crowds, at one point marching with the flag bearers as it was the only space I could move within to get my shots.
The demonstration was the last days of the PCI, Partito Comunisto Italiano. Although officially disbanded in 1991, all the flags and banners I saw had the PCI hammer and sickle and emblem. In fall of 1993, Italy was in the throes of the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandals. The entire government system was caught up in a massive corruption scandal leading to the Mani Puliti (Clean Hands) investigations. I recall flowers in a gate at the Uffizi for the deaths from bombings at the museum in 1992, and an unusually high presence of armed guards at the court houses.
Red flags as far as the eye could see, the rally went on for blocks, just a sea of thousands filling the streets, all ages, all participating. The line of riot police turned out to be more bored than on guard. While I didn’t understand at that very second what the politics were, I understood the meaning behind the presence of families; fathers with their young daughters, idealistic students with banners, workers in the streets, etc… and a few skinheads but there were always a few around at that time, lingering near any kerfuffle they could find (thankfully I haven’t seen a skin since that year).
After a few hours of adrenaline and exhaustive pigeon Italian exchanged with some of the rally-goers, I made my way back to the train station. It was dusk, the strike hadn’t begun yet and I caught the wrong train, a slow, local commuter train that took nearly 4 hours. I settled into the seat and returned to Florence well after sunset.