In the 1800s, Livorno had Italy’s top seaside resorts and most famous guests. Today, it is largely neglected – visitors miss out on a vibrant city full of surprises.
At least twice a year I go back to my childhood town of Vona. The first thing I do is go to the cluttered, noisy, colorful Central Food Market for a frate (an orange-flavored doughnut dipped in sugar), then head to the harbor to see if the sea urchin station is still there, serving spiky sea creatures cut in half and eaten raw with a splash of lemon juice.
Just 20 kilometers south of Pisa, Livorno has all the characteristics of a typical European port city: chaotic and lively; it is multicultural; it is culturally and gastronomically tied to the sea. Plus, it’s located in the heart of Tuscany, which should automatically make it popular.
However, with only 10% of Florence’s visitors and a third of Pisa’s, Livorno is mostly overlooked by tourists – and the ones who rarely show up often seem to arrive by accident. Stop on the street, if you can find one, and ask them why they’re here: they may say they’re waiting to catch a ferry to Corsica or Sardinia, or just driving by looking for a place to eat.
But here’s why. For one thing, Livorno is surrounded by world-famous Tuscan towns that many locals say steal the show. Others argue that the city’s oil refineries, port area and U.S. military base at Camp Darby have given Livorno an industrial, polluted image for years. But fast-passing travelers didn’t realize they were missing a culturally vibrant town with a breathtaking coastline and a unique liberal attitude rooted in its beginnings: When the Medici family founded the city in the 1500s, they enacted laws that offered unprecedented freedom to all newcomers, attracting commerce, talent and a diverse population that allowed the city to flourish.
By the 1700s and 1800s, Livorno had become a major stop on the Grand Tour. “At the time, Livorno was a popular summer resort for Italian high society,” says local historian Giorgio Mandalis. He explains that in the 1800s and before World War II, the city was home to some of Italy’s first seaside resorts, which were frequented by Italian royalty and boasted tourist facilities including hotels and spas. There was even a roller coaster ride with an early version of a movie theater, run by the agents of film pioneers the Lumiere brothers. A plaque on the wall of Villa Dupuis in the Montenero neighborhood commemorates Lord Byron’s six-week vacation in Livorno in 1822. One of Mozart’s operas, Lo Sposo Deluso, is also located here.
However, the glory days would not last forever. In World War II, U.S. air strikes destroyed much of the strategic port and city center, making Livorno one of the most heavily bombed cities in Italy. Many locals say the situation was made worse by the reckless and hasty reconstruction of the entire community after the war. Mandalis said, “Livorno’s public image had been destroyed by the war, and the new rationalist architecture further destroyed the buildings, which were next to the bombed 17th century buildings, causing the area to look incongruous and unbalanced.” .
Residents remain critical of the eyesores; there is even a Facebook group called Se potessi demolire …… (If I could demolish ……) in its description, which encourages residents to post pictures of buildings that “offend their view”. As art historian Federica Falchini points out, “Livornoans still haven’t overcome the so-called ‘Nobile Interrompimento’ or ‘ Noble Interruption,’ a large rationalist building erected after the war in the middle of the city’s former Grand Plaza. Once one of the largest squares in Europe, the square is now just a parking lot on one side of the building and a bus stop on the other.”
Noble distractions aside, Livorno does have its positive aspects. “We have something that other ‘very pretty’ Tuscan cities (such as Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Siena) don’t have,” says Mandalis. “The city’s openness and brightness have attracted painters for centuries, and Livorno is full of history and art, such as ancient seaside resorts, 14th-century lighthouses or eclectic villas in front of the Naval Academy.”
Livorno also has a history unlike any other Tuscan city. Mario Cardinali, founder and editor-in-chief of the local satirical magazine The Vernacoliere, explains that Livorno was created and artificially inhabited by Florence in the 1500s with the help of a very liberal law (called Livonin) that allowed foreign merchants and exiles from any country and race, even those who had committed any crime except people who had committed any crime other than murder, to settle in the city to encourage commerce and development.
Cardinari said, “Livorno is very ‘non-Tuscan’ in terms of humorous irreverence and lack of respect for political authority and the church, and there are historical reasons for that.” A variety of cultures, including Hispanic Jews, Greeks, Armenians and Dutch, made the city prosper in its early years, but also made the Livonians what they are now: they failed to develop the typical medieval respect for authority that others had for Tuscans did-and they expressed it through humor.
The Vernacoliere embodies this spirit perfectly, written in the vernacular of the city. Known in Italy for its political criticism of the Catholic Church and irreverent comic strips with nudity and varying degrees of profanity, the magazine was founded in 1982 to comment on the pope’s visit to Livorno that year.
“There is also something inherited from the city’s cosmopolitan and multicultural history that no other Tuscan city has,” Mandalis adds, “its profound tolerance of different religions and cultures.”
Chef Simone De Vanni, who runs a local food YouTube channel, says the food also reflects the character of the people of Livornese. “[Livorno’s unique cuisine] is the result of the many national influences that created the city in the 16th century,” he told me. “Unlike other, older Tuscan towns that already had a clear culinary tradition, the young and cosmopolitan Livorno was able to blend the old with the new and create its own cuisine.”
Dishes like cuscussù alla livornese (Livorno steamed couscous) reveal historical maritime ties to North Africa and Judeo-Spanish, “and Livorno’s signature dish, cacciucco, perfectly embodies the Livornese,” De Vanni says. “Many different types of fish are cooked together to create something that is neither fish soup nor fish stock, but something unique, kind of like Livorno.”
That singularity may be the tiebreaker. As Paula Ramojno, director of the Livorno Tourism Board, explains: In past decades, the city didn’t need to rely on tourism because of the booming port business – but that thinking has shifted. “Livorno has a lot to offer, from the sea and culture to good food and wine, but we want our tourism to be sustainable and ‘niche.’ We want to offer authentic, non-stereotypical experiences,” she says.
From a cultural perspective, things also seem to be changing. “In the last few years, the art scene has become more active, with festivals, theaters, art galleries and exhibitions, especially in the summer,” says Alessandra Falca, a Livorno-born musician who is very involved in the city’s cultural scene.
In other words, the Tuscan city is built for visitors who are willing to dig deeper into local history and embrace its easygoing attitude and atypical character. The people of Livorno think there is no better city in the world,” says Falca. But judging by the number of visitors to Livorno, they’re just talking to themselves.”
Maybe it’s time travelers gave it another chance.