Giuseppina Caciotti, the woman known to 19th-century Florentines as La Beppa Fioraia, was born in 1809 and lived most of her life in the Porta San Frediano area of Florence. Her epithet derives from Beppa, a nickname for Giuseppina, and her occupation as a flower vendor (fioraio = florist, flower vendor).
She was well-known to Florentines while she lived. And no wonder. Beppa wore a large straw hat and invariably held a basket of flowers on her lap, which she sold throughout the city: outside the train station, at theater entrances, in front of Florence’s elite coffee houses. She was famous for her informal, even cheeky, way with others, often addressing high-society passers-by in a familiar manner and giving them curious nicknames of her own imagination.
Beppa has been called Florence’s ‘witness to the 19th century.’ Given her occupation, all that happened on the streets of Florence would have been known to her: ceremonies, festivities, accidents, parades, concerts, the comings and goings of notable figures, and politics (Florence was Italy’s capital from 1865 to 1871). According to contemporary accounts, Beppa sold (or gave) flowers to the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinand III, to Belgian King Leopold II and his wife Maria Henriette of Austria, to Florentine aristocrats, to painters who had studios around Piazza Donatello, to government officials, and to soldiers.
Later in the 19th century, an Italian journalist wrote of Beppa: ‘Of the flower vendors, only Beppa remained, getting up there in years and by then having lost that certain hardiesse joyeuse of hers, still calling everyone zelindino mio*, even Vittorio Emanuele (first king of united Italy; my note) to whom Beppa offered a bouquet every time he arrived or left Florence by train. Other flower vendors played their parts, fleeting or lasting, but none dared challenge Beppa’s territory in front of Caffé Doney…’
In old age Beppa saved up for a house outside Porta Romana. She died on February 6, 1891 at the age of 82.
* Zelindo is a name. Zelindino mio means ‘my little Zelindo.’ But why Beppa called everyone, including the king of Italy, by this nickname, is a mystery.