Oltrarno District of Florence, A Growing Community of Artists

As often is the case in Italy, the countercultural heart of the Oltrarno is on the street, artists lead the way in the Oltrarno District of Florence. On a midsummer afternoon in the courtyard of a former convent, a musical performance illustrated the shape of changes taking hold in the Oltrarno district of Florence. Using a pair of traditional items (a cello and a loom), a duo fashioned an entirely new sound — something like ambient electronica, only earthier — which issued into the twilight and drew enthusiastic reactions from onlookers.

The artists were performing for an event at Spazio Arti e Mestieri, or SAM, which opened in April. While traditional artisans are struggling in the current economic climate, organizations like SAM are trying to bring the sector into the 21st century, tapping into a growing community of artists, designers and boutique owners who have flocked to the Oltrarno, a tightly packed neighborhood that has long personified the darker and grittier side of the city.

It was here, in the Santo Spirito church, for instance, that Michelangelo dissected and studied cadavers to learn human anatomy. A three-minute walk from that church, you now can browse the collections of the street-art-inspired fashions at Dangerous Work, which opened in 2004. Using designs from collaborators like Skki and Jay1, Tarek Hassanien, the shop’s Egyptian-born owner, oversees the production of his label’s series of apparel, which draws on the iconography of pop culture, like contemporary-cut hoodies.

“Oltrarno is the heart of the city, because here they invent,” Mr. Hassanien said.

As often is the case in Italy, the countercultural heart of the Oltrarno is on the street — especially Piazza Santo Spirito, which at night fills up with a young, hipsterish crowd. Drawing the denizens back indoors over the last couple of years is Libreria La Cite, which has garnered rave reviews for its mix of affordable books, live music, coffee and even tango lessons.

Deeper into the district, the five-year-old Cantieri Goldonetta Firenze, or Cango, offers space for performances and exhibitions, all under the direction of the choreographer Virgilio Sieni.

Mr. Sieni has recruited Oltrarno artisans to participate alongside trained dancers in his continuing “Academy on the Art of the Gesture” project — a multifaceted venture in which both professionals and people from other walks of life teach one another culturally specific gestures. Other Cango events use abandoned spaces, including decommissioned churches and workshops throughout the Oltrarno for performances and exhibitions.

“What I hope to realize here,” Mr. Sieni said, “is something tied to a total vision of the whole Oltrarno.”

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