May weather in Florence is unsettled. Spring is slowly yielding to the relentless heat of summer, and during this time of transition, a quick-changing sky is the rule. There were quarter-sized hailstones north of Tuscany yesterday, damaging crops and making the evening news, but here in town, rain was the order of the day.
If there is a pattern to the weather, it is this: the days begin fine, but as the hours pass, haze thickens over the sun, and mid-morning sees clouds rolling in. By early afternoon the sun is gone and a uniform, lowering gray strips color from the light. Next, the isolated drop --- was that rain or a pigeon winging overhead? A scatter of drops, striking like a handful of dropped peas. The tourists lined up to climb the campanile in the Piazza del Duomo shudder; some have come armed with umbrellas, but many not.
A rainstorm is a prime opportunity for the ambulanti. As the downpour begins, selfie-sticks vanish, replaced by cheap umbrellas and ponchos. Interestingly, the ambulanti shelter beneath sturdy, wind-resistant umbrellas, quite different from the flimsy products they are selling. They work the crowds briskly, tracking the hapless tourists whose soaked clothes are beginning to cling to their skin. "Ombrello? Poncho?"
Even the gypsy girls have joined the act. They've put their plastic coin cups away and are flogging umbrellas for all they are worth. Mysteriously, they don't use their own products, but prefer to hurry about unprotected, water streaming down their black braids and cotton garments.
Sales are brisk. As the rain wets, then silvers, the ancient stones, multi-colored, rain-resistant flowers bloom across the piazza. Navigating the crowds, never easy at the best of times, becomes even more perilous. Now you must think three dimensionally --- it is not enough to avoid running into people; you must also monitor the height of your umbrella, ensuring that it does not strike its twin and the two rip apart like jetliners that have had an unhappy meeting in the sky.
Adding to the chaos are the bicycles, which have not ceased to roll through the crowds. The natives of Florence have perfected the perilous art of steering their bicycles with one hand, while holding an umbrella in the other. It is quite a feat: dangerous, dashing, and slightly demented.
If you happen to be a shy street photographer, nervous about the reaction of your subjects should you be detected making a picture, then a rainstorm is a prime opportunity. People become distracted during a downpour, so intent on keeping dry while hurrying for shelter, that they will fail to notice you. Hold your umbrella with three fingers of your left hand. Steady your camera with your right hand and the thumb and finger of your left. Move slowly through the crowds, snapping away as if you were invisible. In fact, you nearly are.
On some afternoons, the deluge will steady into a soaking rain, settling in and driving away even the most dedicated tourist. Pools grow between the cobbled piazza stones. Isolated lowspots fill, overflow, and join into larger puddles. The wet-slicked stones shine in the failing light, as Florence reveals a splendor that is displayed only when it rains.