Screenshot from the video of a taxi driver allegedly attacking Bianca Perisa in Florence, Italy.

The Florence street was deserted at the time and though Bianca Perisa’s screams drew a crowd, nobody intervened, writes Rosie DiManno.

The sound of a man’s closed fist striking the woman’s head is wincingly audible. Even on cellphone video shot from a distance.

That woman is Bianca Perisa, from Toronto, doing her master’s degree in Florence, Italy. The man is a cab driver. The video was captured by bystanders and surveillance cameras all around Via Tornabuoni — one of the most high-end elegant streets in a city renowned for its Renaissance gorgeousness.

From various angles, on different footage, Perisa can be seen trying to shield herself, screaming as the assailant repeatedly kicks in a rage, continuing after Perisa’s legs buckle and she sinks to her knees. Only two homeless men would shuffle over to ask if she was OK. “Everybody else was just watching and holding up their phones,” Perisa tells the Star in a phone interview.

At one point during the ceaseless battery, which lasted about 12 minutes, Perisa was able to start filming the attack herself. After she posted it to her Instagram account, and it was reposted by a noted Italian pianist, the content went viral, with more than 3 million viewers in Italy alone.

It has become a national scandal, with dozens of top-tier Italian journalists listening in to Perisa’s teleconference on Monday. Front-page headlines. All over TV news. “I’ve become the face of violence against women in Florence,” she said this with regret, not boastfully.

The city has reeled under unwanted attention for violence against women before — two carabinieri (one of Italy’s main law enforcement agencies) accused of raping a university student in 2017. Florence’s very lifeblood depends on tourism. To be portrayed as unsafe is disastrous.

Perisa was by herself when she called a taxi around 1:30 a.m. last Wednesday. Getting into the vehicle, she noticed the metre’s start rate was at 12 Euros, double the standard drop fare.

“I asked him to please restart the metre. He said, ‘No, no, you have to pay this amount.’ I said, OK, I’ll take another taxi. Instead, he started driving. I freaked out, started screaming at him in Italian: ‘Stop the car!’”

She slapped her hand against the plastic sheet that most cabs now deploy, to separate drivers from fares because of COVID. He ripped off the sheet and spit at her, says Perisa.

Even with the taxi moving, Perisa jumped out of the vehicle. The cab came to a stop, with the driver tearing out of his seat, coming after her. “He literally starts beating the s-t out of me. Kicking my legs. The surveillance camera shows me going around in circles, walking backwards to get away from him. But he doesn’t stop. He almost knocks my head off.”

Screenshot from a video of a taxi driver allegedly attacking Bianca Perisa in Florence Italy.

Although the street had been nearly deserted at that hour, Perisa’s screams drew a crowd. Nobody intervened.

“He started saying really messed-up stuff. Like, you spoiled rich American girl. ‘I’m part of the Taliban! I bombed America! If you tell police what happened I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill your family.’”

He was speaking in English.

Somebody called the police. When they arrived, within minutes, the assailant was still there, claiming Parisa had attacked him first, it was self-defence. “They took a statement from him and let him drive off in his taxi. Maybe he drove other women home later that night,” Parisa said

Bianca Perisa's leg after being allegedly attacked by a taxi driver in Florence, Italy.

The following day, Parisa went to the hospital. She was severely bruised all over, as evidenced by photos she posted. But there was scant sympathy from medical personnel. “They said, ‘This isn’t an emergency just because you’ve been hit by a man. Go to a family doctor. We’re dealing with COVID, we have bigger issues than a girl crying over a man hitting her.’ They think, American white privileged girl,” she said. They also charged her 350 euros ($500) for the emergency visit.

Italy is hardly alone in minimizing violence against women. But Parisa’s experience has triggered massive outrage. Upwards of 9,000 women have emailed or texted her in the days since, recounting their own horrors. Marquee celebrities have reached out while social media sleuths have uncovered plenty of unnerving details about the attacker. They say they identified him as 53-year-old Dino Petrini. He’s alleged to have been a trained boxer, a member of a fight club, known to neighbours for his surly personality and, according to reports, has a criminal record for assaulting a youth, the nephew of a Filipino cleaning woman.

Florence Mayor Dario Nardella condemned the “brutal assault” on Twitter. “I expect a thorough investigation and an exemplary penalty for this person, unworthy of carrying out a public service,” said the tweet. The taxi association has denounced the driver “unreservedly,” announcing their own investigation. The driver’s cab license has been suspended.

Parisa has accepted pro bono legal representation, although the lawyers had to come to her apartment; she’s been too frightened to step foot outside. “I’ve been told to get out of Florence, that it’s not safe for me here. I haven’t slept, I’m living on Xanax,” she said.

Parisa’s been living in Florence for three years, first to complete a BA in fine arts and contemporary jewelry making, then staying on when offered a scholarship. Florence is her home now.

An activist group promoting steeper criminal penalties for domestic and sexual violence — Code Red — has issued PSA messages declaring: “We Are Bianca.”

Abruptly and unexpectedly, Perisa has become the face of a gathering movement and she wants to use that platform. “My main concern is making sure this guy gets taken off the streets and can’t drive women home. But I want to be a voice for these poor Italian women who seem to think I’m some kind of a Canadian hero. I actually feel so empowered right now and want to keep the conversation going.

“Call me a feminist, call me a bitch. I don’t care. I’m fighting this. I’m a girl from Toronto. I don’t want Florence to be a place where parents have to second-guess sending their daughters.”

And she’s definitely not leaving.

“This guy’s a monster. But I’d just started building my life here. I found Utopia. Florence is my dream.

“I still love Italy. I still love Florence.”

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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