Firenze. Florence. The birth of the Renaissance, home of de' Medici, Michelangelo, Donatello, Dante, Brunelleschi, and countless others who remain utterly timeless. Yet here we are centuries later, admiring from the second platform of our tour bus, taking in all of four and a half minutes allotted to inspect these masterpieces.
Afterwards, we are promised gelato.
Historically, the Piazzas of Florence have always been central hubs of the city. That is what they were designed to be; designed to be used as junctions which hold a certain atmospheric concentration. They are full of a determined, genuine identity formed through centuries of cultural peculiarities. The piazzas are strategic focal points of Florence, as urban form theorist and author of the favored “The Image of the City” Kevin Lynch would argue. They hold the core of what was once genuine Florentine culture.
The Florentine piazzas connect different facets of the human experience and unite them as one structure. Each in itself a node of Florence; the tighter the relation to each other, the stronger and more successful the overall network.
By this logic, the success rate of piazzas (measured economically) and their relation to one another should parallel to the success of Florence overall. Right?
Dilemma: Should we allow the source of economic growth to loosen the authenticity and facets of Florence’s urban fabric?
“No! Of course not! Why would anyone be willing to sacrifice this?!”
Well, money. It's exactly why tourist traps exist, more now than ever, due to globalization. It's why you have countless street sellers shoving selfie sticks and Italia sweatshirts in your face while walking through Piazza Santa Maria Novella. But you already know this.
And… it is actually what maintains (in part) the city’s cultural identity.
By renting piazzas out for large, extravagant events, the city gains revenue schemed to "restore sites to make them accessible for visitors and boost city business."
Mayor of Florence Dario Nadella told Politco.edu in 2015 “We want to boost Florence’s appeal as a wedding destination of big American, Indian and Asian families … making us win against other competitive European candidates like Paris. Weddings generate a huge turnover for our city…. We have come up with a precise price list for some of our most prestigious piazzas. In exchange, the city gets the important financial support it badly needs.
Let’s look at some more numbers. According to statistics produced by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), sixty-percent of the world's most important works of art are located in Italy, and approximately half of these are in Florence.
On a global scale, it could be stated that Florence stands today as an international core. A core in and of itself "is the focus of a district that may be perceived as a symbol of that part of the city.” However with 30% of the world’s most treasured artworks located specifically in Florence, would the historic emphasis not be an international concern?
Their influence radiates globally, and they stand for authentic renaissance culture. Should the global, weighted importance of Florentine culture, artwork, and its urbanity be left solely in the hands of Florentine politics?
UNESCO has already declared that this city and its historic center are to be left untouched. Much of Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but how can heritage truly be preserved in an era of globalization?
I don’t have a simple answer or a true answer at all for that matter. But I do think it begins with acknowledging this as an issue. Though the effort is clear, does Mayor Nardella’s vision for Florence as the ultimate wedding destination truly aim to protect their cultural jewels?
Overall, the plan is inconsistent. It provokes contradiction. The more Florence is offered as a brand, the less authentic the city becomes.
Walking through Piazza del Mercato Centrale (Central Market), one thing is clear. The Florentine people are still very much here. They need only an opportunity to exemplify their heritage. What happens as soon as you leave the produce stands of Mercato Centrale? You enter the San Lorenzo Market, notorious for touristic deceit manned by non-Italians.
What if the nodes of Florence, the piazzas, were organized to operate on a ‘less touristic’ basis? Why are officials so scared to propose sanctions to act accordingly? Mass tourism may play an important role in all of Europe’s economy, but are we willing to sell out what once defined the city’s values for economic potential?
If tourism-based companies, specifically those located in piazzas, were somehow further sanctioned, and revenue was specifically utilized for the preservation of Florentine art, there would be a greater favorable circumstance allocated for Florence authenticity to seep back in… Giving small, local businesses the opportunity to reclaim their condition.
Again, I do not have a definite proposition or simple answer. But if I can imagine just a few possibilities to strengthen the overall network and revitalize the true identity of Florence’s heritage, cannot officials? Should this not become an international concern?
How can communities use tourism for economic prosperity, while maintaining authenticity? How has your city faced or overcome this dilemma? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Michele Katora. Data linked to sources.