Twenty-five years ago I visited Florence for the first time. It was the city of my long held dreams and a destination that tugged at me relentlessly. I'm not sure when my love affair with the city started but I do remember when it came into my consciousness, in November of 1966, the year of the great flood. It was the only time that I remember a film being shown in church after mass. It was a newsreel of the after affects of a devastating flood that nearly destroyed Florence. I saw images of grand cathedrals awash with mud, damaged frescos, ruined paintings, old women crying, young men and women shovelling mud from the streets. Intermixed with the devastation were scenes of Florence before the calamity. This was the creative home of Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the city reflected that glorious past in its physical beauty.
At the end of the newsreel our parish priest asked for donations to help in the restoration of the city. I reached into my eleven year old pocket and pulled out my only quarter and with that I supposed I began, to this point, a forty year relationship with the city.
It was in 1981 that I was able to see for the first time to what I had contributed my two bits. Florence was everything I had read about, everything I had previously learned of it, everything I had imagined and most importantly, everything I expected. I remember standing by a church on the Borgo Ognissanti and seeing the flood line high up on the wall and feeling contented, satisfied and strangely complete by being there. For four days I wandered the streets, stopping at a shaded caffe or a gelateria when tired and hot. I walked slowly because there was much to see with the abundance of small specialty shops, local markets and food carts selling everything needed to those living there. It was a city alive with the goings on of daily life, dynamic with an authentic vibrancy of a city that exists for its own inhabitants. That was then.
Since 1981 I have returned many times for many different reasons, some to do with the heart and some to do with the mind. Each time I return I come with the same expectations of the city that I have had since I was eleven years old. Much has remained of that but there have been changes, changes that have moved Florence in a direction which is away from the city that I had fallen in love with. It was becoming a facsimile of itself.
During the tourist boom years of the eighties and nineties property values in the heart of the city became inflated causing financial difficulties for the established local neighbourhood businesses. Many had to close down or move to the suburban areas because the cost of doing business in the old center outweighed the profit. Small family run shops closed in favour of large chain stores selling sporting goods or mobile phones or some other technological product that catered to the tourist market. Streets that were once filled with a variety of services for those living there were now filled with sandwich shops, mediocre restaurants and souvenir stores because the neighbourhoods in the center of the city were emptying themselves of their inhabitants in favour of higher rent commercial clients.
With commercial clients comes renovation and rebuilding. Florentines often speak of their disappointment with the architectural mish mash of designs that now fill the historic center of the city.
One evening last summer, during my most recent visit, my friend Stefano was taking my daughter and I out for dinner at a place he said came well recommended by a local. Those kind of recommendations were hard to come by especially for many of the restaurants in the city center, says Stefano as we walk past the Duomo. Many places were sacrificing quality for quantity and turnover. Get them in and get them out was the present philosophy. "It's the Mont St. Michel Syndrome," Stefano adds. He explains that it refers to a place that exists only as a tourist destination, that it has no dynamic life of its own. It's raison d'etre is the tourist dollar. He went on to point out, with spoken embarrasement mixed with anger, some of the buildings that were being built or had been built recently. The architecture was incongruent to the surrounding buildings. "They are building for themselves, not for the city. It is ugly. It has no soul," Stefano says sadly and with finality.
Yes, Florence has changed over the years and not all the changes have been positive. I'd like to think that the city has only temporarily lost its way, perhaps a mid life identity crises of sorts when the perspective on what is truly important gets twisted a bit. Florence, like any city, has in front of it an uncharted course. It will try to tread a delicate balancing act between its historic past and the inevitable modernity of its future. But perhaps it doesn't really matter what changes take place. Every new visitor comes to the Florence of their own time, sees what they want to see and understands the city the way they choose to. They may also, like I, fall in love with the city and should they be lucky enough to get to know it over a length of years they, too, may be forgiving of its failings.