Updated: Oct 16, 2021
I've lost count of the times I've heard "oooh Florence, so beautiful, must be an amazing place to live" over the past many years when I tell people where I'm from. And I get it: there's no denying the bedrock-deep beauty of this town, its historic center in particular. It’s not just individual buildings, but the bewildering sum of them: overlapping, echoing, juxtaposing spectacularly.
The above photograph was made with my smartphone in April 2016; I rediscovered it just yesterday, sorting through old snaps. I find the view as arresting now as when I stood framing it in Piazza San Firenze over 5 years ago, on a walk through Florence’s centro storico. To orient you, the Bargello is the castle-like structure on the right, the stiletto-like steeple of the Badia Fiorentina is on the left, and the top of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore (better known as the Duomo) is just visible to the left of the steeple. Receding in the middle of the image is the Via del Proconsolo.
Like many of my more nostalgic pix of Florence, the above photo omits the street-level eyesores familiar to any contemporary visitor: ramshackle market stalls selling endless variations of "genuine Florentine leather", noisy, smelly motor scooters, too many purveyors of marbleized paper, third-rate statuary, oversweet gelato and similar items that have replaced the salt-of-the-earth butchers, produce shops, and latterie (where one would go to buy fresh milk, butter and, for kids like me, a cone of whipped cream) of 50 years ago. Too many Florentine streets now cater to the visitor, not the resident. Local folks complain but know to look no further than themselves: Florence is beautiful, but by trading on a fixed, centuries-old notion of itself for generations, it has failed to live up to its potential as a center of contemporary culture and commerce, exactly what "put it on the map" in the first place. This saddens me. Compare Venice, easily Florence's equal as a trinket-choked tourist trap of a (shatteringly beautiful) town, but which hosts important 20th and 21st century art collections like the Peggy Guggenheim, the Pinault collection the world-renown Film Festival and Architectural and Art biennales. In modern times Florence has had nothing to equal these, with the exception of a spate of thrilling exhibitions hosted by the Palazzo Strozzi in recent years. One has the sense Firenze is held back by an essentially medieval character: far enough from the sea and the alpine passes to comfortably reject the "foreign", its own flourishing as the birthplace of the Renaissance in Italy an exception rather than the rule with which to build a pattern of reinvention and renewal.
And yet, as with Venice, even decay casts a bewitching spell. The façade of Santa Maria del Fiore has been power-washed to a nearly pristine state since I made the picture of the white bicycle against the basilica's soot-stained north wall late on Christmas Day, 2015. I can't say I prefer the soiled version of the building, but the photo is a reminder that certain places endure, and reveal their poetry endlessly, pointing to humankind's ingenuity amidst so many manifestations of our folly.