“Still living in Florence?” was a sentence you’d hear a lot ten years ago, as if anyone in their right mind would have left a long time ago. And it’s true: even to those living in Florence, it still comes as something of a surprise that the city keeps attracting people and that some even decide to stay! That’s not to speak of the mass of tourists dumped here every day by the interminable procession of coaches, lining the Lungarno della Zecca Vecchia, and guided through the unchanging tour, comprising Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi and Duomo, with a few optional basilicas thrown in, if the time spent in heinous markets and high-end shopping streets allows for it. Florence’s mass tourism is at once the delight and the disgrace of our city, its food and its shit.
Florence without tourists would be fabulous indeed. Imagine if the city — as journalist Giovanni Papini hoped a hundred years ago — could free itself from the weight of its past, if it could stop living “on the shoulders of the dead and barbarians” and return to being a cradle of ingenuity. A nice thought, but in all likelihood it will keep doing what it has for the past 400 years. There is a market there, after all. Ultimately, what surprises the city’s inhabitants most is not the arrival of tourists, but all the people hoping to find something here. To this day, endless numbers of artists, poets, writers and architects, not just from the surrounding countryside, but from other countries and continents venture to Florence in the hope of gaining some form of education, if not genuine spiritual revelations.
This choice will always appear grossly wrong to us Florentines — a fatal miscalculation. Artists grow from peer-to-peer exchanges. Those of us who have actually undertaken a contemporary artistic career in Florence leave as often as we can. We visit world capitals, or just Rome or Milan, in pursuit of that exchange (or the galleries, the cafes, and publishing houses) that Florence does not offer outside close-knit circles of friends and colleagues. Choosing Florence is not a mistake because the cultural substrate of the city is limited; compared to other cities of its size there are certainly more magazines, shows and events here. There is even more of an international crowd, too, though one largely devoted to the joys of alcohol. Rather, choosing Florence is a mistake because what the city has to offer is ultimately itself. And that is something difficult to grasp, especially in just a few months.
Picture a young man on Ponte Santa Trinita with a distinctly Anglo-Saxon look about him. He’s perfectly equipped: Clark’s-style shoes, but artisan-made; a jacket with patches on the elbows; underneath he wears a light linen shirt, almost Indian-looking. Picture him as he sits down on the bridge: it’s a beautiful clear day, further along one can glimpse the reflection of the Ponte Vecchio in the water. Windows, domes and bell towers crop up throughout the horizon: today’s light on the Arno is spectacular. A rare breeze completes the picture—the young Anglo-Saxon has it all. He pulls out a notebook (or a sketchpad, or a camera, or a canvas mounted on an easel).
Watch as he writes his thoughts in the notebook; watch as an irredeemable daub takes shape on the canvas. It’s not his fault, we’ve all been there at least a couple of times. Masterpieces cannot be reproduced nor can they be described; the Ponte Vecchio or Santo Spirito, or even just the churches of Cestello and Ognissanti, cannot be depicted without becoming postcards. The places that inspired Dante and Boccaccio cannot be whored out to the first passer-by, no matter how much meretricious trade goes on in the rest of the city.
The truth is, Florence is a fait accomplit, a finished masterpiece. At best, it can offer itself, cheekily, to a passing Jeff Koons — as long as he’s ready to leave again quickly. Koons might ridicule the administration that invited him — thus becoming art — but not the city’s stones. The marble of the buildings reminds us that the ghosts of giants walk these streets. In comparison, those who pass through, stay for a while, or live here, are nothing more than mold or cockroaches.
There’s no way to be a flâneur either. If you’re strolling, you’re nothing but a tourist. If you’re crossing the city, trying to get from a to b, you’re probably an annoyed inhabitant. Being a flâneur in Florence is difficult; it can take years to learn: a sense of intimacy with the city comes at the oddest of times. Roaming its empty streets on a mid-August evening, or at five in the morning on a working day, walking home after being left on the viali by someone who gave you a lift after a night out or finding your way from Rifredi Station to the city centre after hopping off a train, whose destination we forgot to check. A sense of intimacy starts only after finding yourself more than once in such predicaments — which can only happen if you lived for a long time in Florence — and only after such situations have occurred in less obvious and more evocative places than those crystallized in souvenir images — places loaded with a power that the city’s symbols have lost.
If one truly wishes to believe in this city, to make something of it, before doing anything else one must cross the Arno to the Oltrarno. Novices always begin in piazza del Duomo or Santa Croce, committing an inevitable mistake. The common sense thing to do is to cross a bridge, and begin from Piazza Santo Spirito. It’s not that things change that much on this side of the river — yet it’s as if there were a leftover shadow, a hint of life. One way to tell is from the news: if you’re murdered on the ‘right’ side of the Arno, it’s the usual savage crime of “What has the world come to?”
But if a murder occurs in the Oltrarno, in the papers, on the radio, television, even in conversations on the street, the idea of a dark, bohemian, alternative (voiced in the most hostile way) neighborhood bursts forth. It’s all nonsense, of course. But if locals are that upset, if they get that worked up about it, there must be something here which has not yet been found and suppressed. Perhaps the mood on this side of the river is just different, and better. It’s not that the typical atmosphere of piazza Santo Spirito — if “typical” means a barrage of bistros and restaurants seemingly less commercial than their counterparts in Piazza della Passera or Borgo San Frediano — is actually that authentic. It’s just a little less fake thanks to a fistful of residents who still actually try to live there, despite all attempts to push them out through the demolition of parks, facilities and parking.
It’s easier to describe what the Oltrarno does not have: it’s “better” because there’s no San Lorenzo or Porcellino market, no groups with tour guides and souvenir shops, high street fashion and fast food joints — which are still better than some eateries at the epicentre of the disgrace, where pasta is peddled out of microwaves and fluorescent ice-cream is sold at astronomical prices. The truth is that Florence is a city with a secret soul, and Santo Spirito is, even though one maybe shouldn’t say it, simply its most secret part, just slightly more concealed and shadowy, a little less crowded and congested.
The first time I sensed this secret soul, I was in this very neighbourhood. I’d been living in Florence for a couple of years and had been invited to dinner on the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in Via Maggio, another dark river, even during the day. I went out onto the roof terrace and looked outside. I had been expecting the usual Florentine skyline— so beautiful it stuns or sickens you, the view you simply have to photograph from Piazzale Michelangelo. I expected the only difference to be a more central perspective, like when you climb Giotto’s bell tower or the tower at Palazzo Vecchio. What I saw however was something different and unexpected. For the first time I realized that almost every city block has a garden at its centre. Some were small, others gigantic: the very palazzo I was in concealed a sizeable garden, unimaginable from the outside, with pines and palm-trees, even a private playground.
Or not. Maybe we need to take an entirely different approach: leave the center, break free from this dried up shell. It’s as if the city walls were still here, as though the city gates created a force field around us. Let’s break away from the knots of people and the secret gardens, let’s get out, open up to find new intersections and meanings in symbols outside the city, such as the English Cemetery, San Salvi Park, Ponte alle Riffe, or even the Viadotto dell’Indiano.
Or go farther still, take the ‘30’ bus and let it lead you into the plains, beyond the suburbs of Novoli, Peretola and Sesto Fiorentino. Here you will find the suburban campuses students have been exiled to in the city’s latest act of self-destruction. Continue further, past the industrial zone of Osmannoro, and go find some truth there, like the English and French caravans did 20 years ago, bringing the gospel of free tekno with them. It’s as if they subconsciously understood the transformation of the Florence-Scandicci-Sesto-Osmannoro-Campi-Prato-Pistoia area into a single interstitial conurbation, whose centre is the emptiest and most anonymous point. You might end up in Prato, slowly realising you’re no longer in Florence because the writing on the factory walls has changed into ideograms, like in Blade Runner…
But what would we find, except for a post-industrial periphery just like any other, only less impressive and less alienating? The Bologna bypass offers a whole other scale of industrial landscape; in Brianza it never ends, extending kilometre after kilometre. What are our flyovers worth compared to those in Paris or even in nearby Milan, to the polished and dazzling viaducts of Stockholm, the technological infrastructure of Tokyo and Houston, or the unimaginable enormity of Shanghai? Meaning here has coagulated elsewhere, and we are forced to reckon with the centro storico, its sandstone, its white and green marble.
Translated from Italian by Julian Siravo.