Florence, Italy, undergoes a new Renaissance
“Florence has changed,” my friend Alessandra told me on the phone. “There’s a new spirit here.”
“I don’t believe it,” I said. “I know Florentines; they’re conservative people who hate change.”
“Come and see for yourself. I’m going on a trip. You can have my apartment,” Alessandra said.
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Although Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance, and its entire center has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, both of us worried that it had become tourist hell. Too many day-tripping visitors. Dowdy, impossibly overcrowded museums and galleries. Suicidal traffic choking the narrow streets. Mediocre hotels and restaurants. It’s hard to say when the life goes out of a place, but the signs seemed unmistakable in Florence.
On a bright, chilly autumn day I took the train from Rome to Santa Maria Novella, Florence’s central station. The station is a modernist gem, but in recent years leaving it meant navigating a seedy plaza covered in litter, jammed with hustlers and street vendors and surrounded by tourist buses, idling and belching exhaust.
No longer. The plaza was open and clean. Municipal police in their tall white helmets — previously an endangered species in the city center — were on patrol to keep it that way. Ordinary Florentines milled about, getting on and off Florence’s public buses, which had been freshly repainted in red and white — the city’s colors.
I spent the rest of the evening with Alessandra, and the next morning, after she left for the airport, I headed to the Palazzo Vecchio, city hall since the 13th century. Matteo Renzi, the young mayor and the man credited with revitalizing Florence, works here in a magnificently frescoed office. His predecessor was known as the invisible sindaco, or mayor. Renzi is the opposite: gregarious, outgoing, at 36 very much a modern politician. He has his own Facebook page, rides a bike to work and is the most popular mayor in Italy.
“Florence is a city with a history [that is] very incredible,” he told me. “But it is very important to maintain it as a city, not a museum, and this is the challenge for us, to create a link between our cultural heritage and our future.”
Music to my ears, but what did it mean in practice?
Renzi’s first initiatives included cleaning up the main station plaza; extending opening hours at the Palazzo Vecchio and the city’s handsome new central library until midnight; and, in the museums he controls, installing baby-changing rooms and ATMs. Small steps but symbolic.
On a bigger scale, he’s tackling the traffic nightmare, exiling tourist buses and ramping up public transportation (weaning Italians off their cars is probably harder than doing it with Angelenos) and trying to use art and the city’s cultural reserves to attract longer-stay visitors rather than polluting mass tourists “who come in the morning, trek round the Uffizi, buy a panino [sandwich] and an apron with David’s genitalia and get back on their coaches in the afternoon,” as James Bradburne, director of the Palazzo Strozzi and a close ally of Renzi’s, puts it.
When Mayor Renzi left to meet a class of kindergarteners, I went to one of the new attractions he’d told me about. This one was underneath the Palazzo Vecchio, where excavations have uncovered parts of the Roman town, including an amphitheater. The tours are only in Italian. Although I couldn’t understand all that was said, I’ve rarely felt such a thrilling sense of history as exploring a Roman street while walking beneath the foundations of a Renaissance palace.
I emerged above ground at lunchtime, and in keeping with my plan to visit only what was new in Florence I tried the city’s hottest restaurant which is … a hamburger joint. Ah, but Lungarno 23 isn’t any old McDonald’s. The burgers are made from local Chianina beef, and the toppings include black olive salsa and truffles. As for my fellow diners, they weren’t the jeans and T-shirt crowd but well-dressed Fiorentini, each showing off his or her bella figura, or sense of style.
After lunch, it was a short stroll back across the Arno to my prebooked visit to the Vasari Corridor, between the Palazzo Vecchio, where Cosimo de’ Medici had his office, and the Palazzo Pitti, which his wife, Eleanor, called home. I had been trying for almost 20 years to see this nearly half-mile-long elevated corridor built for the Medicis in five months flat by their favorite artist-architect Vasari. Theoretically open to the public, for one reason or another — restoration, bureaucracy, funding — it was always shut. But that was in the old Florence.
In the new Florence it’s open, though you can visit only with a guided group, cheap if you speak Italian, more expensive if you need an English-speaking tour. But it’s worth every euro to walk along on top of the shops on the Ponte Vecchio and to admire the view from the middle of the Arno.
From the quietly solemn corridor, with its yellow walls hung with the world’s largest collection of self-portraits (Marc Chagall donated his, saying he wanted to have at least one of his paintings in the Uffizi), it was a shock to be decanted down a short staircase and come out beside the Boboli Gardens. Huge, state-owned and poorly maintained, the gardens became a metaphor for Florence living on its past. I went instead to the nearby Bardini Gardens, recently and splendidly restored after 50 years of neglect. They were peaceful and uncrowded, and the view from the top of their hill is picture-perfect Florence.
There’s also a separate Museo Bardini, named after Stefano Bardini. Bardini was one of the first big-time art dealers — among his clients was Isabella Gardner, of the Boston museum — and Museo Bardini is filled with his personal collection. During his lifetime, the connoisseur kept the place as a private museum and showcase for his business, arranging the objects according to his own aesthetic rather than in chronological order.
A recent restoration has put back the dark blue walls and Bardini’s display, and the result is a great small museum, nearly empty of visitors. You won’t find Michelangelos and Masaccios here, but what you will find was all exquisitely chosen. I wandered around feeling as though I was cleansing my artistic palette after the Renaissance riches elsewhere.
The Palazzo Strozzi, Florence’s main public gallery, represents the other end of the museum spectrum from the Bardini. Situated in the heart of town just off Piazza della Repubblica, the Strozzi for years was a white — or rather dark gray — elephant. As I found out the next morning over an espresso with director Bradburne, Florence’s 21st century renaissance actually began here. “When they appointed me, it was a very brave decision to have a non-Italian at the Strozzi,” said Bradburne, who is Canadian.
Bradburne has opened the Strozzi’s public spaces outside museum hours, put a cafe in the courtyard, installed video screens and free Wi-Fi, negotiated ticket discounts with other Florentine museums, and authorized the cafe to serve free coffee to anyone standing in line for longer than an hour. He throws “cocktail parties” for Florence’s taxi drivers and hotel concierges to promote the museum’s shows. These things are the norm in user-friendly American, British and French museums but amount to a revolution in Italy, where museums are still run by and for scholars and art historians with minimal attention to the paying public.
By now, I’d found my own routine in Florence. Midmornings were spent on the top floor of the new library (a former convent), where the snack bar has plenty of seating and the best view in town of Brunelleschi’s famous dome. Afternoons included a museum or gallery visit, followed by a cocktail at the Four Seasons, whose painstaking restoration of 15th century Palazzo della Gherardesca single-handedly created a new top tier of Florentine hotels.
Then there was dinner at one of the handful of restaurants where young chefs are developing lighter, modern variations on the traditional rich Tuscan cuisine, such as the Navari family at Zeb, Mario Stabile at Ora d’Aria or David Gardner’s Trattorio Baldovino. It was Gardner who told me the cardinal rule of good eating in Florence: It’s not California. Don’t think you can sightsee all day and find a meal at 3 or 4 p.m. Florentines eat lunch between noon and 2 p.m. and dinner between 8 and 10 p.m. and that’s it. Outside those hours expect stale panini and warmed-over pizza.
On my last day I decided to do something different — shop. With Florence’s many makeovers in the civic realm, what about the private sector? Has business risen to the challenge? Alessandra told me the inside story.
Fashion-conscious Florentines increasingly shop out of town at one of two big outlet malls. I paid 12 euros, or about $18, to take the dedicated bus half an hour north to the Barberino Designer Outlet. This is Florence as Disneyland, a fake Renaissance town on a riverbank where I found discounts of 30% to 70% on designer names such as Ralph Lauren, Prada and local luxury stores such as Cavalli and the Bridge. (I got a bag and matching boots for less than 300 euros, or about $428.)
I’ve saved the best for last. Renzi’s first act in office was to close the piazza around the Duomo to all traffic. After 45 years of discussion, and with 2,147 buses and 10,000 cars and trucks once roaring through the piazza every day, the deed is finally done.
That evening I got back to town just as the bells in Giotto’s campanile started to ring, startling the pigeons who clapped their wings. When the bells stopped, there were only the sounds of people talking and laughing. Renzi told me, “The message is you stay in the square and you think about our past and our future because we are the people who love our city.” Thank you, Mr. Mayor. I love Florence again too.
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