Florence: a city dependent on tourism that doesn’t like tourists. Almost nothing is free – even the green spaces in the old city are expensive. Motor scooters scoot down every back alley, elegant cars squeeze into tiny spaces, everywhere in the historic centre, the traffic roars and howls. Everywhere too the dense crowds jostle each other for the use of ultra-narrow pavements and cobbled streets. The crowds are organised by hundreds of tour guides who hold up flags to show their flocks where to go and what to admire.
There is of course much to admire. Down every back alley are fabulous studio workshops and show spaces for very special crafts. Shop fronts are works of art. Restaurants are works of art. The city is home to some of the most impressive buildings you will see anywhere. The museums are home to more of the world’s most famous art works than anywhere else. If you have deep pockets you can jump the endless queues waiting to pay a fortune for tickets to the greatest cathedrals, the most famous museums, the greatest sculptures.
And then there is leather. This is the home of Gucci, and I cannot imagine anywhere with more leather outlets than Florence. In particular this open-air market of two long streets crossing each other must have contained a million leather belts.
I have never seen so many stalls selling the same range of products in one place – and never want to. How on earth do they all survive? Does every single tourist buy a new belt? Well, looking up the figures, even if there are a million belts on sale, only one in ten of the tourists needs to buy one! Yes, that’s correct: 10 million people visited Florence last year. This year it will be 10 million and two.
What particularly stuck me on our first venture into the city was the big name fashion shops near the river. One in particular had a whole window display devoted to what looked like a single shopping bag. OK, it was made of leather and a nice green colour, but otherwise there was nothing special about it – except the price: 3600 euros. It had a famous brand name of course – in this case I think it was Dolce and Gabbana. I could imagine that a really well made leather bag could cost up to £100, but there can only be one reason to pay thousands for a bag: you buy this thing to show how wealthy you are.
There are parallels in a world I am more familiar with: the natural world, and in particular the evolutionary phenomenon called “sexual selection”. There are certain animals, which grow fantastically elaborate appendages such as tail feathers (birds of paradise) or antlers (the elk – in this case the extinct Irish Elk). These cost the animal a huge amount of energy to grow, and the only thing they are good for is to attract a mate. What the animal with ridiculously huge horns, or the person with a ridiculously expensive bag is saying is: “I am so powerful I can afford to waste resources. If you mate with me your offspring will be powerful too.” The only problem with this theory is that the animal examples I quote are male and the human mostly female. Still, it’s not too hard to find examples of male conspicuous consumption. I rest my case.