Florence re-evaluated

I like to record my first impressions of places and people. These are quite literally prejudices – pre-judgements. With more knowledge I can revise my opinions, so here is the way I see Florence after a week as a tourist.
The crowds were not quite so bad in the early evening. We had a pleasant stroll around the Piazza del Signoria, enjoying a beer in one of the pavement cafes where we could watch the Japanese couples having their wedding photographs taken.
Most of the world as represented here is “selfie crazy”, thrusting their phones out on poles so that they can be seen with some famous building in the background – the Ponte Vecchio being the favourite, as can be seen to the left in this picture, where a mass “selfathon” is going on:
I could never adapt to the noise in the centre. It wears me down. The traffic is horrible and I was always afraid of being hit by a bicycle, a scooter or a car. 

So, not much change there from my initial impressions. However, there is much to admire:

I never got tired of gazing up at the Duomo complex – the sheer grandeur of the architecture, the lovely muted colours of the marble. Much of old Florence has been restored, and the quality of restoration is excellent – lime plaster perfectly applied, delicate colours. Even the stairway in our building – one of the early ones on the river – is decorated with trompe-l’oeil mouldings in subtle greys and browns. Frescos are everywhere, and although I got bored with the biblical themes, the colours and shapes are very restful.

There is very little that is cheap in Florence. Everything on sale seems to have been passed by the taste police, who have eliminated the vulgar – with one colossal exception, the thing Florence is most famous for:

the art of the Renaissance.

Here I have to admit that I do not understand the appeal of Renaissance art. The fantastic skill of the artists is evident, as is their joy in their understanding of human anatomy. What I refuse to admire is the way the obscenely wealthy nobility of the 15th Century used that skill. I take as my example the Pitti Palace, one of the Medici palaces. Here no room is fit for use until every available surface is putti encrusted, gilded, stuccoed, frescoed, carved, painted, carpeted, veneered, and adorned with hundreds of human figures, naked but for wisps of drapery, and all with similar poses: the men glorifying, mourning, killing, abducting, or otherwise being heroic; the women beseeching, tantalising, posing, grieving.  All seem based on stories from classical Greece and Rome or the Bible. To me it seems horribly ostentatious.

Despite all this I love the packaging – the buildings. The architecture seems to belong to a different aesthetic, one of order and proportion. Take the wonderful convent of San Marco for example.

Nothing vulgar here:  the cloisters, refectory, library and cells have been beautifully restored, as has this example of a 15th C nun.

Each of the nuns cells has a fresco painted in the 15th century by Fra Angelico. The architecture is simple and delicate, the art restrained by the limited palette available when applied to fresh plaster.

As an atheist I of course found the obsession with the crucifixion in many of the pictures deeply disturbing, but there is a wholeness about this severe, inhumanly  narrow way of life which you have to admire.Why is there an almost total lack of public green space in the old city? I found the lack of non-human life quite eerie. Even in the supremely tranquil Bardini Gardens there was little bird life, though plenty of insects.

The only birds I saw in the city were pigeons and hooded crows with a few mallards on the river, keeping company with the odd heron and little egret. This is partly down to the season, with Florence presumably off the migration routes. But I think the main reason is that when the centre was created the only things that mattered were the glory of Man and the glory of God. Nature was to be conquered and tamed. It would be another three hundred years until the Romantics changed things. 

Do I still think Florence is tourist-unfriendly? To those amongst the crowds in the streets who can be identified as local we are either invisible or barely tolerated. To those servicing this vast industry, these 10 million visitors a year, we are welcome guests to be charmed and helped. When I lived in Bath I probably ignored the tourists. I don’t blame the Florentines, but I do condemn the tourist industry. It has made special places ordinary, and has damaged local communities. It is time to apply the brakes to the juggernaut.

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2 Responses to Florence re-evaluated

  1. Peter Twyman says:

    Well thank you very much for that Richard. The first iconoclastic account of Florence that I have come across. At last I feel as if I have a reason for visiting the place.

  2. Vivian Miles says:

    Interesting to see critical thinking applied to the tourist experience….the visual images were a joy which I guess demonstrates the timeless allure of Florence.

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