When it comes to the amoebic growth and prosaic functionality of the urban civitas, I am, to put it bluntly, a nerd. I was last in Florence in 1982, the same week Italy won the World Cup in a sport I could barely play and certainly didn’t follow, but it didn’t stop me from climbing onto the base of a public monument to lead the crowd below in chants of “Uno, Due, Tre,” the number of goals scored by the Italian team.
Thirty years ago I did the obligatory museum crawl both to justify to myself and my parents this use of my own savings and because, well, I didn’t have enough disposable income to be a shopper.
But this trip I’ve been less interested in art than the city’s multi-modal streets, its public squares, its trash disposal and even its sewer systems.
I’ve tried to determine through keen observation, much like a mechanic reverse engineers a machine, how the Florentine government uses zoning to control the city’s flavor, culture and tourist appeal. There’s obviously a stringent sign ordinance and multiple use restrictions to keep out the neon lights of a China Town and the cancerous spread of yet another restaurant with golden arches.
What I haven’t figured out (yet) is whether the ordinances are administered by the Ministry of Zoning, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Tourism, or the Ministry of Urban Chaos.
Florence, like all large cities, has its graffiti and its immigrants, its street musicians and its panhandlers, and its tourists and its pigeons (in some roughly equivalent numbers). But for the multi-square mile historical Florence, it has something most American cities lack — a unique personality. Florence has an identity card with “Florence” stamped across its forehead at every corner and piazza.
Florence didn’t just exist in the Renaissance — it was the Renaissance, defining the era’s art and architecture, an historical experiment made possible by the historic collision of government, church, trade guilds and private wealth existing in a tense, incestuous equilibrium where a culture’s buildings and art were perceived as wise public investments rather than wasteful and frivolous expenses.
But now, Florence is a shadow of its former self, still living in a history it wrote then abandoned. Five hundred years later, the rest of us aren’t vistors from other countries as much as we are time travelers, each trying to step back into a century that was but no longer is.
I came here bearing a heavy prejudice. Not against Italians, but in favor of Italians. That Italians, like all Europeans, design their cities smarter. That Europeans design their spaces more efficiently.
But such is not always the case. Newer American cities have an intentionality that is better suited to modern life. Florence, like most Italian cities and towns, is built on streets and squares that were built on top of streets and squares designed to serve Roman armies and medieval ox carts.
Today those streets barely accommodate small cars, and then in the remaining space that doesn’t exist pedestrians are squeezed onto two foot sidewalks punctuated by jutting windows and drainpipes. Its not that I dis-appreciate the full blown charm of medieval Italian towns, and we have explored many. I guess my point, if I need one here, is that Chicago’s grid system and Washington’s spoke system serve 21st century life in a practical way that is only possible when a city is 200 rather than 2,000 years old.
But there is another and more important point to make, and Florence is a benissimo example.
Cities can be mediocre and cities can be great, and greatness, like Italian pasta with pesto, has a time-tested recipe.
If greatness was measured by a city’s military power or industrial strength, then we would teach the lessons of ancient Sparta, Leningrad, and even Cleveland. But instead we measure greatness by a city’s artists, its philosophers, its universities and its architectural masterpieces — all the lessons of ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, and Paris of the 18th and 19th centuries. And all of these accomplishments are possible when governments support or tolerate artistic endeavors and when monied interests, for ego or profit, have visions of greatness beyond the ordinary and far in excess of mere necessity.
As I look at America from a rickety chair in front of an indecipherable keyboard in an Italian internet café in a city that was, for 250 years, the yardstick of greatness, I fear that our own historic moment has come and gone, paralyzed as we are by fringe political elements who demean education and critical thinking as “elite” and therefore unAmerican and who decry any use of the public purse for a purpose other than street maintenance and trash pickup in their own neighborhoods as a waste.
I feel like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock who lamented “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker.” That small-minded Philistines, those who would not recognize a bold idea or a great public project, now define the American Zeitgeist.
As an attorney, I spend my professional life telling those who need to hear me “trust me, I’m right.” But as the author of the previous two paragraphs, I close with the thought that I think I’m right, even as I hope that I am wrong.