My first two visits to Florence, in 2007 and 2008, were brief, a few days each. Dean of international programs at Elon University at the time, I was there to establish a study-abroad program with Accademia Europea di Firenze. Already infatuated, when I returned with my family for a four-month stay while serving as faculty in residence for the program, I fell in love with this city. Returning for a three-week visit last June, I experienced a profound sense of continuity: despite the inevitable changes, it was as if time had stood still.
While riding through the city on the way to our apartment near piazza Santa Croce, I instantly felt at ease. Everything was in place. Yes, the ever-present scaffolding had moved to a new position on the Duomo and the ubiquitous cranes had changed locations, but the genius loci that pervades Florence was palpable. The magnitude of the Duomo, the orange-colored rooftops, the Palazzo Vecchio, the unique Florentine sky filled with billowy white clouds above the Arno, the faded frescoes on the outside of many buildings and the inescapable symbols and evidence of the Renaissance immediately heightened my spirit.
But more than the history and beauty, it was the seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life that made me feel most at home.
When we returned to Perché No!, the gelateria we frequented in 2013, the same employees were there, and their faces lit up with glee when we walked in, instantly recognizing us and giving us extra heaps on our cones. Luca, the ceramicist at Ceramiche Ricceri on via dei Conti, remembered us as if we were close relatives. When I made a reservation at La Buchetta, on via de' Benci, I could hear in the voice of Maurizio Eremita, the proprietor, that he was happy to hear my name. When I walked into David2 Leather to see Gianni, who was our neighbor when we lived on via Calzaiuoli, he and his staff immediately opened up a bottle of wine to welcome us. The unknown man who used to occupy the front stoop of our apartment every morning from around 7 to 9am? He was there last summer too, occupying his same morning offices. Mohsen Tootoonchi Tutunci was still standing outside the Florence Curiosity Shop on via dei Cimatori with his beagle, Nelly, grinning and happy to see us. We instantly engaged in a political and cultural conversation, picking up where we left off, as if we had seen each other the day before. The staff at Osteria Vecchio Vicolo on via Lambertesca treated us to a ‘welcome back’ limoncello. ‘Jim’ (Zaman Assad), who was our favorite leather vendor at the Lorenzo markets, had moved to an indoor location; he insisted on taking us for an espresso.
That we were remembered so genuinely in a city that has over 15 million tourists a year was striking. The continuity particularly hit me when my 15-year old son, a music lover who likes to listen and speak with almost every street musician in Florence, turned to me on the second day of our trip and said, ‘Dad, the street musicians are the same.’
And, just as remarkably, in the short time we visited, I also met new people and made new friends. I believe that they will be here when I return the next time.
Florence works its magic of timelessness. My colleague Enrico Cecconi, who returned to his home in Florence last summer after a year away teaching at Bath University in England, was equally awestruck one evening while staring at the full moon illuminating the Ponte Vecchio. Posting a Facebook photo of the event he stated, ‘I got to see this magnificence again last night. It’s not real.’
Florence is over 2,000 years old, but never seems to age for those who love it. There are very few places in the world that experience such an annual influx of visitors yet retain their sense of continuity—all while conforming to the necessities of the modern world. In a world in which the rapidity of change seems ever increasing, Florence seems an anchor of stability and continuity.