Vorrei una piazza fiorentina

Mayor Renzi’s regeneration of public space

Avantika Chilkoti
November 4, 2010

I had been told that visiting Florence involves ‘finding yourself,' but then perhaps I've read one too many E. M. Forster novels. If this city really does possess said self-revelatory powers, the ‘self' it has bestowed upon me is far, far from the Sophia Loren I'd hoped for.

 

I see my route sign-posted ‘piazza' and get giddy at the thought of a mouth-watering pizza. It turns out that the ‘true me' is a slothful, indolently overweight toddler: all I seem to want to do is lounge in various piazzas, using various famous effigies merely for shade and nursing various flavours of gelato as they melt languidly down my sticky wrists.

 

That being said, sarcasm done and overdone, the piazzas in Florence truly are part of the city, as much as any gallery, museum or famously bustling bridge. History is not only held in these open spaces, in the art and places left in its wake, but also created as we use these areas and contribute to them. Pausing for a Baedeker break under the Loggia dei Lanzi, the average tourist is unwittingly fulfilling the dreams of dynasties past; the family responsible for its foundation intended the square for just this type of communal ‘public.' They selected this area far from their allegedly dangerous rival, the Ghibellini family, and designed the inclusive L-shape of the piazza. The Average Tourist is also unknowingly musing upon the site of Savonarola's illustrious bonfire of the vanities and mourning at the deathbed of all Botticelli's favourite progeny.

 

Similarly, opting for an overpriced aperitivo in piazza Repubblica, our dear friend, Mr. Tourist, is taking part in a sequence of hegemony and freedom. He drinks to the old Roman forum and the Jewish ghetto, both. He watches over the ultimate symbol of oppression and tyranny at the site where slums were forcibly demolished to make way for the government during the Risanamento. Even if our innocent friend remains ignorant of the swarm of tales buzzing around him, he can't help but observe the remnants of history that have chipped away to clear the piazza before him.

What many forget is that, as well as learning and experiencing so much in these public spaces, people also contribute significantly to them. A public space without a public becomes but a misnomer, as they were intended for communal interaction. Every step in piazza Signoria and every bench skirting palazzo Strozzi was intended to encourage participation.

 

This is the issue that Florence mayor Matteo Renzi currently addressed in his ‘One Hundred Places,' a plan to regenerate key, neglected spots in this historic city (see TF 128). From creating the ideal jogging path, to ‘pedestrianising' the area around the Duomo, Renzi plans to enhance quality of life in Florence and rejuvenate the historical cityscape. The idea is to encourage the Florentine people to make use of and contribute to the public space within the city, counteracting the current trend towards urban sprawl. As more and more locals go to shopping malls outside of the city's centre, the smaller piazzas at the heart of the city fall dormant. The tourist population keeps the most illustrious spots ticking. But, just as large supermarket chains at the periphery drained the older markets of the city centre, sprawl threatens to suck the indigenous out of this historic city and leave all but the renowned spots decrepit. Where public space is concerned, preservation of the historic requires participation in the present.

 

However, this city still sparks a tumult of emotions. It launches a stand-off between awe and inspiration. But forget the perfection of Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and Dante: I'm still struggling to emulate the effortless, sartorial perfection of the locals that surround me. I'm struggling to understand how spaghetti alla carbonara, gelato alla nocciola and waif-like physiques can all call the same nation home. But there are other things I have learned while here in Italy. I have learned that the omnipresent Medici crest sparks much the same reaction in Florence as the ubiquitous ‘Made in China' label does back in England: a tired, disgruntled ‘Oh, but of course.' I have learned that what I am served at Pizza Hut isn't, contrary to popular belief, actually ‘pizza' at all. But most crucially, I now see what is impeding our sense of community, security and thus of camaraderie at home: we crave shared, open, public space to both remind anonymous strangers of a shared past and unite them in a joint present.

 

 

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