Millions of tourists arrive in Florence every year, eager to explore the city’s rich heritage of art and architecture, many doing so as part of a guided tour. Having to wade through or around tour groups almost all year round, most locals assume they will need at least an extra 10 minutes to get to their destinations in the historic centre. In the summer months, when tour groups are at their highest numbers, sidewalks and city streets become battlegrounds, with locals and visitors vying for space: the groups trying to catch all the sights and the locals trying to get where they need to go. However, as Julie Butterfield has discovered, the battle for Florence’s sidewalks is a far more complex social dynamic than a simple struggle for elbowroom.
I used to ridicule the walking tours, gaggles of gaping tourists clogging the streets and sidewalks of Florence’s historic centre, the stubborn, impermeable clumps of people that can make maneuvering around the city a maddening contest. Each day, tour groups spew from buses, and move around in bulky huddles, clusters of humans blocking the way. Perhaps with the exception of 3am in the dead of winter, it’s hardly possible to walk quickly and in a straight line to reach a destination.
The problem is, now I am one of them. My art-history tour group meets once a week, and as we travel on foot from church to church to see the art they contain, a large and amoeba-like mass following our instructor, it’s natural to observe the internal dynamic of the crowd that is trying to look and listen. I now know how tourists en masse bob and weave their way throughout the city.
Not only are these spaces sacred to some, but the significance of the art or architecture demands that visitors breathe deeper, look around quietly and marvel at the material and spiritual. Unfortunately, other people want to do that, too. A couple weeks ago, we experienced a silent and tense battle for space in Santa Maria Novella. Another tour group tried to move in on the piece of space we had claimed, listening to our guide’s lecture. As the invaders approached, we spread our feet for steadiness, our lips turning thin as members of the other group bumped and sideswiped us in retaliation for our tenacious adhesiveness.
A disciple of the Renaissance and one of my companions in the group, Heather, thinks the headsets we wear in our group create an advantage. It moves us to the top of the tour-group hierarchy: we look more serious and devoted to our lesson when we’re all nodding at the same time to something others can’t hear. Alienated by our confidential knowledge and information, the other groups and curious tourists usually cease their assault and leave.
Another seasoned tour group member, Karen says, ‘When two groups are competing for the same space, your mother would tell you to let the others go first. But what usually happens is the one with the most aggressive tour guide wins.’
It is the adult version of holding onto your mom’s shirt in a crowd. The job of protecting our circle falls to our guide. In his collection of essays, Too Much Tuscan Sun, tour guide Dario Castagno describes this dynamic: ‘they had trusted me blindly, had willingly agreed to do whatever I had proposed.’ This is the same faith the tour group members have in our guide. I imagine her leading us through a combat zone: we’d be holding our headsets tight to our ears, obediently hopping over the fighting soldiers.
Often, my group intersects other groups as we’re moving to our next destination, like crisscrossing schools of fish. To brace for the process, we cease our lighthearted chatter and focus, desperate to move as one, thick mass. Yet during the merge, I always have a moment of panic: I can hear the other guide’s voice clearer than ours, and I don’t recognize anyone close to me. I rise on my toes to locate people I know, especially our guide, and once I find her, I remain fixed on her location, like a missile in lock-in mode. It’s obvious that our calm instructor is used to these intersections: when we reappear as a group, she quickly conducts a reassuring head count, making sure each of us fish made it through.
When it’s raining, one by one, the members of our group pop open their umbrellas and solider forward. Now, urban living teaches deftness at dodging oncoming umbrellas; the city-dweller knows that shifting or slightly raising an umbrella at the precise moment can avoid a crash. However, in tour groups, where individuals are absorbed into one lump and oblivion is contagious, common courtesy flees, and that includes basic umbrella etiquette. On the way to the church of San Lorenzo, we were passing a massive and hurried group on a narrow sidewalk when I felt the abrupt tug of my umbrella lifting up. I turned around to wrestle it back, expecting to engage in some sort of polite mutual apology, but the mass marched on, indifferent.
Since I began seeing Florence from inside a tour group, my grumpiness about the groups impeding my journey has begun to turn to (resigned) understanding. When a tour group blocks the way, I know that it is futile to strategize a path through the mass. Yield to the airtight assembly of admirers of the Renaissance who are unaware that they impede others’ progress; easier to shuffle by sideways or just stand still and let the human wave flow around and past. Know the mind of the beast.