Florence is a town that has created an entire industry and identity on a brief, yet critical, period in history. In order to preserve its tourist appeal it has to maintain the look and feel of a medieval walled city while straining under the demands of the 21 st Century.
The overall effect is a little like Renaissance Disneyland.
Everywhere you look in this astounding city are stellar examples of pre-17 th century architecture with basic adornments that would be at home in most North American museums. A fresco here, a marble sconce there, another tableau of life-size marble saints sensory overload is a risk even before crossing the threshold of a single museum.
Scooters, from the legendary Vespa to the retro Honda Jazz, zip through the narrow cobblestone streets spewing toxic exhaust from two-stroke engines. The environmental effect is like tens of thousands of lawnmowers being fired-up at once. Even those suffering from the mildest asthma should pack their inhalers before hitting the streets.
Quirky little two- and three-seat cars join in the traffic alongside some of the bravest and most casual bicycle commuters in the world. It takes nerves of steel to drink a cappuccino while wheeling through streets where road signs and traffic signals appear to be mere suggestions. Shockingly, there appear to be no real traffic problems. For six days in March, the Spousal Equivalent and I walked through the streets of Florence without witnessing a single traffic accident. Obviously, this town of 300,000 (approximately the size of Victoria) has a rhythm and flow that takes into account its numerous eccentricities, from bridges you can park on and pedestrian-only streets that appear without pattern to a street grid that defies definition. Who cares about roadways when your city holds an estimated 30 per cent of the worlds art treasures?
And really, art is the whole point of a trip to Florence. Renaissance art to be exact. If the Medici family had not ventured into banking in the 14 th century Florence might have just been another quaint riverside town. Banking was not a Church-approved vocation, so the famous clan was rather concerned about buying its way into Heaven and commissioned great works to glorify God. In just over 100 years, a Medici Giovanni won the Vaticans top job, becoming Pope Leo X.
At one time or another just about all the biggies, including Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael, were on the Medici payroll.
When the last Medici, Anna Maria, died in 1743, she bequeathed the familys enormous art collection to the city on the condition that they never leave Florence. Today, those treasures are spread throughout the citys numerous galleries and churches.