Florence embraces historical prestige, offers modernity

FLORENCE — The small city of Florence is well-known for being the birthplace of the Renaissance. To the outsider, it seems the city that once initiated a cultural movement is now a fossilized museum, destined to remain a showcase for tourists. And attract tourists it does — more than 900 million visitors stream into this compact city in one year. From Michelangelo’s gargantuan marble figure of David to Botticelli’s awe-inspiring Birth of Venus, it is easy to see how Florence’s image is still shrouded by its past. But in spite of its antique allure, the city is not a sleeping beauty; it merely presents itself that way. In reality, Florence is constantly changing. It simply depends on your point of view and the depth with which you are looking.

Beginning in the 1840s, the city started a process of change that has yet to stop. Emerging ideas of architectural improvement and renovation prepared Florence for modern times. From the removal of a wall around the city to the abolition and renovation of the City Center, Florence morphed to accommodate the needs of that time. This process continued into the late 19th century as avenues were widened and grand boulevards and large open piazzas were incorporated in response to the influx of residents. Progression continued until as late as the 1990s when public squares were targeted for improvement to create open areas for social interaction among communities. The critics who berate the city for gazing into a narcissistic mirror of renaissance could not be more mistaken. As the denizens of Florence are aware, the strength of this city lies in its ability to adapt.

What is the next step for this innovative city? The people of Florence have collaborated with the University of Melbourne, NYU and Delft University of Technology to participate in the Urban Eco Acupuncture Studio, a project aimed at interventions in slight, unobtrusive ways to affect change. Through this project, international students will identify points throughout the city that require small-scale intervention in order to achieve environmental, social and financial sustainability while also paying attention to the needs of the community and the rich history of each site. As foreigners come in to assist in this process, the key is to straddle the line between insensitive outsider and blind insider.

This collaboration between international students and residential Florentines has been a success so far. As the locals show these students their homes via bus, tram, train and foot, they work together to pinpoint areas that need work.

“Tradition without innovation is a dead heritage,” Dario Nardella, the vice mayor of Florence, said to an attentive audience of students.

This workshop aims to continue Florence’s tradition of innovative and subtle change while transforming it into a model for other European historical cities facing the same challenges.

As the Florentines say, “We do not live in a frozen urban environment, fixed forever since the Renaissance and turned into a spectacle for the tourists’ benefit.” The outcome of this project remains to be seen, but if the history of Florence has anything to tell us it is that this great city imbues an attitude of both preservation and progression.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 10 print edition. Sahel Sra is a foreign correspondent. Email her at [email protected]

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