Last week, Giuliano da Empoli published the draft of a document called “Florence is the Next Florence: a strategy for contemporary art and culture in Florence” on the BarCamp website. In the spirit of crowdsourcing, he calls out for commentary in his conclusion, and I readily step in. Not only because I feel a strong sense of duty to my adoptive city, and because I like to be included, but because I happen to have provided the title for this document!

Warning: This article is LONG – 2100 words – so please set aside at least 5-10 minutes to read it.

At BarCamp Palazzo Vecchio last June I had the opportunity to congratulate the Superintendant on his good work and expressed my conviction that things were going to get better, because “Florence is the Next Florence”. He apparently liked this phrase and assures me that footnote #4 will soon contain my full name (now that he knows it – thanks, facebook!).

The document is 16 pages of tight scholarly writing in Italian, so it’s going to need a summary for the English audience. One certainly hopes that the final version will be available in English translation to make it more accessible to the outside world. So, what follows is a summary interspersed with my commentary.

Before turning to my summary though, I am happy to say that da Empoli totally grasped what I meant by that phrase, so this is not just a title but an idea. And it’s not just my idea, but the idea of a group of active, intelligent residents that is finally mirrored by and acted upon by its government. It is the idea that Florence used to be so great – the cradle of the Renaissance and all that – that it should not be a very large step towards being great again; the moment of degeneration has been just a drop in the bucket of a much longer history. The city does not need to be the new New York. It is not looking to be a new Rome like it was in the Quattrocento. It doesn’t want a Renaissance, because it wants to look forward, not back; build upon its great past, take advantage of its current resources, and see a great future that is necessarily different from what has already taken place.

0.1 The Florentine Paradox

Da Empoli’s document starts with pretty much these ideas, framed in contrast to recent developments and urban renewal in Rome, Toronto (my first home town!), and Minneapolis – to which numerous other examples could be added.

One major indicator that Florence is not providing a sufficiently contemporary experience is that tourists tend to come here once in their lives, go to the Uffizi, and then do not come back. This is an aspect that Laura de Benedetto and I discussed during her political campaign, and it’s one that needs to be addressed. While she and I love jetting over to London to see the latest exhibit at the V&A or to take in some theatre, Florence fails to create this pull over an international traveler. The irony is that there IS actually a lot going on around here that is worth experiencing – something beyond the Uffizi – but in ten years I barely noticed it. This summer I opened my eyes and the result is an arttrav stuffed with events listings, but the city cannot rely on the good acts of its resident bloggers and foreign newspapers (I often check The Florentine to find out what’s on). This communication issue is one taken up again later in Empoli’s document.

Our assessore is working on those return visits with solutions that at the same time will enrich the city for its residents. When I think of the gigantic problems he faces, I really would not want his job. He rightly states that creating a cultural plan will not be the solution; we need cooperation from all sectors of the city’s politics in order to pave the way for the creative sector of the city and what it will contribute to our social and cultural life. So the “culture superintendant” cannot address all those things that will make up the plan for the New Florence (that means this is not the place to talk about the dog shit on the streets – that’s Renzi’s problem), but the rest of the document first introduces the broad lines of the plan, then a series of smaller “things to do”.

0.2 The post-Bilbao strategy

The next section of the document contains an interesting observation on the strategies used since the 1990s for city (re)growth. Starting with the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the idea was to get a superstar architect from another city and build an expensive “container” for art – and it didn’t really matter what went in.

Da Empoli says that Florence needs to put its emphasis on the “thing contained” rather than on the container, and I could not agree more. I add that we are fortunate to have plenty of perfectly good old containers that can be renovated and into which we can put a LOT of great content, since about 90% of the Uffizi collection is in storage. It seems that there is little interest to get that stuff out of storage though, and I suppose people are right to say that we need a differentiated cultural offering. We need something contemporary, which means we need first to create it. Poor Florence, it hasn’t produced much since the early sixteenth century. But let’s not forget that we can enjoy older art in new ways; the current cultural offering needs to be spruced up and made more accessible.

The good assessore hopes to depend on two main resources of the Florentine people that provide the guideline for the next part of the document. The first is “Indisciplina“, which is a great word that means unruliness but also implies interdisiplinarity. Citing examples like MIT’s medialab, this is a call to break down boundaries.

The second resource is one that I can’t help but appreciate: an openness to the outside that includes making use of what us stranieri – foreigners – can contribute. This is put into an appreciable historical context that cites the role of foreigners in establishing two of my favourite institutes between which I divide my days researching Renaissance tapestries: Bernard Berenson developed the taste for trecento art and donated his villa to Harvard for a specialist library (I Tatti); the German Kunsthistorisches Institut is a site for continued research and discussion in art history and a draw for foreign scholars. Stranieri today seem to be considered more often a problem than a resource, whereas we have a lot to give.

0.3 Starting with what we’ve got

For this part I’m going to depart from the document’s precise order and bullet points to focus on a few important points. A series of suggestions regarding access to and communication of the arts are right on target:

  • A museum card that gives joint access to city and state museums in Florence (I talked about Florence Museum tickets in an article last June).
  • Creation of night-time openings and events in museums (that Laura and I discussed); opening of an essential communal downtown babysitting service that would make it possible for young parents to attend evening cultural events.
  • A central event coordinator that would help spread out events and their related press releases and openings across the calendar. This is one of the moments I would not want Giuliano’s job, as there are way too many different companies involved and nobody will want to relinquish power.
  • Related to that, a centralized online event calendar. You’d think we’d already have one, but we absurdly rely on external, private websites to put it all together for us.
  • The document addresses advance planning of the events for summer 2010, which is great news. It’s a lot easier to promote major events to an international public, and for people to plan a visit around them, if they know at least 6/8 months in advance, i.e. when they’re deciding where to go for their meager two weeks of annual vacation.

sagreHere are some small additional suggestions from me:

  • There are communal areas for posting signs for local concerts, sagre, and events. These require an authorization stamp to be posted, so they must go through a communal office. Yet many of these events are not posted online. To start, wouldn’t it be easy to make these pdf’s available from the website of the commune? It would save me from going around town photographing them.
  • Another idea: While you’re crowdsourcing, how about creating a press area to that central event coordination to which local (and international!) bloggers could have access alongside the traditional press. Let us help you.

0.4 The rest of the document

What follows is a list of a few of the activities that are already in the works for Florence. These include:

  • Having the most interesting person in town each day give a talk to anyone who wants to go listen at the Palazzo Vecchio: That will make Florence more international and is a refreshing concept that uses real people instead of the internet to communicate and inspire. (These speeches will be broadcast in the style of in case we can’t make it downtown that day.)
  • Cultural diplomacy: the creation of a prize for a person who, through art and culture, creates a cultural bridge between Florence and other countries. This prize has an innovative payout structure: 75% to the assumedly senior winner, 25% to the young person of the winner’s choice.
  • Night Life: because it’s not all about getting drunk! Not only having something to do, but simply having access to stores would be essential to the development of the city that creates. Famously nocturnal artists (I think of a landscape architect friend who was always at her drawing board at night) need to be able to buy food at 2am, or on a Sunday. Let’s get rid of the dead moments in the city and step into the new millennium.

Finally I’d like to discourse a bit on the section about a reimposition of a bit of perspective. Calling up the spirit of Leonardo, who combined art and science in a most essential way, Florence hopes to encourage the development of the “New Humanists”, people working interdisciplinarily. This would be through existing institutions like the Museum of Science and by creating events and seminars. The idea is to celebrate the 500 years from Leonardo’s death in 1519 in a city that lives up to his heritage.

I think this is a lovely idea, put very eloquently in its historic perspective in this document, but it is a rather vague declaration when radical solutions are necessary to make it happen. I see Italian university graduates as extremely well informed in their disciplines and better than Americans in general knowledge. But the Italian art historian (for this is the area I know best) is rarely interdisciplinary at the level of her American counterpart. This is a deep-rooted issue that has to do as much with the way subjects are taught as it does the division and circulation of books in Italian libraries (and probably a million of other factors). It also has to do with the type of grant-giving institutions in this city and in Italy, whose limited visions and limited prize amounts certainly do not help further an interdisciplinary culture. There are no 20,000 euro prizes in the humanities from Italian or Florentine institutions, yet that’s what we need here. Living wages for research that involves thinking and producing, but that may not solve any major diseases. Can this happen in an economic crisis? And can this happen in a country that does not even grant a work visa to an artist (or a research visa to this art historian for her dissertation research back in 2003)?

Another factor that needs to be addressed is the value placed on the work of emerging youths by “the institution” made up of older scholars. While in the USA there are brilliant young professors, here that just does not happen. I don’t pretend that one city or a simple idea can fix this, but I propose an interdisciplinary scholarly journal, published in Florence with funding by the city, that provides an opportunity for visibility for these “giovani emergenti” to communicate their ideas in the form of essays and the visual arts. It would be a print journal, because print is not dead, but with its content freely available on the often-updated website.

In conclusion, Da Empoli summarizes that this document prioritizes contents not containers, and puts ideas before resources. All these ideas are good, but will there be the financial resources to make them happen? I do not doubt this city’s brainpower and will, and I feel reassured by our new city government’s intellectual approach, but as I always say: there are always more good ideas than money. Let’s hope the culture ministry has a big budget and/or generous corporate sponsors; meanwhile let’s support these good ideas and look forward to the New Florence.

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