TRAVEL VIEW: HONOURING HISTORY
The legendary Medici family was a great patron of the arts of the Italian Renaissance, turning Florence into a centre for art and culture. Today, the last of the Medici line is campaigning to protect the city from the damaging impacts of mass tourism – be
The last of the Medici line is campaigning to protect Florence from the damaging impacts of mass tourism
“THE WORLD HERITAGE COMMITTEE IS ABSOLUTELY SLOW IN TAKING CONTROLLING ACTION TOWARDS THE STATE OF CONSERVATION”
– Prince Ottaviano de'medici di Toscana
The Italian city of Florence may be compact, packing a population today of just 380,000, but it has played an outsized role in the development of western civilisation. Its famous residents throughout history include the minds that made modern science, such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo Galilei, as well as the businessmen who turned Italy into a fashion centre, such as Roberto Cavalli and Guccio Gucci. There have been scores of artists, sculptors and poets along with them.
But the money that paid for much of Florence’s artistic and cultural wealth came from the Medici family, who became known as successful merchants and bankers in the 13th and 14th centuries. The House of Medici, as the family is also known, bankrolled the Italian Renaissance, ruled Florence as a city-state and installed Medici family members as four Roman Catholic popes between the late 15th century and early 17th century.
The Medici family still exists today, despite centuries of fractured politics and war. Its current head, Prince Ottaviano de’medici di Toscana, styles himself as the Grand Duke of Tuscany in keeping with the Medici family’s long history in the region.
The economy in Florence today is twice the national average, and it owes much of this success to its tourism business. Like many historic European cities, Florence receives an enormous influx of tourists – currently around 16 million per year, and rising. However, locals have been rankled by efforts in the recent years to develop more luxury hotels and shopping malls in the city centre. And one of the people making a stand against this is Prince Ottaviano himself.
Two years ago, he founded an organisation called Save Florence, dedicated to protecting Florence’s treasures from the ravages of mass tourism and informing visitors about how their actions can impact the city. We caught up with him last month to find out what effects his work is having on the city.
You founded Save Florence in 2015. After two years, can you describe how the organisation has developed? Save Florence was a grand ducal initiative that has since turned into an independent political party named Florentine Renaissance, under the leadership of the Noble Dame Luciana Zanchini. The party will run in Florence’s mayoral election in spring 2019. [However] the grand ducal crown of Tuscany is not participating with the political party, since the crown is officially opposed to the Italian Republic because it does not legitimately hold power. For this reason, the crown of Tuscany doesn’t share the republican institutions of Italy and their democratic systems.
What successes have you and your organisation had in terms of helping Florence cope with so many tourists? The mayor of Florence did change a few trade regulations after the Save Florence campaign, forbidding small shops from selling alcohol and Turkish kebabs at any time to tourists. Apart from this little thing, nothing else has happened.
The Unesco world heritage convention of 1972 is dangerous and useless because the World Heritage Committee is absolutely slow in taking controlling action towards the state of conservation, and in efficiently and quickly imposing measures for protection of material heritage. Meanwhile, the existence of this old convention attracts masses of tourists, [something] that kills the spirit of the place and its intangible heritage. In Florence we have 3,600 historic buildings and facades that need severe restoration, and for years Unesco has done nothing about this problem.
What have been the main problems for Florence in terms of mass tourism? The entire population that used to live in the city centre – an area of 8 sq km as designated by Unesco – has left. For centuries there were over 100,000 here, and in the last three decades this has decreased to 3,000. Nowadays only tourists are visible in the streets of the city centre.
The Unesco convention of 1972 is partially responsible for this ‘massacre’ of population, because its old operational guidelines do not contemplate this loss of cultural identity as a problem of preservation for the unique outstanding value of the city. It has been announced by Unesco that the 2019 world heritage committee will start to examine the problem ... that’s after seven years of our Save Florence announcements!
What kind of tourism would you welcome to Florence? Only individual groups of tourists, not the organised ones.
What do you feel tourists are missing in Florence, or in Italy as a whole? They are missing a chance to meet the so-called ‘spirit’ of the place, something that is not existent any longer.
What other activities are you involved with, in terms of conserving Florentine history and culture? The grand ducal crown of Tuscany has formally proposed a sustainable tourism charter to the World Heritage Committee. Foreigner investors and collectors can help us increase the Florentine contemporary and classical fine arts collections by investing in our Medici philanthropic art collections, and also by opening Medici Uffizi Museums abroad for exhibiting private Florentine art collections.
We are now seeing other examples of concern in Europe about the ill effects of mass tourism – most notably in Barcelona. What are your thoughts about allowing for a European tourism industry, upon which many businesses depend, and conserving the character of a place? The European parliament should put severe restrictions on the tourism industry by authorising only the existence of small tour operators. There is a group of around eight gigantic tour and cruise operators that are controlling and influencing the entire tourism market. So when one of these major tour operators decides to ‘invade’ a city like Florence, the invasion can be conducted in as little a three years! What are some of the places in Europe that manage to do this balance of tourism and preservation in a positive way? Normally the European tours organised by major tour operators take place over about seven to nine days, and everywhere they go tourism is not sustainable any longer. Smart travellers should organise the trip by themselves and avoid the localities near to the ones proposed by tour operators. Just choose a lesserknown place located in the province area of the major touristic localities.
What are your own favourite travel experiences outside of Tuscany and Europe? We were invited to Singapore last year for the 2016 UBS Philanthropy Forum Asia, to speak on the subject of the lasting legacy of the Medici family. We also visited Taiwan and Tokyo. It was a great experience and a true personal satisfaction, because Asian people were very welcoming towards the subject of how to create lasting family legacy through art.
Because of lack of time we could not repeat the same conference in Hong Kong at the time, but the diplomatic representation of the crown of Tuscany is willing to organise a convention on these matters in Hong Kong soon.
With regard to Florence, Tuscany, Italy and Europe as a whole, what do you feel that tourists miss or fail to understand? They miss the life beyond tourism, because no tour operators find value in offering the opportunity of creating intercultural dialogues during the trips. We invite the people interested in discovering the arts, the sciences and the traditions of the Tuscan noble families to initiate intercultural dialogues with some of them by participating in our week-long seminars in English or in Chinese, which are held at the Medici’s Villa Artimino, near Florence.
“THE ENTIRE POPULATION THAT USED TO LIVE IN THE CITY CENTRE HAS LEFT. NOWADAYS ONLY TOURISTS ARE VISIBLE IN THE STREETS OF THE CITY CENTRE”
– Prince Ottaviano de'medici di Toscana