We may as well start by calling this what it is: a sort of love letter. It’s of course not the first penned to Florence, famously one of the world’s more love-letter-inspiring cities. (For rather more accomplished paeans, please see Forster, Stendhal, Lawrence, Shelley. And you might also check D, for Dante.) Florence’s CV is virtually unmatched among destinations: it is the birthplace of modern poetry and merchant banking, the locus of a robust share of the most important architectural and artistic monuments of postmedieval times. In more recent ones, it has been a temporary home to an equally robust share of American college students, who come to immerse themselves in, and perhaps be irrevocably changed by, Italy’s cultural endowments and profligate, heart-constricting beauty. I was one of them; maybe you were, too. But whether you first see it at 18 or at 68, Florence tends to imprint itself on you in a series of visual mnemonics: the sedate, rosy curve of the Duomo; the sylvan fairness of Botticelli’s Primavera; the cypresses like black-ink brushstrokes on the hills near San Miniato—single components which, to paraphrase Walt Whitman (who, sadly for him, never laid eyes on this city), contain numinous multitudes.
Definitely lovable. But is it livable? Or, more precisely: living? Alas, that is a more complex discourse. Milan is virtually defined by its relentlessly contemporary fashion industry. Rome is kept current by maintaining, after two-odd millennia, its status as a political seat. Even gloriously moribund Venice has conspired to focus the attention of the 21st century’s great and good on itself for a few months each year, with twinned Biennales of art and architecture and a film festival.
But with mass tourism generally doing more damage than service to both its resources and reputation, and citizens feeling disenfranchised by a city they perceive to be managed more for visitors’ benefit than their own, Florence has run the risk of becoming a hostage of its own patrimony—a hermetically sealed monument to, well, its many monuments. Città d’arte, yes—and not much else.
Change is in the air here, though. After reaching a collective sense of essere stufi (being fed up), citizens from across the spectrum are waking up to the potential of a Florence that’s more than simply the sum of its beautiful parts. They come from private and public sectors: civil servants, businesspeople, and members of the founding families, along with artists, hoteliers, and curators. All have a stake in moving the city forward along social, civic, commercial, and cultural lines, with an aim of helping Florence recapture the title of contemporary hub, some six centuries after first holding it.
Foremost among these agents of change is Matteo Renzi, Florence’s charismatic 36-year-old mayor, who took office in 2009. It’s hard to think of another European politician who enjoys such uniform approval across such a broad demographic and partisan swath. (The enthusiasm with which he’s name-checked at both working-class bars around Piazza Savonarola and dinner tables presided over by scions with 900-year-old titles recalls the fairy-dusted cachet Obama possessed in his “Yes We Can” days.) “We’ve been a bit asleep to our own potential,” Renzi says when we meet one afternoon in late April in his magnificently frescoed office in the Palazzo Vecchio. “And also to one important imperative: you can’t organize a city like a museum. We have to create every opportunity for citizens to be engaged with and proud of [Florence,]. As for the tourists, you have to give them more, and better, reasons to come back.”
Renzi’s wide-ranging plan for improvements reflects his commitment to both groups. To wit: Via Tornabuoni and the Santo Spirito and Pitti piazzas became pedestrian zones in June, creating veins of calm in some of the city’s most congested sections. Millions of euros are being allocated to the rejuvenation of the Arno riverbanks and, next year, to the Cascine gardens at the western edge of the city. Museum programs and hours are being revised, with some institutions granting free admission on select days to residents and most remaining open until 11 p.m. once a month. This commenced last spring at the Palazzo Vecchio, with the nighttime circumnavigation of its walls, known as the camminamento di ronda, an instant hit (one that, Renzi notes, earned the city almost $17,000 in the three days prior to our meeting alone). And after an almost 20-year delay, the Firenze Card launched in March; it costs $70, is valid for three days, and covers 33 of the city’s most important museums. (By the end of this month, Gucci will add another to the city’s roster when it inaugurates a museum celebrating the history of its illustrious brand, in the Piazza della Signoria.)
Then there is Le Murate, a 15th-century former monastery on the Via Ghibellina, which through public grants has reopened as an arts space comprising galleries, a café, and administrative offices. The brainchild of town alderman for culture Giuliano da Empoli, Le Murate’s public areas go by the acronym SUC, for Spazi Urbani Contemporanei; the idea is for it to serve as a social nexus for emerging artists and those who are interested in them—Italian and international, local and tourist alike.
Away from the Palazzo Vecchio and the official ministrations of civil servants, hoteliers and restaurateurs have tapped into a sense of the city’s elevated potential. Though most have strictly local roots, one notable opening by an American hotel group constitutes a major vote of confidence. The St. Regis Florence made its debut in May on the site of the old Grand Hotel Firenze, in the Piazza d’Ognissanti. Some of its 100 rooms and suites fly (in perfectly tasteful fashion) the Medici-inspired flag of opulent silks and velvets in royal-ecclesiastical shades; others are rendered in a gorgeous muted palette. St. Regis is a hotel brand on a roll, and much strategy goes into the selection of its locations. Its arrival here, now, is a direct result of what St. Regis brass is actually calling Florence’s “second Renaissance.”
At Il Salviatino, just up the hill toward Fiesole, the traditional hospitality model is turned neatly on its head by a staff of Service Ambassadors—driver, butler, waiter, guide, and concierge rolled into a single, nattily-dressed individual. They’ve been met with mixed reviews, as has the hotel’s erratic décor: at times admirably tasteful (as in the beautiful double-height, wood-paneled library), at others less so (hanging old-master reproductions from metal chains, parallel to the ceiling in the restaurant, defies explanation). Thank goodness the terrace, with its white sofas and views of the villa’s gardens, is a delight.
Back in town, just off the Piazza della Repubblica, is a discreet jewel, Palazzo Vecchietti: more residence than hotel, tailor-made for the creative classes seeking low-key live-work space and privacy. There’s no lounge or bar, but all rooms have stocked kitchens and working and sitting areas; and all are prettily modern—the handiwork of local designer Michele Bonan, whose imprimatur of artfully contained flamboyance is instantly recognizable.
Bonan also designed J. K. Place Firenze, the boutique hotel on the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella that, after eight years, continues to evolve. Its cocreator, Ori Kafri, is a sharp 34-year-old entrepreneur with his hands in, among other things, publishing and art galleries. J. K.’s well-connected general manager, Claudio Meli, launched Bravo Concierge service in 2007 so he could finesse clients’ time in Italy beyond their J. K. Place stay. On any given evening one might find a small cross-section of the city’s art, fashion, media, and business worlds commingling in the hotel’s living room and restaurant; on Sundays at lunchtime, the terrace proliferates with friends and families. With its alchemy of ease and style, exclusivity and openness, the hotel has become a Florence institution—one that’s spreading, with an outpost in Capri, a planned opening in Rome in late 2012, and aspirations to launch projects outside of Italy in London, New York City, and Tel Aviv (birthplace of Kafri’s mother and father).
IO Osteria Personale, on the Borgo San Frediano, by contrast, opened just months ago, but it already has the feel of an institution in the making. Owner Matteo Fantini studied and practiced veterinary medicine, but dreamed for years of starting a restaurant. So last December, enlisting 23-year-old chef Nicolò Baretti, he did just that. IO organizes its menu by primary ingredient (meat, fish, vegetables) rather than by course. Fantini, who chats happily with diners for half an hour at a time, draws whimsical art naïf deconstructions of the day’s dishes onto chalkboards above the sparsely elegant table settings. The facile presentation is in winking contrast to the sophistication of the food: whole pigeon embellished with smoked pig’s cheek; delicate warm seafood salad served with minced panzanella and asparagus gelato.
About a mile down the river in San Niccolò there’s a sliver of storefront marked ZEB, outside of which a line forms most days around noon. Inside, Giuseppina and Alberto Navari, mother and son, prepare dishes of simple rustic perfection the way they’ve probably been prepared for a hundred years. It’s the space itself—white, conspicuously designed, equal parts chic diner and fancy urban food emporium—that startles, given that this food is more often paired with scuffed-wood shelving, dusty Chianti flasks, and rickety tables. Instead, customers perch on chrome-and-kidskin stools and point to what they want behind the glass-and-steel counter; and while Alberto pours a nice something from Bolgheri or Montecucco, Giuseppina, with a lambent smile like a benediction, serves up polpettine, lampredotto, and carciofi.
Not that there’s no room in this evolution for tradition of the most established, proto-Florentine sort. Some of the city’s oldest winemaking families—the Frescobaldis and Antinoris, Mazzeis and Ricasolis, Corsinis and Incisa della Rocchettas—collaborated with IMG Artists last year to launch Divino Tuscany, an ultraexclusive annual wine festival. The four-day event saw guests from 17 countries sample prized vintages from 50 of the region’s top producers. There were private concerts, tours, and lavish dinners at family palaces around the city. The weekend culminated in a party hosted by Sting and Trudie Styler at Il Palagio, their estate in Figline Valdarno, 45 minutes outside the city—a hot ticket also attended (and, in a few amusing cases, crashed) by a nice representation of Florentine society.
But if you were to canvass the locals at any of these settings as to the most conspicuously successful manifestation of a putative New Florence, many would point you in the direction of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi. Created in 2006, the FPS has in five years hosted a clutch of exhibitions that have earned international praise; last fall’s Bronzino retrospective—the most comprehensive to date of the Mannerist painter’s work—garnered unprecedented attendance and requests from major American and European museums to host it. Here, in the courtyard café of the imposing 15th-century Strozzi family palace that houses the foundation, you’re likely to find James Bradburne, the FSP’s tall, dandy, fiftysomething Anglo-Canadian director, holding an impromptu meeting in a fluent Italian-English mix or simply observing the ebb and flow of visitors though the massive twinned double doors. “This place used to be closed to the public when there wasn’t an exhibition on; there were no plants, no café, no shop,” Bradburne notes. “Now it’s open all the time, and it’s a living building. It gets 25,000 visitors a week. And we aren’t even targeting tourists.”
The FPS is an Italian experiment in institutional management. Its board of directors represents both the public and private sectors; among them are Florence’s museums superintendent Cristina Acidini and hotelier Rocco Forte. “We have a lot more freedom,” Bradburne says. “The board tends to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no.’ There’s a level of transparency and immediacy that’s”—he smiles—“not typically Italian.” He says he was given two clear mandates. “One: Bring international-caliber exhibitions to Florence. As it happens, we don’t bring them here, we produce them here. Two: Give the palazzo back to the Florentines.”
“It needed someone as bright as James to make it happen,” says Leonardo Ferragamo one morning at Ferragamo headquarters, in the Palazzo Spini-Feroni. Besides holding various executive positions within his family’s company and chairing Lungarno Hotel, Ferragamo is president of the Associazione Partners Palazzo Strozzi, one of the FPS’s founding entities—and, as such, one of Bradburne’s bosses. “This started five years ago because of our frustration with Florence not doing its best in terms of managing its assets,” he said. “It piqued the pride of certain among us, enough so we finally acted.”
The FPS is also home to the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina. To run this gallery, Bradburne enlisted Franziska Nori, a former director of Frankfurt’s Museum for Applied Art, who has made CCCS a showcase for topically provocative, intelligent exhibitions that have moved contemporary art from relative obscurity to near the forefront of Florence’s public cultural offerings—significant for a city in a constant struggle to escape from under the shadow of the Renaissance it spawned. “The goal [of FPS] is to be a contemporary institution in a Renaissance city,” Bradburne says. “One doesn’t negate the other. The backdrop is the inspiration.”
It remains a delightfully inescapable backdrop. Across the river, below the brushstroke cypresses surrounding San Miniato, is the 14th-century San Niccolò tower, the southeastern entry to Florence during its golden age. On July 1, after a 40-year closure and a $400,000 restoration effort, it was reopened to the public as part of Mayor Renzi’s improvements program. Stairs lead to its 148-foot summit, where one can gaze over the entire city. The view isn’t terribly dissimilar to the one enjoyed from nearby Piazzale Michelangelo. All the monuments, all the familiar landmarks are spread out below—bathed in the same pellucid sunshine, cradled in the same gentle hills. It’s still the Florence we all know and love, but amazing how a small change of perspective can make it seem just a bit different, somehow new.
Great Value Casa Howard Florence Guest House 18 Via della Scala; 39-06/6992-4555; casahoward.com; doubles from $180.
Il Salviatino 21 Via del Salviatino, Fiesole; 39-055/904-1111; salviatino.com; doubles from $760.
J. K. Place Firenze 7 Piazza di Santa Maria Novella; 39-055/264-5181; jkplace.com; doubles from $490.
Palazzo Vecchietti 4 Via degli Strozzi; 39-055/230-2802, palazzovecchietti.com; doubles from $440.
St. Regis Florence 1 Piazza d’Ognissanti; 877/787-3447 or 39-055/27161; stregisflorence.com; doubles from $1,386.
Villa San Michele This timelessly elegant Fiesole stalwart is more than keeping up with the competition. 4 Via Doccia, Fiesole; 39-055/567-8200; villasanmichele.com; doubles from $1,200.
Il Santo Bevitore An elevated interpretation of the trattoria, this new two-room restaurant is always packed. 64/66R Via di Santo Spirito; 39-055/211-264; dinner for two $90.
’ino There’s no better place to pop in for an expertly executed panino and a glass of red from a boutique producer. 3R Via dei Georgofili; 39-055/219-208; lunch for two $18.
IO Osteria Personale 167R Borgo San Frediano; 39-055/933-1341; dinner for two $112.
Ora d’Aria On a tiny lane in the shadow of the Uffizi, chef Marco Stabile gathers traditional ingredients and reimagines them in wildly creative ways. 11R Via dei Georgofili; 39-055/200-1699; dinner for two $168.
Zeb 2R Via San Miniato; 39-055/234-2864; lunch for two $53.
Flair The best spot for Italian design inspiration. 6R Piazza Carlo Goldoni, 39-055/267-0154.
Luisa Via Roma A Florence classic that’s been recently renovated, with Felice Limosani as creative consultant. 19/21R Via Roma; 39-055/906-4116.
See and Do
Cascine Gardens Via delle Cascine; no phone.
Divino Tuscany For more information on next year’s event, to be held in May, visit divinotuscany.com.
Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi/Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina Piazza degli Strozzi; 39-055/277-6461.
Le Murate Piazza della Madonna della Neve; lemurate.comune.fi.it.
San Niccolò Tower Piazza Giuseppe Poggi.