Firenze or On frustration

/ by Elisa Biagini

“Per me si va nella città dolente” (Dante, Inferno, Canto III, v.1)

It happens all the time: people ask me where I am from and when I answer Florence their faces light up, they smile then sigh and say “Oh my God! You are so lucky, it must be amazing to grow up surrounded by so much art and  history”. In reality, things are not so perfect. Don't get my wrong: Florence is indeed beautiful and I am not blind nor with a heart of stone. The walk up to the Romanesque church of San Miniato leaves you breathless (literally) and a stroll in the “wild garden” around the Stibbert museum fills your head with a million haikus. But what about when you walk gingerly through a charming medieval street 80 centimeters wide and, all of a sudden, you see running opposite of you a herd of creatures following a biped sporting, according to the season, a synthetic crumpled flower or an impaled teddy bear? I know, it sounds just like a moment straight from a David Attenborough's documentary but this is Florence, all year long. Seeing at every corner the David on aprons, ashtrays and endless pairs of briefs and being surrounded by crowds of people dressed in underpants and flip flops as if Piazza del Duomo was their living room.

Florence is indeed a delicate case, as rightly stated years ago by the American writer David Leavitt, a fragile mechanism showing many cracks (and what sounds like a metaphor just recently  turned into a dreadful reality when a section of the street along the river Arno collapsed, just a few meters away from the Ponte Vecchio): the mass of millions of tourists, the burden of an arrogant and ignorant administration, the weight of the past are all contributing to the collapse of this town founded by the Romans at the bottom of a prehistoric lake (hence the horrible weather). Fortunately, the level of the city appeal hasn't always been this high, even if it has been an attractive location for quite a long time:  I, born in 1970, still remember a city of bookshops and cafes, of strolls, a city daily crafted mostly by its citizens, not this endless strip of sandwich joints, of leather bag shops. We did not invent mass tourism, it happened everywhere around the same time, but in Florence size matters: we simply don't have the space for so many people nor for the volume of greed of the merchants, making a lot of money under the table selling out the Past. But what Past? The Medici, a family of smart bankers who indeed love the arts but also sposored it as a mean of self promotion and eventually ruled the city with an iron first, are likely to be canonized soon. Of the many innovative artists who worked here through the centuries only Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo are truly celebrated and endlessly reproduced to better sell the “Florence brand”. To be more specific: respectively, only the David, the Venus and the Monnalisa (that an unbelievable number of tourists keeps looking for inside the Uffizi!).

The Past has become a commodity, and it has been increasingly more and more difficult to propose anything having to do with the Present (and I am not talking about the ubiquitous fashion). It's much easier to celebrate a superficial and sanitized version of the Past than face the complexities of the Present (and this is clearly not a cultural decision but a rather political one).The promotion of artistic languages that deal with our demanding and anxious time is deeply and inevitably political, its function to raise questions, not to comfort and put your brain to sleep. But what they seem to like over here are “events”, fleeting occasions that leave no trace, that are not meant to put seeds in your mind, to trigger a desire to create new thinking communities: too much of a risk. Nothing original in the superficial world we are living in but here, where you hear the word Beauty a thousand times a day,  it feels much more strident.

Two examples, of the opposite kind: for the past thirteen (13!) years two of us have stubbornly organized a week long International Poetry Festival. Imagine this: two (2) not-young-anymore people having to do EVERYTHING by themselves, from emails to picking up the poets and leaving flyers around town. Why so? Not out of masochism but because, despite the fact that our work is now “formally” recognized and appreciated as valuable even by this administration, each year they only give us around 1000 euros for the whole thing! Poetry events, at least in this city, don't attract money so why bother (and it doesn't help that we don't like who is currently ruling the city)? Who cares if at stake is the education and the edification of our fellow citizens?

But what if an artist, who is not that representative and interesting anymore but just “fashionably controversial”, is called by the “guild” of the Florentine antiquarians or better yet by the people in charge of Fashion Week? Money attracts more money and guess what? The mayor “magically” finds some funds to chip in, knowing it will pay back eventually (and you can't let down your buddies, right?) And all in the name of Beauty.

“Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'intrate.” (Dante, Inferno, Canto III, v.9)

Elisa Biagini

born in Florence in 1970, has lived, studied and taught in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. at Rutgers University, taught Italian there and also taught at Columbia University and New York University. She translated Louise Glück, Sharon Olds and other American poets into Italian for the anthology Nuovi Poeti Americani (Einaudi, 2006), and her translation of Gerry LaFemina's collection, The Parakeets of Brooklyn, won the Bordighera Prize in 2003; it was published by Bordighera in a bilingual edition the next year.

Her poetry has been translated into a dozen languages or more, including French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.

Elisa Biagini lives in Florence and teaches creative writing, literature and art history in Italy and abroad.