Florence without the tourists resembles a Renaissance courtesan without a royal patron. She is majestic; her public squares are grand, yet empty. Streets normally choked with taxis and coach buses and throngs of tourists in day-tripping groups are now safe to cross on foot, to jaywalk at any point. Even the beggars wear face masks.
Her gardens are festooned with early summer blooms, their iron gates inexplicably closed: who would dare to enter? The oft-touted low rate of full-times residents in centro now needs no further evidence. Seventy percent, is what people say; 70% of the centro storico are short-term rentals to tourists. In the past decade small alimentari and purveyors of fine furniture have quietly gone out of business, closed their books, and gone homes, to be replaced by scores of bars and restaurants, almost all offering the same staid menus of crostini, prosciutto, bistecca, spritz, and plum-colored Chianti. The few Florentines left in centro seem bemused but worried. The courtesan’s duke was a tyrant, but he kept her in jewels and furs.
Florence, like her sister Venice to the north, is far more delicate than many realize. The crowds seize upon her and consume her. The stays on her corset were strung so tight she could barely breathe, although she looked stunning. The banquets became unmanageable. Her medieval blocks could barely manage the throbbing pulse of pedestrian traffic. How uncanny to sit now in the Loggia dei Lanzi, to walk down Via dei Neri, in near silence. True, she was beautiful at court. To look at her you could barely breathe. But it was not sustainable. The duke clasped her too tightly, demanded she focus on him, dance with him, laugh at all his poor jokes – for you see, the man was, in the end, ill-bred. All purse and scant education. How vulgar! Florence became frantic; she knew she must please him, she must dance, she must laugh, she must stay up til early dawn, but expectations took their toll.
Now the duke’s gone away, on some business or other, high markets, they say. Only a handful of courtiers remain in the drawing rooms, somber and speculating as to his return, will the dinners and dances resume? Florence pulls up her skirts to sit at her inlaid walnut writing-desk, pulls out a pen to make a few notes, finally that she has some time to herself to collect her thoughts in silence. The birds trill in the garden. She gazes out the casement windows, caresses the bauble on her necklace, and dips her quill into the ink. She has things to relate.