Medici Prince Appeals for Help: “Save Florence!”


Prince Ottaviano de’Medici di Toscana, President of the International Medici Association and present-day representative of the Historic House of the Medici—the family who powered the Italian Renaissance and thus much of Western civilization—lives in the splendid, art-infused city his ancestors helped create: Florence, Italy.

He is not a happy man.

Over the last decade or so he has watched Florence drown beneath a tsunami of mass tourism. Some 16 million tourists a year now visit the city, population about 350,000. That’s 45 tourists per resident. Some tourists use the city streets as toilets and sleep in public squares. Vandals have defaced the historic buildings. The prince cites “wild nights” of hard-drinking tourists and the “invasion of fast-food joints.”

So the prince and his allies have started a new initiative: Save Florence (in Italian; in English soon).  One ally, tour operator Mark Gordon Smith, is trying to raise money for TV documentary shorts about the city’s treasures and declining condition. He enlisted the prince’s help with this video about the campaign.

My last visit to Florence was off-season more than a decade ago, so I was surprised—appalled, really—to hear their descriptions of the current situation.

Loved-to-Death Syndrome Strikes Again

Tourists clog the major avenues. They stay on average for just two nights; many for only a few hours. International franchises have moved in to sell international stuff to them, forcing out local shopkeepers, products, and artisans. “These shops have taken the place of hundreds of Florentine traditional activities,” says the prince, “and have radically changed the cultural significance of Florence.”

An irate message to visitors. Photograph: Franco Ubaldo
An irate message to visitors. Photograph: Franco Ubaldo

Well, I thought, Florence is inland, so at least it’s safe from cruise-ship crowds. Wrong. Cruise lines supply about 1.5 million of those tourists, via hour-long bus rides from Livorno and La Spezia. These visitors arrive in large guided groups. Most stay in the city for three hours or less—so briefly that they contribute little to the economy per capita, but they take up plenty of space.

Florentines, on the other hand, have been moving out—100,000 of them, fleeing traffic jams, jacked-up real estate prices, and, if Prince Ottaviano is right, loss of what they hold dear. By one estimate, around 40% of the city’s artists, sculptors, musicians, writers and composers have left since the mid-1990s.

Damaged palazzo facade bears a fresco painted by Gorgio Vasari. Photograph: Franco Ubaldo
Damaged palazzo facade bears a fresco painted by Gorgio Vasari. Photograph: Franco Ubaldo

Poor Maintenance

On top of all that, says the prince, “There is an absolute lack of laws to protect the city from uncontrolled mass tourism and insufficient maintenance of buildings, monuments, urban spaces, and works of art.” He feels there’s no political will to improve stewardship of the city. “The situation became even worse to my eyes when I discovered that the police don’t have any agent—not even one!—who can certify the state of decay of building façades and require owners to make repairs.”

He has asked UNESCO to propose placing Florence, a World Heritage city, on the “endangered” list, since these changes “have very much diminished the city’s ‘outstanding universal value’”—the overriding criterion for World Heritage inscription.

So what would the Save Florence project do?

Call for a New Direction

To be clear, Prince Ottaviano doesn’t want to get rid of all the visitors. What he wants, though, are true travelers, not hit-and-run tourists who come only to check the Uffizi off their bucket lists and take a selfie in front of the Duomo.

Instead of mass tourism, he wants Florence to focus on attracting people who seek to experience the soul of the place—its boutique hotels, its traditions of food and artisanry, its lesser known museums, and of course its people. That kind of tourism would be better economically as well, spreading benefits among city residents.

North Carolina-based Mark Gordon Smith has a deep self-interest in all this; his tour operation specializes in Florence and caters to just that type of visitor.

He’s now running a campaign on Indiegogo to fund some TV videos that will highlight the treasures hiding in Florence’s 16 charming, art-laced gonfaloni— the neighborhoods that most visitors miss—as well as threats to the character of the city. Prince Ottaviano is helping. I’ll pledge a hundred bucks myself; I don’t know when or even if I’ll visit Florence again, but I sure want to know that the City of Flowers lives on.

Meanwhile, the prince is moving to convene the type of geotourism stewardship council first proposed a few years ago by National Geographic’s former Center for Sustainable Destinations (now the independent Destination Stewardship Center). The goal would be a combined effort to take better care of the city and to inform and attract beneficial visitors.

Perhaps Save Florence can even catch the attention of those bedazzled city politicians who flock to mass tourism like moths around a street light. Regardless, we who love Florence must do our best to save it. We can only hope that the leaders, Disraeli-like, will follow.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC