Florence is a living museum, a museum that reminds us that not everything changes even in this age of Google and smart phones.
The early Renaissance orphanage Ospedale degli Innocenti in Piazza SS. Annunziata had a foundling wheel known as culla per la vita (life cradle) where unwanted newborns could be left anonymously to save them from a watery death in the Arno. Today, a society that honors Padre Pio has a modern culla per la vita, located across from the small church of San Remigio in the Santa Croce neighborhood. Its purpose is the same – to give foundlings a safe haven – in a special spot, cared for by special people.
The statue of Dante in front of Santa Croce reminds us of the great literary achievement of a medieval genius, who is being celebrated today by Roberto Benigni in Tutto Dante and is getting another kind of pop culture fame in an international bestseller.
The Santa Trinita Bridge owes it design to Michelangelo and Ammannati in 1567 and was so important that it was rebuilt with the same stones to the same design after the German troops blew it up in 1944.
Piazza Signoria contains one of the largest collections of original sculptures available for public viewing free of charge. The Neptune by Ammannati, the copy of Michelangelo’s David and Pio Fedi’s Rape of Polyxena and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women are all favorites.
The Baptistry and the Duomo are at the heart of the city and have been in the hearts of residents and visitors for seven hundred years.
But Then Came The Study-Abroad Programs
An estimated 7,000 Americans, 80 percent of whom are women, come to Florence every year through about 40 study-abroad programs. This and the advent of Snooki and her gang from the Jersey Shores in 2011, and another hundred short tours by American high school and college student groups, have resulted in a bad rep for Americans in Florence, basically undoing any good opinion, left over from World War II, held by Florentines over sixty, and the respect once held by everyone else regarding American ingenuity, intelligence and drive.
On July 25, 2013, at least two sloppy drunk American college students wandered into Piazza San Remigio. For some reason one young man decided to test the door of the culla per la vita and when the four-foot high, two-foot wide, door slid open he stuffed his intoxicated female friend inside. As the glass door closed, she proceeded to treat this climate-controlled, pristine haven for babies as her own disco cage and commenced singing and dancing to the amusement of her friends. What they apparently didn’t notice was the sign in four languages that warns that once the door closes it will lock until the medical volunteers arrive.
Arrive they did. The Catholic Church volunteer service, known as the Misericordia, received the automatic alarm from the culla per la vita and they pulled up in an ambulance within minutes to find the drunken twosome. They did not immediately release the performing girl. They called the police. The young man ran off to get his friends. They returned and started to rain abuse down on the heads of the medical personnel. One American claimed to be a lawyer and threatened legal proceedings. The Misericordia volunteers asked for names and phone numbers. Those were refused. Because the police did not arrive in a timely manner, and in fear that the foundling window would be damaged, the volunteers felt they had to release the inebriated girl. The story was reported throughout the local newspapers, including here, here, here, here and here. The unifying points in each of these articles is that she was American and she was drunk.
In June 2012, among the wheels of the scooters, parked at the foot of Santa Croce’s statue of Dante, two drunk randy American students decided to partially strip and engage in intercourse on the pavement. They were filmed for YouTube and immortalized via smart phones. Their parents and grandparents must be proud of this educational experience gained in the Renaissance City.
In 2004, an Irish girl was drinking with her friends on the triangular stone platform topping one of the piers of the Santa Trinita Bridge. They had climbed over the bridge railing to set up their minibar. Later, she staggered to her feet, fell into the river, and died. It happened again last year. In two separate incidents, in one April week, a drunk 30 year old American man and an inebriated 20 year old Italian woman both were pulled – alive – from the Arno after falling off bridges.
At least once a month when it’s warm the vigili chase Anita Ekberg wannabes out of the Neptune Fountain in Piazza Signoria. The fine is 160 euro. In 1991, a man in his underpants scaled Neptune and tried to remove the spiky pigeon deterrent ring from around his head. In 2005, drunken youths managed to break off the diety’s right hand, a toe and a seashell, just to get a cell phone photo.
Tourists and students have tried to climb on the copy of Michelangelo’s David and the statues on the Loggia dei Lanzi. Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women was damaged in 1971 and 1987, and Fedi’s Rape of Polyxena was defaced in 1971, 1982 and this year.
Last month, one night around midnight, I was reading The Paris Wife about the bad behavior of Americans Ernest, Scott and Zelda in France, when I heard a group of people yelling in English in the street outside my open window – not an uncommon occurrence since I live in the shadow of the dome, a half block from the cathedral. First, an American girl was asking her friend if they should urinate “right here.” Then, the two drunk twentysomething boys laughed and did just that against the wall of the jewelry shop across the street. They seemed somewhat miffed when I yelled at them to leave my street before I called the police and that they made me embarrassed to be an American living in Florence. I admit that I also opined on their behavior, their upbringing, and their parentage until they turned the corner.
Unrelated, but still in my neighborhood, three weeks later, graffiti reading “Shotty#1 crew” was scribbled on the 800-yearold marble facade of the the cathedral’s Baptistry with black permanent marker (perpetrator unknown).
Not a New Problem
Certainly, all of the uncivilized, disrespectful behavior that occurs in Florence can not be laid at the feet of American students, but the number of alcohol related events and injuries: a student severely injured from fall off apartment balcony at party (2003); Arizona high school student at disco (with group chaperoned by teacher) has permanent brain damage after being assaulted with a golf club (2007); and finally, young American soldier, drunk and apparently role-playing the video game Assassin’s Creed fell to his death from a rooftop in Piazza della Repubblica (2011), make the naysayers’ arguments weak. Moreover, a 2012 study abroad student shared a maddening set of stories from the first couple of days of her Florence program and ended her post with: “All in all, Italians do enjoy a good drink and having a fun time. But in a whole semester of studying abroad, I can’t remember a single time I saw an Italian stumbling around drunk and making a scene on the way to a club. As for Americans… there are more times than I could ever count.”
Official study abroad program materials routinely discuss the problem like this:
One of the most fundamental rules of Italian culture is moderation. At first glance, Italians might seem to drink a lot, but upon a closer look, quite the opposite is true. They do drink – spumante to celebrate, limoncello to digest, aperitivo to taste and vino to mix with food – but with moderation, not in order to get drunk. In fact, the quickest way to lose the respect of your Italian friends and neighbors is to get drunk in public. Drinking on the streets is also considered very disrespectful.
However, not much seems to change. The mayor has weighed in on the problem with pressure on both the the school programs and the bars, but found he could not do much to influence the schools and got a major push back from the establishments making so much money off of the sale of alcohol to American teenagers and college students.
After fifteen years living in Florence, and almost as many writing about it, I’m not sure why this constant irritation has finally burst forth to a point that I had to write about it before I could sleep well again. Maybe it was the thought of the stupid girl dancing on the baby’s bed, but more likely it was the two Americans who were planning to pee on my doorstep and the other two who, in fact, did so in full view of my window. Heaven knows this isn’t the first time a drunk has stunk up my street, but it is the first time I’ve had to listen to them talk about it first.
And, of course, don’t get me started on the group of eleven Americans who made a reservation at a small Florentine restaurant and did not call to cancel, but never showed up …