Richard Turen
Richard Turen

It has been strangely silent lately along the Ponte Vecchio that spans the Arno River at its narrowest point in Florence.

I would walk the bridge nearly every day when I lived there in the mid-1970s, always trying to imagine its birth as a place to keep the foul-smelling butcher shops and fishmongers away from the delicate nostrils of the residents of the city. The current bridge was completed in 1345.

Later, Ferdinando I, one of the Medicis, ordained that even at that distance, the meat and fish shops were an embarrassment to the culture and sculptured noses of the Florentine gentry. He ordered the butchers off the bridge to be replaced by some of the city's (and of Europe's) best goldsmiths and jewelers.

The plan worked too well. In 2019, or the end of "travel's normal times," the 367,000 permanent residents of Florence hosted just over 11 million tourists, many of them trying to enter one of the 48 shops that line the bridge. The goldsmiths were paying an average rent of more than $23,000 per month, but few complained. Gold "from the Bridge" is something to be cherished.

Now, of course, many of the thick wood doors that line the bridge with their heavy iron hinges are closed. But they are slowly starting to reopen, and the tourists will be coming back -- in numbers sure to shatter the record 11 million visitors.

Travelers will also return to the nearby Uffizi Gallery, an incredible treasure trove of Renaissance art (and one of Europe's top three collections). I worked under the portico of the Uffizi during the summers when I was a student, selling handbags at a stand near the entrance. On my lunch breaks, the guards would let me wander inside. where I was surrounded by centuries of masterpieces.

It has been sadly quiet at the Uffizi these days, but the pandemic did allow for some needed art restoration work to be attempted. But soon, the lines outside will grow longer than they have ever been as tourists clog Italy hoping for a personal glimpse of its treasures. 

Overtourism will once again become a suffocating problem for residents, and it will be combined with climate change-induced increases in heat and humidity. 

But in Florence, they have come up with a unique plan to combat overtourism, and other cities and countries will be watching this experiment carefully. 

Of course, it has a catchy name. It will be known as "Uffizi Diffusi," and the thinking is really quite simple -- in fact so simple that one wonders why it has taken so long for urban planners to consider it.

The Uffizi Gallery will remove large portions of the artwork in the museum and distribute it around 100 regional galleries throughout Tuscany. In order to divert tourists and support local communities, major artworks will now be housed in small towns and villages in a comprehensive program that is projected to take five years to complete. Of course, it will take longer than that, but it is hard to imagine that there will be anything but local support for injections of culture that will bring free-spending tourists to town.

Sites are already being finalized, with spa towns, former convents and ancient palazzos seen as fertile ground for the scattering of the Uffizi's riches.

Somewhere in Tuscany someone will create a new village street that caters to those seeking the best in Florentine gold. Airbnb has research that shows that Italy's hill town properties are booking up ahead of city locations. Italy is taking the riches of its cities and beginning to scatter them about the countryside. And the tourists will definitely follow. 

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