Condottieri of Culture

Return to Publications

It’s true they don’t bellow ‘Charge!’ but in other respects they’re very like those fearless condottieri of yore, leading their armies of foot-soldiers towards conquest and glory. Undaunted by the blistering summer sun or the lashing winter wind, they stride forward, their batons held high in the air, with platoons of weary infantry staggering behind. I am, of course, talking about the official tour guides of Florence, who march their troops into battle day in and day out, from sunrise to sunset. Their battlefield, a patch of central Florence with an irregular outline linked by the Duomo, Santa Croce, the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti, teems with squadrons moving in all directions. I have not yet seen any squadrons collide, but I have seen stray civilians and loose tourists get stuck in their midst when trying to cross the street.

Viewing these armies in action can be instructive. I always believed that Renaissance painters of battles cheated when they painted hundreds of heads tightly packed together in perfectly level rows. Surely there would have been both tall and small soldiers? But the other day I was walking down via Por Santa Maria and looked towards Ponte Vecchio. There I saw hundreds of heads, and – although it couldn’t possibly have been true – the bodies to which they were attached all appeared to be of the same height. It was an eye-opener. I had the strongest sensation that what confronted me was the kind of scene that sixteenth-century artists envisioned when composing their battle-pieces.

To return to our condottieri of culture. Guides have been around for as long as tourists, but it’s only recently that they’ve become official, which is to say professional. In the nineteenth century, foreign visitors to Italy could hire, at their own risk, local guides known as valets de place. These cicerones, which feature prominently in the travel writings of William Dean Howells and Mark Twain, were infamous for the tales that they fed their charges. Nonetheless, Howells concluded that if it weren’t for the cicerones’ fervent imagination, ‘the objects of interest in Italy would dwindle sadly in number, and the valets de place … would be starved to death.’

The official tour guides of Florence, however, never stray into the realm of fiction. They learn their facts and figures and stick to them. They are impervious to temptation. I’d bet my last euro that the guide who stood in front of Palazzo Vecchio and pronounced, ‘On your left you have Donatello’s Judith Cutting off the Head of Holofernes, and on your right (pointing to Perseus Holding up the Head of Medusa) Cellini’s Holofernes Cutting off the Head of Judith,’ was not from the official ranks.

Return to Publications
Return to Home page

This page last updated: June 20, 2007.