After World War II
Florence was hit with disaster when a massive flooding of the Arno in 1966 covered much of the city with up to 20 feet of sludge and water, destroying or severely damaging countless thousands of works of art and literature (8,000 paintings in the Uffizi basement alone, and 1.5 million volumes in the National Library). Along with an army of experts and trained restorers, hundreds of volunteers nicknamed “Mud Angels” descended on the city, many of them foreign students, to pitch in and help dig out all the mud and salvage what they could of one of the greatest artistic heritages of any city on earth.
The fortunes of Tuscany and Umbria have in the past 50 years mainly followed those of Italy at large. The Italian government seems finally to have stabilized. After the multiple dissolutions of parliament and resignations of prime ministers amid rampant scandal from 1993 to 1996, Romano Prodi and the center-left Olive Tree coalition managed to hold power for more than three years—a record of sorts in Italy, which since World War II had averaged a new government every nine months. The Prodi government eased nicely into the similarly left-leaning coalition headed by Prime Minster Massimo D’Alema—though recent local elections in Italy have been swinging back to the right of center. Stay tuned.
On a smaller scale, Tuscany and Umbria have seen both sorrow and joy over the past several years. In late 1997, Umbria was rocked by a series of massive earthquakes that destroyed town centers, left thousands homeless, and damaged artistic patrimonies. The most notable victim was Assisi, where many churches and buildings sustained such structural damage they remained closed until 2002 (many private dwellings are still unsafe and stand abandoned). The famed Basilica di San Francesco lost several Cimabue frescoes in a tremor that shook down the painted ceiling of the Upper Church, killing two hapless monks and partially damaging Giotto’s renowned frescoes. The Lower Church reopened within weeks, but the major restoration on the Upper Basilica took two years 9and some of it is still on-going—though it no longer interferes with tourist visits).
Tuscany has also recently enjoyed a unique sort of renaissance in the world of the cinema, led by Prato area native Roberto Begnini’s Oscar-winning La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful), a fable about the Holocaust.
But putting aside glamour and catastrophe, Tuscany and Umbria today thrive on two main sources of economy and livelihood: the land and tourism. Both regions continue to be breadbaskets—and even more, wine casks—in Italy, and most of the citizens are involved in the agricultural industry in some way. Events like the winter of 1985—when the Arno froze, and the lingering frost almost wiped out every last one of central Italy’s olive trees—hit the economy so hard they’re still recovering. A bad year for the grapes can mean that half of Tuscany takes a major hit.
Mass tourism loves Tuscany. Florence is an essential stop on almost every package tour, and the region is by far Italy’s most famous, often the only one foreigners known by name. It’s also a precarious economy—witness the drastic decline in tourism dollars in Italy in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks—one that even in peaceful times is dependent on the economies of other countries
Tourism can have detrimental effects on the vitality of a city as well. Many historic cores, Florence’s included, have been all but given over to the tourists, with locals moving to the suburbs or to another city entirely. Part of what drives them out are the increasing restrictions on movement. While it was difficult a decade ago not to cheer as pedestrian-only zones started being erected in Italy’s city centers, it does exacerbate an already horrible traffic problem, with parking lots taking over central piazze that were once important communal gathering places.
It must be said, though, that much of the dilemma has been created by poor management of the pedestrianizing movement. Umbrian cities have actually been some of the most successful in Italy at the transformation. By creating large parking lots underground and in the valleys below the hilltop cities, and connecting them with town via elevators, escalators, and cog railways, cities like Orvieto, Perugia, and Assisi have actually managed to make themselves blessedly traffic-free without creating too much of a hassle for those with cars. Thankfully, most of these parking plazas have since been shifted to the outskirts—a bit inconvenient for travel logistics, but welcome once you are a pedestrian.
Luckily, initiatives like those described above have been doing away with traffic difficulties. But the most egregious problem remains the pollution—all those Fiats with no catalytic converters (still not required, or fitted, on Italian cars) spewing horrendous amounts of emission and pollutants into the air.
In the past, Florence has actually had to issue warnings on certain summer days when, without wind to help carry some of the smog off, they’ve advised children and the elderly to stay indoors or wear masks to go outside. More visibly, the pollution blackens the historic buildings and outdoor sculpture on which the cities depend for their very survival.
So public funds are raised to sandblast the local Duomo every two or four years, and half the monuments in the country stay wrapped in scaffolding at any given time for cleaning.