Among the great city states of Italy—for city states they remain, a world unto itself every one, despite the advent of the steam locomotive and the electric carrot peeler—Florence was never my favorite.  When I lived there, I loathed its American present as the art student’s medina, with its disheveled, Nebraskan, notionally female multitudes swarming the city squares in search of culture.  I also loathed its Medici past.

What Florence of the vaunted Quattrocento conjures up in the mind of one who grew up in Soviet Russia is . . . Soviet Russia.  A glance at Michelangelo’s David of 1501, or indeed at its 1910 replica in the Piazza della Signoria, sends childhood shudders of revulsion up his spine, which he soon identifies as the aesthetic impact of Mukhina’s The Worker and the Peasant Woman of 1937.  Certainly, one is five metres high and executed in Carrara marble, while the other is 25 metres high and executed in anodized steel, but one must make some allowances for technological progress.  And while a peasant woman as large as King Kong is bizarre enough, a giant youth whose claim to fame is that, unlike his biblical antagonist Goliath, he was of ordinary stature is yet more absurd.

Much of the late Renaissance, for which Medici Florence is encyclopedic shorthand, is like that on close inspection, a precursor of Socialist Realism whose protototalitarian means and meanings have since become aggrandizement and propaganda recipes for every ambitious tyrant from Beijing to Addis Ababa.  To live in Florence is to shadowbox with these grotesque apparitions.

The city’s present, of course, infuriates me even more.  Florence has some two million visitors per year, where Venice, for instance, attracts ten times as many.  Yet where Venice has developed mechanisms, commercial as well as behavioral, whereby one can reside, as I have, on the Grand Canal the year round without seeing a single tourist at spitting distance, Florence long ago caved in to the Visigoth onslaught.  When I lived there in the 1990’s I could not find a good espresso, a decent restaurant, or a sensible laundress—it was as though the entire urban infrastructure had been scrapped to make room for tourist catering facilities, leaving its residents with an Italian ghost town elaborately camouflaged as an American theme park.

Venice, by contrast, is intact in her glory.  Her 60,000 inhabitants understand that, should their city lose its integrity and become a Disneyland, it will only attract the kind of people who go to Disneyland—globalized riffraff, “customers who ask for a Coke and three straws,” as a Florentine barman said to me ruefully.  Thus, in Harry’s Bar, for instance, an American swell will be charged three times as much for his Bellini or Sidecar as a Venetian grandee—impoverished, of course, after centuries of living off an ancestor’s inheritance—because the management realize that once the poor locals stop coming, so in the end will the rich visitors.  That bar regular’s badge of distinction, a laconic “voce amica” scrawled on his bill next to the discount, is but one of the myriad tricks Venice has perfected over the years to remain itself in the face of overpowering modernity.

It was with some of these juxtapositions in mind that I returned to Florence, expecting to see the same grandiloquent fraud of a city—half totalitarian memento mori, half backpacker Hotel California—that I said good riddance to 15 years ago.  To my astonishment I found the place changed, and for the better.

A symbol of the change is a man by the name of James Bradburne, who presides over a new institution called the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi.  As an events and exhibitions venue, the great palazzo, a stone’s throw from David’s sling, has come to dominate the cultural life of the city, and, since part of Bradburne’s agenda is clawing back Florence for the Florentines, it is beginning to fashion Florentine social life as well.  A Canadian of British parentage, Bradburne is conscious of the iniquity of an American-operated spaghetti Medici theme park on the Arno.  “If catalogs for our exhibitions are to be in languages other than Italian,” he says with a steely glint in his eye, “they will be in Chinese and in Russian, not only in English.”  In the Florence I remember, that kind of remark would have had him hauled before the Committee on Un-American Activities.

The fortuitous election of a young new mayor, Matteo Renzi, who made the replanting of a deflowered Florence a key metaphor of his campaign, is likewise bad news for the tour operators, whose coaches have now been exiled to the outskirts.  “This is a city, not a museum,” Renzi has insisted, and in these words I hear a promise—of the good espresso, of the decent restaurant, and maybe even of the elusive laundress.

At the magnificent Villa La Massa I noted that the British pop star Nigel Kennedy, who was in the next room, was not fawned over.  He would have been, in the days when the ghost town spoke broken English as a first language.  Yes, Florence has changed.