I have been traveling in Italy with family and friends, which is one reason I haven't been posting here. The travel, however, itself provides some interesting things to post about.
One is the tripartite nature of the cities we have been visiting. A place like Florence is really three cities in one. There is the historic city—what is left of the Florence of the Renaissance, some of it interesting and impressive. There is the tourist city which feeds off the historic city and consists of a changing population of thousands of visitors, Italian and foreign, plus the locals who make their living selling things to tourists, feeding tourists, guiding tourists.
And then there is the modern city—I am told the population is 400,000 within the city boundaries, a million and a half if you include the surrounding communities. That may be the most interesting of the three, since it represents its own solution to the constraints and opportunities provided by the modern world, similar in some ways to, different in others from, the version I live with at home. It would be still more interesting if I were in India, China, or Iran, observing a modern society built on an ancient culture radically different from my own. That, I suspect, is going to be one of the exciting features of the 21st century, as more of the ancient non-European cultures create their own version of a modern society.
This third Florence is the one tourists see the least of. That is one disadvantage of visiting a foreign country as a tourist looking at history rather than as someone with something ordinary to do there—teach, buy, sell, study.
While on the subject of Florence—tomorrow we leave for Bologna, then Venice and home—a few comments for travelers who share my tastes, which do not include a taste for paintings. The most interesting places so far were:
The museo pietre dura (sp?), a museum of masaic work, filled with exquisite art done in perfectly pieced together bits of polished stone, much of it semi-precious, plus what remains of the workshop and tools where the work was done. To see how that art got used, visit the Medici chapel.
The Palazzo Davanzati, a largely restored medieval house scaled for a large and wealthy family. Unlike palaces, such as the Strozi or the vast Pitti, it feels like a home, not a public building.
The Mercato Centrale, an enormous covered market providing the Italian equivalent of a giant supermarket--not a single store with a single management but a building full of tiny stores. It reminds me of the discussion in Oliver Williamson's Market and Hierarchy of the tradeoffs between hierarchical control and the decentralized alternative. For a more recent version, in the context of computer programming, see The Cathedral and the Bazaar by my friend Eric Raymond.
The favorite sight of one of the friends we are travelling with was the scene in a narrow street filled with street vendors when a police car was seen approaching and all of the vendors instantly rolled up their blankets with their goods inside and vanished out the other end of the street.
Unfortunately I have so far missed that one.
My one complaint about Florence so far is that almost all of the interesting museums ban the use of cameras, the one exception being the museum associated with the Duomo. The motive seems to be to prevent competition with the museum's authorized publications. I would happily have spent more for the right to take pictures than I have spent on all the museum books bought so far, and it wouldn't have cost the museum a cent. As an economist, I wonder if the museums are making the right choice and why none of them seem to allow cameras but charge extra for them.