Last summer, early in the morning, I stood out in the main square of Florence to watch the tourists come in. It was quiet. A Zamboni-like street cleaner drove its rounds, leaving wet circles on the paving stones. A vendor unpacked tarp-wrapped souvenirs from the back of his white van. When the crowds began to arrive — tour groups from Japan, China, Germany, Spain — they seemed less like people than like weather. They surged into the square, pooling and drifting. They clicked selfies in front of the statues. A small herd of Segways rolled past, one rider singing fake opera at the top of his lungs. I watched a tour group from Arizona (clearly identifiable by their neck badges) approach the white figure of Michelangelo’s David, towering on a pedestal in front of City Hall. One of the tourists pointed to it and said, in a tone of amused contempt: “It’s the most famous statue in the world, and they just leave it outside. No big deal — just hose off the pigeon crap.”
The implication was clear: Italy was a backward country, incapable of protecting its cultural treasures. To be fair, the tourist was not the first person to make this accusation. In his history “The Italians,” Luigi Barzini writes that one of the basic pleasures Italy reliably provides for visitors is “that of feeling morally superior to the natives.” I sometimes felt this pleasure myself. The inefficiency of the Italian bureaucracy, whether selling you a postage stamp or fixing a street, was often marvelous to behold. And indeed, the statue the man was pointing at had obviously suffered from standing outside: The marble was striped with dirt.