Essays About

Great Cities in Retirement

The problem with visiting historic cities is that we can only go in the present. Drawn by a magnificent past, we arrive to the deflating realization that this place that was once a stage is now a backwater. What greatness has issued from Florence in the last four centuries? I do not so much want to visit Florence, but to visit the Renaissance; I do not want to see Michelangelo's paintings, but Michelangelo painting. I would like to pick a century as well as a country when I travel.

Having felt letdown visiting history's has-beens, I prefer places whose moment is now. One travels to Hong Kong or San Francisco not for what they were, but what they are. San Francisco was a sand dune when Brunelleschi was building his dome and the Medici ousted Machiavelli, but now history ships from Silicon Valley while storied Florence is reduced to reminiscence. The best place to look for life is in the present, and in imagination of the past. Thus I read books about Florence, and book flights to California.