England & Wales Communities and society, Culture, sport and tourism, Democracy, devolution and governance

Municipal Postcard: foundations of greatness and beauty

Ingrid Koehler indulged her passions for art and history on her recent holiday to Rome and Florence and found much of it an enduring testimony to the importance of effective local government.

I’m just back from Italy. Forget the villas on the Northern lakes or sipping Campari and soda on the Sorrento Coast. No, I enthralled my eight-year-old with a whirlwind tour of the local government sites of the ancient Roman world and Renaissance Florence.

OK, it’s pushing it a bit to call even Republican Rome ‘local government’, but I was quite excited that our hotel near the Largo di Torre Argentina allowed us to view not only the ruins of a multi-temple complex but also the modest remains of the municipal water office amongst them. From that building, water distribution was administered for the City of Rome and the system they came up with still serves Romans and parched tourists today. The ancient gods may be forgotten but safe and effective municipal distribution of water is the bedrock of modern civilisation.

Florence, however, is a tribute to the power and organisation of local government and its tourist drawing power. Under a strong city-state model, Florence flourished producing great advancements in nearly all fields and influencing our tastes in art and culture to this day. Arguably this couldn’t have been done without effective local government. Florence, after all,  produced the world’s most famous local government officer Niccolo Machiavelli. Infamous for The Prince, the manual for effective despotism, we actually have much to thank him for in terms of supporting democracy. Through him and his Discourses, we were (arguably) re-introduced to the concepts of democracy and effective representative government and republicanism that was first really reflected on in Roman treatises. Although rarely credited, it’s clear that English speaking political thinkers and reformers of the 18th century were strongly influenced by his thinking.

Florence, also, is the birthplace of double-entry bookkeeping. While this might seem mundane, this radically important development for commerce also supported the development of effective government finance. My son reacted to this historical tidbit with “How do you make everything even more boring?” He’ll thank me later.

Of course, we went to Florence for the art. But even this has strong local government links. The Palazzo Vecchio (pictured) is now mainly a museum and adorned by the great statue of David, began as a local government building and is still used by the city council today. The Uffizi Gallery which is one of the oldest and most famous and important museums in the world was designed as a municipal office building, indeed uffizi means ‘offices’ and was basically an annex to house the expanding local bureaucracy and magistrates. It was also one of the first ‘public’ museums, first by appointment then generally open to view the Medici collections from 1765 demonstrating the long and sometimes happy history of local government museums.

The inspiration and awe and beauty of Florentine culture is what we appreciate today. But like much of what we enjoy, we have local government to thank for creating the foundations on which great and beautiful things can be built.

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And speaking of local government and amazing spaces – check out our #spacerace project which is a celebration unusual and wonderful British (sorry Florence!) local government buildings.  Submit yours!

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See our other municipal postcards: