Mass tourism has turned Florence into a ‘prostitute,’ museum boss says, sparking outrage

Mass tourism has turned the Italian city of Florence into a “prostitute,” the director of Galleria dell’Accademia has said, sparking anger and calls for her to step down.

Although Cecilie Hollberg has apologized, Italian politicians have slammed her comments this week as being offensive to Florentines.

“Once a city becomes a prostitute, it is difficult for it to become a virgin again,” Hollberg, a German art historian who has been head of the museum since 2015, told reporters Monday on the sidelines of a press conference laying out the museum’s successes.

“We no longer find a shop, a normal shop but only things exclusively for tourists with gadgets and souvenirs and this should be stopped,” she added.

Hollberg’s comments immediately garnered push back from Italy’s culture minister and Florence’s mayor — both of whom have been vocal about having Italians lead Italian museums in the past.

Hollberg’s mandate at the museum ends in June, and there were calls before this scandal to not renew her contract and award it to an Italian instead.

In 2014, Italy’s culture minister Dario Franceschini opened up all museum directorships to foreigners, which is something Italy’s current prime minister Giorgia Meloni said she would rectify as the contracts expired.

Florence mayor Dario Nardella told Florence City Council on Monday that the city deserved respect and that tourism employs thousands of people.

“Tourism is a resource, it must be managed but there is not a single issue on which this administration has not fought, from the protection of the historic center with UNESCO regulations to the protection of typical products, the stop to certain activities and lastly with a rule that stops short-term rentals,” Nardella said.

Tourists flood one of Florence's popular attractions, the Ponte Vecchio bridge. - Petr Svarc/UCG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Tourists flood one of Florence's popular attractions, the Ponte Vecchio bridge. - Petr Svarc/UCG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Matteo Renzi, former prime minister and former mayor of Florence, said he would take the issue of Hollberg’s tenure to the culture ministry.

“I will submit a question to the Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano on the shameful phrases of the director of the Accademia Gallery. Defining Florence as a prostitute is unacceptable. Hollberg must apologize or resign,” he said in a statement Monday.

Hollberg has backtracked on her remarks, saying she loves Florence and that she didn’t mean to offend the city or its inhabitants, clarifying that she only meant that Florence, like Venice and other cities, were being “crushed” by tourism, according to a spokesperson for the museum.

“I’m sorry I used the wrong words. What I meant to say is that Florence must be a witness to more conscious tourism, not hit and run. With the Academy, for example, we have tried to enhance every extraordinary part of it,” she said in the museum statement sent to CNN Tuesday.

‘Serious and offensive’

Florence is a huge tourist draw. A world heritage site, it has a high concentration of museums, churches, historic buildings and artworks.

Italy’s culture minister Sangiuliano said his ministry would look further into the matter, but called Hollberg’s words “serious and offensive” in nature.

“Florence is a wonderful city that represents an important part of our national identity and history. Offending her means hitting all of Italy and our feelings. I will evaluate all appropriate initiatives,” he said in a statement provided by the culture ministry.

Florence deputy mayor Alessia Bettini called the comments “delusional” in a statement sent from her office to CNN.

“Calling Florence a prostitute is the most serious offense ever heard from a person who also holds such an important institutional role,” Bettini said in the statement.

“According to the director of the museum, therefore, Florentines are the children of a prostitute and the tourists are the clients of a prostitute? Hollberg offends the history of Florence, where she worked, she offends the work of thousands of people and above all she offends the Florentines, herself, who as a non-Florentine, owes Florence a lot.”

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