In the post-war austerity years spaces deemed 'public', such as swiming pools and parks, could be identified simply by virtue of their dispiriting listings of forbidden activities. People took comfort in the knowledge that 'on the continent' things were different. The Ealing film Passport to Pimlico, where an inner London borough declares itself part of Burgundy and instantly sheds all inhibitions to a rich public life, from rainfall to licensing laws,was based on just such a hope.
Now, however, the news is that the mainstays of our continental fantasies - Rome, Venice and Florence - have all passed laws which make those 1950s rule-lists look liberal. In Florence, drinking, eating, smoking, sitting and singing in the city's main square are all forbidden. The city council's rationale for this is that these are offences 'against the art of Florence'. This is a curious view, but merely the logical outcome of the policy of museumising the entire inner city, increasingly adopted as a panacea to physical decline here as well as in Italy. Thus is the public square re- cast as outdoor art gallery.
We eagerly anticipate the following future developments: special offers of 20 entries into the square per season will be given to holders of American Express gold cards; 'Friends of the Piazza Signoria' will be given the right to sing two lines of an approved air at designated points throughout the square, once every three months. Officials carrying sound meters will cart off all those speaking 5dB louder than an admiring soft-tone.
However, there is still a glimmer of hope for British tourists: these sound officials will be supplemented by others with more sophisticated instruments, who will make sure that anyone declaiming a particularly pompous art opinion in a penetrating voice remains unmolested.