A small but extremely enthusiastic band of anti-Brexit protesters are assembled outside the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence ahead of Theresa May’s speech – some waving placards with demonic-looking pictures of the PM on them.
“Denied a vote: Denied a voice,” one sign reads, waved by a British national living in Italy – one of thousands whose future in their adoptive country was plunged into uncertainty since a referendum they had no vote in.
Apart from the EU flag, Ms May’s face is the most omnipresent image displayed in the notably calm crowd, illustrating the extent to which the once Remain-supporting PM has personalised Brexit as an issue and staked her reputation on it.
Apart from the protesters – and the usual media circus of satellite vans, photographers, and reporters in Piazza di Santa Maria Novella – very few locals seems all that interested in Ms May’s speech. Much like the Brussels officials the address’s content is aimed at, they are mostly staying away, probably because they’re not really invited. A woman at the city’s station tourist office is aware the speech is happening, but declines to express a view on the Prime Minister.
Santa Maria Novella, a 13th century Gothic-renaissance church straight out of a hastily-bought postcard, is beautiful in the cool September sun – which unlike the denizens of Westminster, lucky Florentines are still enjoying. A plaque on the square out the front advertises the fact the area has been restored using EU money.
The church is home to a number of notable artworks by Renaissance artists including Bittichelli, Masaccio, and Giotto. It is also notable as the site of one of the first denunciations of Galileo, who claimed the earth moves around the sun. Once a heresy, that idea is now widely accepted.
Since the location of the Prime Minister’s speech was announced, a number of people have expressed confusion about why it is being held in Florence. Officially, Downing Street likes to highlight the Renaissance city’s trading links with Britain stretching back to the Middle Ages. Hosting the speech abroad also gives it an extra air of gravitas that it might not achieve at home.
Meanwhile, irreverent jokers have suggested that Florence, a once-important banking centre that gradually faded into commercial irrelevance, is the perfect place for a speech about Brexit. Santa Maria Novella – whose adjoined chapter house specialsies in ornate funerary monuments, is also an inspired choice.
More charitably, the city chosen by the Prime Minister is notable as the site of the 1439 Council of Florence, which sought to end the Great Schism of the eastern and western churches. Though years of talks ended with an agreement being signed, it was never actually implemented.
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