Direct election of the mayor, introduced in Italy in 1993 as a result of anti‐party attitudes and ‘modernization’, is one aspect of the broad redefinition of local authorities which recently culminated in an ambiguous revision of the constitutional text aimed to promote vertical subsidiarity. The impact of such a profound revision of the mayor’s role is under debate. Beyond the radical changes in party labels and systems, a stronger territorial differentiation in the pattern of recruitment, a slight positive discrimination in favour of marginal categories in re‐election — possible forerunners of a deeper transformation — and the dominant social profile of current mayors (gender, age, education, work experiences, party training), it is not very different from that of their colleagues of 30 years ago. Their new role marks, nevertheless, significant progress towards greater accountability, activism and ambition among mayors, which is related to their increasing detachment from party politics and to an increased weakness of the other participants in local democracy. But such an excessive individualization of power and visibility in Italian local authorities threatens to reduce the possible positive impact of the reform on the efficiency of policy‐making and legitimization of local politics.