Piazzas are an open outdoor space in a central location of a city in Italy. They stem from medieval times and are still active public spaces today, hundreds of years later. Their role and purpose vary, but they have always been a key urban space in forming a sense of community and building an identity. This blog will first explore the historical context of piazzas from the city of god to the city of man, as well as its civic, political and social role, then look at the use of piazzas in modern times.
City of god to city of man
Piazzas can first be traced to origins of Greek agoras and stoas and Roman forums, where inspiration of open public spaces comes from. Churches were previously the places with the largest space, but the decentralization of the church caused it to evolve. The way Italy progressed from a city of god to a city man, carried on over onto piazzas. Cities in the medieval times used to be organized around God and the church, furthermore they revolved around a system of serfdom and labour. As the renaissance period came, there was a shift to a more individualistic and enlightened sense of life. This period of renaissance in Italy began in the 14th century. Overall, this is a cultural shift in beliefs and attitudes particularly in the role of man in the universe. This is manifested through art, science, writing, and in the case of Italy, urbanization. Given the Renaissance began to question the role of man, such as with ‘mankind at the center of the universe’, this produced a big change in how Italians viewed themself in relation to their physical space. The social system in Italy began to change, where land based wealth was being taken over by money based wealth. This shift in the economic landscape propelled the emergence of individualism, and power to the merchant class. The urban economy, made up of trade, introduced checks and banking, shifting the economy from a hierarchical participation, to a wider urban involvement. Furthermore, the creation of guilds, set off by values of the renaissance further strengthened the urban ties. It was ultimately this boom in wealth that led to the city-states being created. This saw a change to the way infrastructure served in everyday life. An individualistic and more modern society called for a more modern solution and forum of gathering: a piazza. It was the construction of city-states that saw piazzas as a new dominant architecture in all cities to provide a fruitful space for merchant communities.
Civic, political, and social role
Piazzas served as many different roles in the period of city-states. As mentioned, one of the most notable and influential parts of the move to the city of man was the economic focus on mercantilism. The trade was facilitated by piazzas serving as the outdoor common and central space for cities to host markets and other economic related activities. The boost in trade in cities led them to grow and develop on higher rates. Another important function was for civic duties. Political meetings were held in piazzas, promoting a sense of civic responsibility. Public services in piazzas were a distinct marker of the new emphasis on government and societal contribution to its stability Additionally, city halls were commonly on piazzas, as well as churches. This is important as it sets government function on par with the church. Religious ceremonies were also a common use of piazzas, as a large open public space for all to attend. With the church and the government sharing the same space as also markets, it was clear communities were developing in their shared values. Urban spaces also began to display visual and performing art as forms of entertainment, as well as were used as social spaces. People came to piazzas to see friends and family and strengthen their community ties through use of an urban space.
A leading value of renaissance was of the common good, meaning individuals were prioritizing the good of the community over any self interests. Piazzas are reflected in this in that they serve as a large public space used to benefit the good of the community, such as with civic duties, religious ceremonies, trade, and socializing. This therefore shows how the building of a cultural identity with an emphasis on the surrounding community comes from.
Piazzas in Modern Times
In modern times, piazzas have drastically changed in their role in society. Firstly, while markets are still very popular and used there, they are no longer the sole form or purchasing or trade. Supermarkets and consumer stores now offer permanent versions of what the piazza previously held. So while there are still numerous smaller markets, they are somewhat shifting in priority as there are always permanent locations to purchase items. This change can also be seen in the types of goods sold. There is a larger demand for art to be sold in this space as it is a more specialized product not found everywhere and unique to its artists. Products in markets have changed from necessary and the only goods available, to more specialized or unique items.
Another shift can be seen in the diversification of the role of a piazza. Previously piazzas most of the time, but not always, had to use the open space for several diverse things like markets, religious, public services, etc. But today, many piazzas have specialized in a single thing in perhaps being known for clothing, or art, or food, or antique items. Additionally, they are still used for religious gatherings, though this too has decreased in popularity as there are more and larger churches or other religious centers to accommodate for the changing populations.
Piazzas serve as a form of public unity and cultural displays. An example of this is the use of piazzas for concerts or shows. Italian musician Andrea Bocelli, very famously performed in Piazza Dei Cavalieri, using the public space for a concert accessible for many. This served as a form of community engagement through art in an urban space.
With globalization and the facilitation of travel, tourism became a big aspect of piazza use. Tourists commonly visit piazzas for its beautiful architecture and central location in cities. People have adapted to this inflow of visitors by creating regular street performances like dances or shows. Piazzas serve as tourist attractions which symbolize Italian culture, identity, and community.
A present limitation is the shift to a digital world. More people, with younger individuals leading in this, rely on online platforms to communicate and socialize, therefore reducing the use of piazzas for socialization. A positive to this is that following the mass vaccination for COVID-19 and therefore re-opening of cities, it is expected that public spaces, like this, will become more in use globally. A large outdoor open space like a piazza serves as a perfect safe and positive social environment for people moving out of a pandemic.
Overall, piazzas encompass a big part of Italian identity back when they were created and still today. They are an important development in architecture, urbanization, and social identity in Italian history. As they were popularized in the shift to a city of man back in the renaissance period, piazzas embody the ideal of common good. This is engrained into a societal oriented thinking highlighting the shared identity created and carried on. The significance of the piazza is not lost, on the count that they are still used today. While they may not be as essential today in terms of economic activity or social gathering, they remain as the legacy of renaissance and as a beautiful cultural monument of Italian identity.
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2. Kuntal Rami. “Famous Public Squares of Italy & It’s Importance in Urban Fabric.” Newcastle University, 04 May 2017. https://2016-2017.nclurbandesign.org/2017/05/public-squares-and-its-characteresticts/#:~:text=Public%20Squares%20or%20Piazzas%20usually,%2C%20festive%20celebrations%2C%20markets%20etc.
3. Canniffe, Eamonn. The politics of the piazza: the history and meaning of the Italian square. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012.
4. Andrea Bocelli. “Con Te Partirò – Live From Piazza Dei Cavalieri, Italy / 1997” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdWEhMOrRpQ
5. “Vigevano Italy | Piazza Ducale & The Bramante Tower | Travel By Drone.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1QGYQo1q4g
6. Basilica Palladiana (Vicenza) – facade on Piazza dei signori image. Didier Descouens, 2016.
7. Piazza della Signoria, the most famous square in Florence. Ciao Florence https://www.ciaoflorence.it/en/page/16
8. Piazza Campo de’Fiori. Timeout, 2019. Shutterstock. https://www.timeout.com/rome/things-to-do/best-markets-in-rome
9. Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy. Street performer. Xavier Yepez Photography,. https://xavieryepez.com/piazza-navona/piazza-navona-street-performer-1/
10. Tourists in Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy. Cividine, Dreamstime. https://www.dreamstime.com/rome-italy-june-typical-city-artists-who-sell-their-works-to-tourists-visit-piazza-navona-image158787638