The Creation of a National Identity Through Piazzas in Italy

By: Piper Leopold

Introduction

Italian culture is a palimpsest of the nation’s vast and tumultuous history. Throughout the centuries, one commonality has tied together Italian society’s identity as a whole: public art within piazzas. When one thinks of the nation, their mind is often brought to images of worldwide-known monuments such as Florence’s Piazza Della Signoria, Rome’s Piazza Navona, and Siena’s Piazza Publico. These major works are only three out of a countless number of art spaces that add to Italy’s culture as a whole. Each piece of artwork in Italian piazzas embodies a specific special significance from the nation’s history; altogether, these places remind passersby of the extensiveness that are Italy’s past lives. 

A major point in Italian culture is the piazzas that exist within each town and city. The overall point of a piazza is to have a public space for community members to gather. Initially, these spaces served as multipurpose spaces for gathering and were formed based on western Asian city design. Researcher Richard Fusch explains this by stating,  “The forums in the hundreds of urban centers planned and designed by the Romans in Italy and their empire were rectangular public squares in the center of two main cross-streets, the north-south cardo, and the east-west decumanus. The forum and the two crossing streets served as the anchors for the development of the Roman grid-pattern town. At the height of the empire, the forum of a Roman city served as a symbolic and geographical center and was a highly functional space for the practice of religion, politics, education, commerce, and recreation (Zucker 1959, 45-62; Stambaugh 1988, 243-286),” (R. Fusch). Within a piazza, there are typically several sculptures, frescos, and/or monuments that represent the history of that land plot and encompass the niche culture that has cultivated itself over time.

Significant Italian Piazzas

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Piazza Navona, Rome

Rome’s Piazza Navona contains a multitude of public artworks that have accumulated themselves throughout Roman history, which tells visitors of its personality. Inside this piazza lives three fountains: Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Fontana del Moro, and Fountain of Neptune. The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or the Foutain of Four Rivers was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Innocent X, whose home directly faced the piazza. This artwork is representative of Italy’s deep roots in religion and the nation’s dependency on the Church for its laws and rulings, as well as the overall power that the church has on the nation. Fontana del Moro was built by Giacomo della Porta and showcases Neptune taming a dolphin with four Tritons surrounding him. This fountain is representative of several important Roman characteristics, most importantly the focus on higher beings and gods in the nation. Then, there is the Fountain of Neptune which was also created by Giacomo della Porta which was built in order to create a balance between the first two fountains, which seemed to have developed competition in terms of popularity and viewership. Overall, these three fountains embody a sense of personality within this area of Rome, showing a focus on the presence and power of religion and mythology in the city and nation.

Piazza della Signoria, Florence

Florence’s Piazza della Signoria is another major landmark of Italian culture. This square embodies the political center of the city of Florence, which can be gathered simply based on its location; the piazza can be found directly outside of the Palazzo Vecchio, which is the town hall of Florence. In addition, Piazza della Signoria is located by Palazzo Vecchio, Palazzo Duomo, and leads into the Uffizi Gallery. This placement is absolutely intentional, being that it is located beside the most politically significant landmarks in Florence, the piazza embodies political power and community strength. Palazzo Vecchio is a landmark of several important time periods in Italy, containing memorabilia and monuments from Ancient Rome, the Medieval era, and the Renaissance. Being that this fortress contains history from so many important Italian eras and is the town hall of Florence, its overall presence embodies political strength, power, and endurance. Palazzo Duomo is representative of the focus on Italian religious culture, being that it is located above the Cathedral of Santa Maria. Then, the Ufizzi Gallery is representative of the major cultural power of artwork in the nation. The Piazza della Santa Maria embodies several major themes of pride that reside in the city of Florence, especially the crossover between religion and art in correlation to political excellence.

Types of Piazzas

Besides the major cultural messages that piazzas send, they are overall spaces for the public to gather. There are many social events and gatherings that occur within a piazza. One major type of piazza is the neighborhood-market piazza, which typically contains a shopping center filled with clothes, food, and/or Italian trinkets. These are spaces for commerce and contribute greatly to the Italian economy. Second, there are relic piazzas, which are small and typically used simply as places to pass through but are medieval monuments. Thirdly, there are monumental piazzas, which are quite large and are typically beside major historical buildings. Fourth come mercantile piazzas, which are massive shopping centers, like that of a mall. Fifth come neighborhood-park piazzas, which are located in small residential areas and often contain greenery as well. Lastly, there are vehicular piazzas, which are simply places for traffic to pass through. Though each piazza has its own niche purpose, each serves as a major communal space that is used by community members in Italy to embrace their culture simply by continuing to use these spaces.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the purpose of a piazza is to provide a communal space for Italian cities and towns. Piazzas are typically located nearby to significant monuments and/or residential spaces. These spaces may be filled with vendors, performers, as well as monuments that embody the cultural values and history of that piazza. Over time, the significance of the piazza has changed slightly, initially starting as a space for trade, political decision-making, and/or religious practice. Today, piazzas provide insight into the life of past Italians while living in the present, serving as a form of time travel for its visitors.

Works Cited

  1. Building National Museums in Europe 1750-2010. Conference proceedings from EuNaMus, European National Museums: Identity Politics, the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen, Bologna 28-30 April 2011. Peter Aronsson & Gabriella Elgenius (eds) EuNaMus Report No 1. Published by Linköping University Electronic Press: http://www.ep.liu.se/ecp_home/index.en.aspx?issue=064 © The Author. 
  2. Cavazza, S. (2012). Twisted Roots. Intellectuals, Mass Culture and Political Culture in Italy. Journal of Modern European History / Zeitschrift Für Moderne Europäische Geschichte / Revue d’histoire Européenne Contemporaine, 10(2), 207–230. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26265971
  3. Fusch, R. (1994). The piazza in Italian urban morphology. Geographical review, 424-438.
  4. https://scholar.colorado.edu/downloads/7w62f8722
  5. Tomaz, E. C. N. (2021). The Interplay between Culture, Creativity, and Tourism in the Sustainable Development of Smaller Urban Centres. In K. Scherf (Ed.), Creative Tourism in Smaller Communities: Place, Culture, and Local Representation (1st ed., pp. 61–78). University of Calgary Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1ks0d4d.6

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