The Italian Piazza: An Urban and Cultural Pillar of Italian Society

Piazza della Rotonda and Pantheon in the Morning, Rome, Italy. Photo by Andrey Omelyanchuk 

The Sounds of an Italian Piazza [1]

Introduction

These are the sounds of the Italian piazza. People chatting and churchbells ringing. It is a place to gather, connect, and interact with the community. The piazza is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “an open square, especially in an Italian town”[2]. While this is true, the piazza holds much more cultural significance than this definition recognizes. Piazzas are an integral part of urban social life in Italy. They are woven into the fabric of Italy’s city planning and have remained relevant since their origins. In this essay, I will explore the roots of the piazza, its functions over the course of history, its basic features, and its role as a social space today.

Origins and Functions of the Italian Piazza

The piazza is an Italian urban space. They have existed for over a thousand years and are still widely used today. When the Romans built their towns, they used a grid system usually allowing for two main roads. The space where these roads converged “was considered sacred ground. This open space was dominated by an imposing temple on one flank, a civic building (forum) on another with a central marketplace, sometimes with colonnaded shops and tenements above” [3]. Over time, this area evolved into an open plaza giving way to the piazza. In the early middle ages, piazzas revolved around a more religious context with open spaces in front of small churches or nobles’ towers. This area served as a center of public life. After 1100 AD, Italian city-states began to emerge and assert their autonomy. This assertion was represented not just in politics but also in the architecture of their cities. Civic palaces dominated newly defined public spaces and there was a political shift to establish civic authority. This was manifested in the architectural creation of these spaces which ultimately set the defining tone for the typology of the Italian piazza. These areas were designed specifically to facilitate a sense of civic community. Palazzo della Ragione in Padova is a great example of this. Constructed in 1219, the space connected internal political space to the outside through the use of open arches. The message behind this was to show governmental transparency, the government was physically close to the daily concerns of the citizens. Piazzas became widely used and appreciated, and as a result, integral to Italian culture and an established part of Italian urban design.

Palazzo della Ragione, Padova, Italy

The piazza was continually used for religious and public ceremonies during the Renaissance. However, the rise of mercantilism and advancements in the arts created another shift in urban planning and its function. The concept of an “ideal city” was conceived during this time, it “is deeply rooted in the so-called Umanesimo [Renaissance Humanism], a system focusing on humans and their values, capacities, and worth which represented a cultural, social and artistic revolution” [4]. Piazzas were rationally planned, and an embodiment of harmonious proportions. Piazza dell’ Annunziata in Florence demonstrates this through the rhythm of the design of space and depth in its architecture. The geometric forms were meant to express the ideal or perfect city, which is largely reflected in other Renaissance art as well. Piazzas were now built in front of the main church, or political buildings, and used for markets. There would be three main squares, political, religious, and economic. The political square was the largest because it was meant to hold all the citizens. The religious square was normally in front of the main cathedral in a more moderate size. It was used for sacred pageants and processions and was situated so the churchbells could be heard by citizens. Lastly, the economic square served as a marketplace, it had fountains to wash fruit, vegetables, and other goods. Additionally, the square was usually situated close to the political piazza.

Giuseppe Zocchi, Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in an eighteenth-century print.

Piazza Typology

As mentioned previously, during the Renaissance piazzas evolved into three main squares, political, religious, and economic. Similarly, because of the ever-changing urban fabric, we can categorize them more complexly today. Richard Fusch categorizes them in his journal article “Piazza in Italian Urban Morphology.” Fusch classifies them as relic, monumental, neighborhood market, mercantile, neighborhood park, and vehicular piazzas. These six types of piazzas can be found around modern Italian cities. Relic piazzas are considered the oldest. Even though they are used more as walkways today, they reflect the historical significance of these spaces considering most originate from the medieval ages. Monumental piazzas are generally situated in front of historically significant buildings, monuments, or sites. Neighborhood market piazzas are centers for shopping and socializing. They can be considered some of the most important piazzas in terms of general public use. Fusch notes “in any residential area there may be several piazzas of this type, each with slightly different retail functions, which suggests that the piazzas are interrelated functionally with specific residential areas” [5]. Essentially, each of these piazzas can be specific to niche neighborhoods in Italy. Mercantile piazzas are less common. They are the American equivalent of shopping malls. Piazza Dalmazia in Florence is an example of this. Neighborhood park piazzas are generally secluded from main streets, do not allow traffic to pass, and are filled with greenery. These areas are simply meant for local neighborly interactions. Lastly, vehicular piazzas can serve two primary purposes; to act as a parking lot or direct traffic flow. Vehicular piazzas are a prime example of how they have developed with technology essentially modernized.

The Piazza as a Social Space Today

Today, Italian piazzas remain centers for social, political, religious, and economic activities. They can be used as assembly spaces for festivals and markets as well. However, a notable difference is how they have also become tourist attractions, parks, and shopping centers. An example of this is the Piazza Cordusio in Milan. This piazza has modernized with a huge influx of shops. It has Italy’s first Starbucks and is located right next to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which houses everything from modern luxury retailers to fine-dining restaurants. Piazza Cordusio is also a large part of Milan’s public transportation system. An Italian blog stated that “80% of the spaces were the exclusive headquarters of insurance companies, banks, and public services. Today the function of buildings is radically changing, and their owners agree. [They are] redesigning the area in terms of urban development, mobility and public transport flow” [6]. Piazza Cordusio is a testament to the importance of the piazza and how they evolve over time.

Modern Piazza Cordusio

In defining the modern piazza, we should discuss some basic features it should have in order to serve the function of a public social space today. This may include access to public transit, water fountains, cafes, or other shops. As seen previously, contemporary piazzas are located near public transportation for easy accessibility. They can be seen flooded with cars and traffic as well, such as vehicular piazzas. An issue faced by many historic cites is this allowance for traffic. Many streets are quite narrow and can quickly become crowded with parked and moving cars. To solve this, allotted parking spaces near the piazza could be essential to maintaining its social and aesthetic functions. Because of Italy’s coffee culture, cafes are a must for a piazza. Public seating and greenery can be incorporated as well. There should be an emphasis on the preservation of historical aspects of the piazzas while simultaneously modernizing them to fit the needs of the Italian public today. Piazzas are designed to be timeless, which is why they seem to have been and always will be part of Italian social and urban life.

Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain, Rome Italy. Photo by Rilind H/Getty Images

Conclusion

The word ‘piazza’ means ‘square’ in Italian. It refers to a place where people gather to meet. Today piazzas are still used for their original purposes but have developed contemporary functions as well. As we have explored, the Italian piazza is an integral part of history, city planning, and social life in Italy. There are over 2,000 in the capital alone. They can be small or large, and fill many roles depending on the neighborhood. Some are in front of famous monuments such as the Trevi Fountain and the Piazza Navona in Rome, while others are small squares in private communities. These public spaces have shaped Italian culture and are now forever woven into the fabric of urban planning. What started as a space to fulfill religious or governmental functions evolved into much more, affecting Italian culture for the rest of time.

Works Cited

[1] “Italian Piazza Sound.” YouTube, YouTube, 26 Oct. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DSVvpUD9HM. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.

[2] “Piazza Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 4 Dec. 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/piazza.

[3] Webb, Christine Webb. “An Italian Institution – the Piazza.” Italy Magazine, 2008, https://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/italian-institution-piazza.

[4] “Pienza – the First ‘Ideal City’ Becomes Real – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/7wUxNM4pnbJlLQ.

[5] Fusch, Richard. “The Piazza in Italian Urban Morphology.” Geographical Review, vol. 84, no. 4, 1994.

[6] “Milano Piazza Cordusio Nuovo Look.” Residence Lepontina, 1 Mar. 2017, https://www.residencelepontina.it/milano-piazza-cordusio-nuovo-look/.

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