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Piazza della Repubblica is a city square in Florence, Italy. It is on the site, first of the city’s forum and then of the city’s old ghetto, which was swept away during the city improvement works or Risanamento initiated during the brief period when Florence was the capital of a reunited Italy, work that also created the city’s avenues and boulevards. The ghetto’s remains may still be seen in the square, as may the Mercato Vecchio, the Loggia del Pesce. Among the square’s cafes, the Giubbe Rosse cafe has long been a meeting place for famous artists and writers, notably those of Futurism.
Piazza della Repubblica marks the site of the forum, the centre of the Roman city. The exact present site of the Colonna dell’Abbondanza marks the intersection of the axes of the cardo (now via Roma, via degli Speziali and via degli Strozzi) and decumanus (now via il Corso). Foundations of a thermae complex on the south side and a religious building were found in the 19th-century demolition of the warren of medieval streets that had encroached upon the site. Via del Campidoglio and Via delle Terme, for example, were named after the archaeological remains beneath them.
The chronicler Giovanni Villani reports an oral tradition that there was a temple to Mars on or near this site, and writes that Mars was the city’s patron god and so determined the city’s warlike character. According to Villani a statue of Mars was in the middle ages placed on the predecessor to the Ponte Vecchio, along with which it was swept away in the flood of 1333.
Piazza del Mercato Vecchio and the Ghetto
In the early medieval period the forum area was densely built over. Before the accomplishment of the fifth circle of city walls, the chroniclers record, there was no longer a single garden or pasturage in the city; there was so little space that urban development had to be not horizontal but vertical, in the case-torri (tower houses) soaring skywards.
Over time, however, this area retained its function as a meeting place, to accommodate the market, which was institutionalised after 1000. As in other Italian towns, Florence came to define public space intended for commerce, with its complementary spaces nearby, the piazza del Duomo for political affairs and a piazza del Comune, now Piazza della Signoria, for political and civil affairs).
In the 16th century the Mercato became the Mercato Vecchio on the completion of the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo near Ponte Vecchio.
The Mercato Vecchio was a long, low building in an oval rectilinear plan, with an overhanging roof to shelter the customers and the stalls placed on either side. Other shops and stalls were sited in the piazzetta.
The Mercato had numerous shrines and churches (now lost, but recorded in 18th century photographs, paintings and drawings housed in the Museo di Firenze com’era). On the piazzetta del Mercato was the church of Saint Thomas, and on the Campidoglio a church to Saint Mary. There was also the shrine of Santa Maria della Tromba, rebuilt in the north angle of Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana, on the back of Orsanmichele. Here also was to be found the Jewish Ghetto, where the Cosimo I had forced the city’s Jews to live. It contained an Italian synagogue and a Spagnola or Levantine synagogue. It was thus a unique area of tightly packed streets and buildings, where over time medieval buildings survived intact.
The sole witness to the old piazza del Mercato is the Colonna della Dovizia or Colonna dell’Abbondanza (Column of Abundance, re-positioned in 1956) on a stepped base. Considered to be the centre of the city, this column was erected at the crossing of the cardo and decumanus of the ancient Roman city. The present column dates to 1431, and is surmounted by a grey sandstone statue of Dovizia (or Abbondanza), by Giovan Battista Foggini, replacing an original by Donatello (found to be irreperably eroded in 1721. Today Foggini’s original statue is in Palazzo della Cassa di Risparmio in via dell’Oriuolo, whilst on the column is a 1956 replica.
The piazza “risanata”
The present appearance of the square is the result of the city planning announced and carried out on the proclamation of Florence as the capital of Italy (1865-71), with particularly intense activity in this Piazza between 1885 and 1895. In this period, known as the Risanamento in the commemorative nineteenth-century terminology (or, by its detractors, the sventramento or ruining), large parts of the city centre were demolished.
The decision to broaden the square allowed the total destruction of buildings of great importance: medieval towers, churches, the corporate seats of the Arti, some palaces of noble families, as well as craftsmen’s shops and residences. The demolition was presented as a necessity if the area’s insanitary conditions were to be improved, but was in reality led above all to building speculation and to legitimization of the will of the emerging middle-class emergente, protagonist in the events immediately prior to unification.
The town in fact underwent an enormous loss, minimally compensated for by the rescue of monuments like Vasari’s Loggia del Pesce that was dismantled and reassembled in piazza dei Ciompi. The appearance of the square before the nineteenth-century demolitions is documented in prints, paintings and drawings in the Museo di Firenze com’era in Via dell’Oriuolo. A plentiful supply of works of art and architectural fragments fed the antiquarian market, and only some of them could be saved for the Museo nazionale di San Marco, whilst others were returned to the town as donations such as those that allowed the founding of the Museo Bardini and Museo Horne. Artists like Telemaco Signorini depicted with melancholy this disappearing part of town.
In 1888, after the demolition of the hovels in the center of the Mercato, the old piazza del Mercato Vecchio reappeared, with the Loggia, the Column of Plenty and the church of San Tommaso, but the shrewd restorers preferred to proceed with a more radical demolition yet.
On 20 September 1890, with the building-sites still open to rebuild the palazzoni in the square, the equestrian monument to Vittorio Emanuele II was inaugurated in his presence. This monument gave the piazza its original name. An old photograph taken on the day of the inauguration show the buildings of the square still incomplete and covered for the civil ceremony in scenery representing good luck. The statue, a commemorative and rather rhetorical work which did not please the Florentines, was mocked in a biting sonnet by Vamba, entitled Emanuele a corpo sciorto. Today the sculpture is in piazzale delle Cascine.
The palaces that rose in the new square, painted bitterly by the young Telemaco Signorini, followed the eclectic fashion of the time and had been planned by already well-known architects: Vincenzo Micheli, Luigi Buonamici, Giuseppe Boccini. Following this transformation, the square became a kind of “lounge” for the town; since then refined palaces, luxury hotels, department stores and elegant cafes have sprung up around it, among which the known Caffè delle Giubbe Rosse, where famous scholars and artists met and clashed.
The porticos with the triumphal arch, called the “Arcone”, was designed by Micheli and was inspired by the most courtly Florentine Renaissance architecture, even if its additions to that style seem to be distant from the true ancient style. The pompous inscription that dominates the square was dictated, it seems, from Isidoro del Lungo, or another literary source:
L’ANTICO CENTRO DELLA CITTÀ
DA SECOLARE SQUALLORE
A VITA NUOVA RESTITUITO
(The ancient centre of the city / restored from age-old squalor / to new life)
On top of the Arcone is an allegorical group of three women in plaster, representing Italy, Art and Science. The Florentines instead nicknamed them after three famous prostitutes of the era, la Starnotti, la Cipischioni e la Trattienghi. Having deteriorated, the group was removed in 1904.
Fountain of the Naiads
The fountain in this square was originally the fountain of the Acqua Pia (connected to the aqua Marcia aqueduct), commissioned this site by Pope Pius IX in 1870. Completed in 1888, it originally showed four chalk lions designed by Alessandro Guerrieri these were then replaced in 1901 with sculptures of Naiads by Mario Rutelli from Palermo, the great-grandfather of the politician and former mayor of the town Francesco Rutelli.
The naiads represented are the Nymph of the Lakes (recognisable by the swan she holds), the Nymph of the Rivers (stretched out on a monster of the rivers), the Nymph of the Oceans (riding a horse symbolising of the sea), and the Nymph of the Underground Waters (leaning over a mysterious dragon). In the centre is Rutulli’s Glauco group (1911/12), symbolizing the dominion of the man over natural force and replacing a previous sculpture.