Can you tell me where a person can go to find
a decent piazza in this town?
An Italian piazza and quality of life
Piazzas are charged with meaning, like oceans and crossroads and rivers. What I like about a piazza, though, is that it gets away from the life-is-a-journey metaphor. A piazza is a microcosm, not a way of getting from one place to another. There’s no goal implied in a piazza, no destination. It’s a place to be, and not just anyplace either.
- Robert Hellenga, The Sixteen Pleasures
A paper prepared for presentation at the
IX ISQOLS Conference:
Quality of Life Studies:
Measures and Goals for the Progress of Societies
Istituto degli Innocenti
July 19-23, 2009
A few years ago, shortly after one of the annual quality of life surveys ranks Zurich tied with Vancouver as the best city in the world to live and Rome fifty-second among two hundred cities surveyed, University of Rome sociologist Domenico De Masi writes a short commentary in an Italian newspaper entitled: “Gauging the True Quality of Life”. A resident of Rome for nearly fifty years, De Masi wonders why his city is not ranked higher. He knows from his own experience that Rome lures people from around the world and makes them never want to leave - even those who first come there only for reasons of work. Why then is it ranked so far below Zurich and Vancouver in this and subsequent quality of life surveys?
Maybe, he suggests, it is because what counts in the survey are the number of bank branches, health clubs, high salaries, hospital beds and cemetery plots. And because “What doesn’t count is whether I get to walk amidst anonymous cement boxes and tomblike squares, or churches by Borromini, buildings by Michelangelo and fountains by Bernini”. (De Masi (2001). What he does not say but is clear to anyone who has spent time in Rome is that he and any other city user can walk among masterpieces by those three artists and architects simply by passing through piazza Navona and its immediate environs.
Piazza Navona sits on the footprint of the Stadium of Domitian in a space of the post-imperial city that for nearly a thousand years, until the 15th century, was lightly occupied and little used. Today it is considered the central public space in modern Rome and Italy’s national piazza - to the extent a country of campanelismo can be said to have one. In his book, The Politics of the Piazza, professor and architect Eamonn Canniffe points to the organic growth of piazza Navona to illustrate how the tradition of the ancient forum can flourish in the modern city. (Canniffe, p.35).
The survey of cities toward which Professor De Masi’s directs his criticism of what gets counted and what does not is an annual survey by the international human resources firm, William Mercer. Although De Masi, media summaries, and press releases by the favored cities refer to these surveys as “quality of life” surveys, Mercer itself labels them “quality-of-living” surveys. The Mercer website’s “Defining ‘Quality of Living’” section seeks to clarify important differences between the two terms. Quality of life, according to Mercer, is a subjective assessment, which has to do with one’s emotional state and personal life. A person may live in a highly ranked city in quality-of-living surveys but due to unemployment, illness, social isolation, and other personal circumstances have a poor quality of life. Quality of living is what Mercer seeks to measure - or more precisely, and reflective of the commercial value of the survey, quality of living for expatriates: “the degree to which expatriates enjoy the potential standard of living in the host location”. The firm’s website identifies ten key categories and thirty-eight “objective, neutral and unbiased” criteria for assessing a city’s quality of living. (Mercer, 2008) Understandably, what counts in the survey are things that can be counted: banking services, hospital services, housing and household appliances, sport and leisure activities, and so on. What does not count, and it is difficult to see how it could be measured by counting or in an objective way is whether a city’s residential and commercial buildings are De Masi’s “anonymous cement boxes” or its piazzas “tomblike squares”.
Professor De Masi’s brief commentary is not meant to be a critical evaluation of quantitative and qualitative measures of quality of life and the extensive scholarship and ongoing debates in this area. I see it more as a poke at a particular survey (and the annual Il Sole/24 rankings of quality of life in Italian cities, which De Masi also mentions), by a dedicated city user and long-time resident of Rome who feels the city he loves is shortchanged every year in this and similar rankings of cities. I first read Professor De Masi’s commentary in Florence, a few years after studying Italian in Rome and after that an eleven-month residence and participation in the life of piazza Santa Croce in Florence. And as I recall, the strongest impression the article evoked was not the discussion of methodology, interesting as that may be, but the experience of walking through and spending time in Piazza Navona. And that is why the topic of this paper is the Italian piazza and quality of life.
“The strangely fascinating power of the piazza in the 21st century”
Scholarship and experience support two quite different visions of the Italian piazza in the 21st century. The first sees the piazza as a form of public space of declining relevance to city users who focus more on the virtual space of new technologies of communication and globalization than on the physical space in which they happen to be in a homogenized, decentralized and commercialized city. The second view of the piazza in the 21st century looks instead to the Italian piazza as a marker of urban quality for more than two millennia. This view highlights certain enduring qualities of a piazza such as community, collective memory, security, a hierarchy of public and private space, a place of refuge, aesthetics, theater, the sense of touch, and ambiguity.
Although these two visions might seem contradictory or mutually exclusive, both recognize the many and different ways a piazza can incorporate a wide range of activities into a sense of shared experience on a local, national, and international level. The paper will discuss aspects of what Canniffe calls “the strangely fascinating power of the piazza” as experienced directly – albeit as a city user rather than a long term resident - in an eleven-month residence and participation in the life of Piazza Santa Croce in Florence as well as related ideas found in scholarship in this area.
Professor Giampaolo Nuvolati and Canniffe analyze the forces that are transforming the use of cities in ways that support both views of the future of the piazza. Nuvolati shows how the transformation in work activity and innovations in transport have resulted in great spatial mobility, which often makes it more difficult for city users to develop a rapport with places. How globalization decontextualizes work and social interaction. How it neutralizes space and diminishes the ability of traditional places and symbols of social integration – churches, monuments, palazzi, (and piazze, I would add) – to perform these functions. How a global mass media and ever advancing technology of individual communication create virtual communities, which require little or no direct experience with place. But there is another side to the homogenizing, standardizing effects of globalization, Nuvolati says. He describes how those who live in or near cities of high mobility in advanced societies recognize they need places of refuge – of both physical and psychological security and peace – which highly mobile persons often find through an identification with and symbolic reference to their city of origin. Those who are most exposed to the effects of globalization on the city generate defenses through a reevaluation of place, most notably that of the nuclear family of origin, but also those in the revitalized periphery and in those authentic places outside of traditional tourist circuits, where city users such as flaneurs can seek signs of the unchanging soul of a city and artistic and studious city stalkers can discover and develop the concept of a sense of place. (Nuvolati (2002 ), pp. 177-182) and (2006), pp. 134-137).
Canniffe’s book, The Politics of the Piazza traces how the changing forms of the Italian piazza, from the original Roman forum to today’s virtual piazza, reflect changes in political ideologies. The different ways that autocratic and democratic governments structure the hierarchy of public and private space over the course of more than two millenia. His book surveys the history of the Italian piazza and also the meaning of the Italian square today: how changes in city planning and servicing, urban architecture, transportation and communication, and social patterns have transformed the piazza. His portrait of the contemporary Italian piazza is similar to Nuvolati’s description of populations in movement in cities undergoing transformation: an urban space less constrained by time and place, “a civic arena which tends towards the commercial and the virtual” (Canniffe, p. 251).
Canniffe points to several developments in Milan to illustrate the influence of globalization, in particular the American business district model, on the use of public space. One example he cites is the office development, Citta della Moda in a formerly industrial area in northern Milan. Revisions over the years have increased the scale of the site, but also created an enclosed piazza circled by office buildings and an urban park accessible to a parking space for 3,000 cars. The effect, Carniffe says, is to create an exclusive space that lacks the diversity of an authentic urban piazza, an impermeable space isolated from the surrounding area. Site branding is another example of the commercialization of public space: the permanent advertising of the Armani Wall in the broad space created by the junction of Milan’s via dell’Orso and via Broletto, the street board advertising of the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbiano in the small piazza of Milan’s San Carlo al Corso, and the giant advertising screens found in city piazzas throughout Italy that display a virtual image of a hidden historic edifice undergoing restoration as well as the logo of the commercial enterprise providing financial support and paying for the space. (This last form of site branding also enable tourists to take pictures of the virtual images on the screen, which can seem real when looked at later). These giant images of consumerism have not completely displaced the long tradition of boards covered with political and civic flyers in Italian piazzas, but they can severely impact the sense of human scale that is an important attribute of the historic piazza.
Like Nuvolati, Canniffe sees the cell phone as a symbol of the social isolation that new forms of communication can generate. Of a piazza filled with people who are physically in one space but mentally in another, whose shared sense of etiquette calls for them to ignore the presence and one-sided conversations of others. (An image of individual isolation in a public space that is not so new, by the way, you can see it (without the cell phones of course) in Alberto Giacometti’s late 1940s sculpture, City Square (La Place) (Dimendberg, pp. 115-116).
And also like Nuvolati, Canniffe gives attention to the second, positive view of the Italian piazza as a physical entity. To what he sees as the core values inherent in the form: a sense of security, community, and a hierarchy of public and private. To the aesthetics, theatricality, and ambiguity of the piazza. And to particular characteristics of this type of public space such as variety, flexibility, collective memory and aspirations, and the authenticity and direct sensation of the familiar. To everything that makes a piazza “an identifying characteristic of urban quality” (Canniffe, pp. xv, 251-263).
Italy has always been a land of cities – a country of “mille borghi, cento città”. Currently, there are in Italy more than 8,100 municipalities (comuni), 20,000 minor historic centers (centri storici) and 29,000 hamlets (frazioni) (Emiliani). That makes for a lot of piazzas, since all of these have at least one and large cities often more than a hundred. And they are used in a variety of ways by inhabitants and other city users. There is also a great variety in types of piazzas – from the grand and well known: the aforementioned piazza Navona in Rome, San Marco in Venice, and the Campo of Siena to the little piazza formed by the widening of the road in Monte Pitoro, in the commune of Massarosa in the province of Lucca where there is a bar and two small food stores. Beppe Severgnini says the little piazza and the bar in particular are the center of business transactions and social interaction in Monte Pitorio and that “you have to start here if you want to understand the piazza. And you have to understand the piazza if you want to try to enter into the head of Italians” (Severgini, pp. 113-114).
In a seminal 1889 book, Der Stadte – Bau (City Planning, or City Building According to Artistic Fundamentals) Viennese architect Camillo Sitte argued that contemporary urbanists should consider the task of building and rebuilding cities as a noble and precise art rather than one of technical mastery. An urban art based on Aristotle’s principle that cities should offer inhabitants security and happiness. Sitte considered piazzas to be central to that art. Especially historic Italian piazze – descendants of Pompei’s Foro Civile, whose perfect disposition he says creates a wave of harmony similar to the pure sound of great music. Stille articulated principles of composition that could be applied to piazzas of Northern Europe and elsewhere, principles that would replace the incoherence and monotony of modern piazzas with the beauty of harmony he found in classic Italian piazzas. A contrast to a technical approach to urban construction, which created piazzas often with a limited goal like bringing light and air into a dense sea of box-like buildings. What was lost was the public life of Italian piazze. One reason for this, according to Sitte, was that city planners sought to satisfy all city users by combining in one plaza the different functions of three types of the historic Italian piazza: the cathedral piazza, the principal civic piazza, and the market piazza. This confuses the public, which then avoids the piazza; violates established rules of composition that made them works of art; and imposes a rigid, mathematical one-form-fits-all piazza design that leads to failed piazze. (Sitte, pp. 19-29)
Types of Piazzas
Sitte’s three-fold typology of piazze helps us understand why some of them work and others do not. It also calls attention to qualities of piazze contingent on their principal function and everyday use that make them a marker of quality of life, which he says every traveler to Venice and Florence fully appreciates when she or he returns home. I will talk about Sitte’s principles of composition, which made the construction of cities and piazzas an art in ancient Rome and Renaissance and Baroque Italy in the section on aesthetics in a later section: Qualities of a Piazza and Quality of Life. Sitte drew extensively on the piazzas of Florence to illustrate these principles with sketches he made on his travels.
Canniffe cites flexibility in the use of public space as an important value of the Italian piazza. “An instrument more versatile than a Swiss Army knife,” is how Severgini puts it – a point he illustrates by identifying seven types of piazze based on how people use them, recognizing, of course, that a single piazza has many uses. Here is Severgnini’s typology of Italian piazzas (how they are used by the same or different populations) (Severgnini, pp. 115-118):
1. Civil and Religious – in which the church and seat of government share the same piazza or are in separate but usually adjoining or nearby piazzas.
2. Commercial – the historic market square, which now consists of a variety of small shops – a newsstand, a pastry and other food shops, almost always a bar.
3. Political – a place of political discussions (as in mettere in piazza - to let everyone know something, to make public), memorial events, state funerals and political demonstrations (as in scendere in piazza - to take part in a political demonstration, “taking it to the streets”)
4. Economic – a backstage piazza of commercial activities, which lacks the glamour or romance of other piazzas. A place of arrivals and departures of trucks and buses, of provisional markets and hard work.
5. Theatrical – in which passers by and those sitting in cafes or on benches or steps take turns as actors and spectators. Often a piazza on the route of the town or city’s passeggiata.
6. Sexual – a piazza known among various segments of the local and transient populations as a place for seductions and assignations.
7. Social, Sentimental – a piazza with an anchoring monument or fountain, which visitors use as a reference point and a place to meet others and in which residents find the social interaction that is a reassuring part of their daily or weekend routine and a tradition to pass on to the next generation.
8. Therapeutic – a place of refuge and pause, which residents and city users value for its restorative powers of beauty and repose. A piazza of memory for those who are going away and of welcome for those who are returning.
Geographer Richard Fusch’s research on the piazza in Italian urban morphology also led him to create a typology of Italian piazzas based on their primary function. But he, too, recognizes that the primary function of a piazzas changes at different times and with different populations. That a number of factors shape the primary function of piazzas - including the origins and development of piazzas in Italy from the ancient Roman forum (itself modeled on the Greek marketplace (agora) and on the central space formed by street crossings in Etruscan cities), through historical eras in which the structure of the city and function of piazzas were influenced by the Church, the nobility, merchants, citizens of city-states and new towns, artist-architects and their patrons, and elected political leaders. Fusch says that four factors, in particular determine the primary function of a piazza today: (1) the location of a piazza relative to the age of the surrounding area, to other piazze, to primary streets, and to residential and commercial developments, (2) the history of the piazza, particularly in older sections of the city, where the influence of historical precedent on modern day function is strong, (3) the city’s public transportation system, which directly impact piazzas along major bus routes or which serve as transfer locations and also influence patterns of movement of those on foot and their access to different piazzas, (4) the ownership and use of automobiles. The interaction of these factors provides the basis of Fusch’s typology of Italian piazzas, with examples from Florence, the primary site of his archival research and fieldwork. Here is an overview of the six types of piazzas one finds in Italian cities today that emerge from this study (Fusch, p. 430):
1. Relic – pre-1400 piazza in historic center; not used for public gatherings
(examples: piazze di Dante and Cimatori)
2. Monumental – pre-1500 piazza in historic center oriented toward public
building, monumental church or palazzo (example: Santa Croce)
3. Neighborhood market – fruit and vegetable markets along with bars and
restaurants and gasoline stations, located throughout the city
(examples: piazze Nobili, Tanucci, and Giorgini)
4. Mercantile - large regional shopping center, filled with people and cars
(examples: piazze Dalmazia and della Cure)
5. Neighborhood park – post-1600 landscaped piazza with benches or chairs,
statues, fountains, and play areas. (example: piazza D’Azeglio)
6. Vehicular – widened main intersections or former monumental or market
piazzas (examples: piazze Del Terzolle and Libertà)
These classifications underscore the variety of Italian piazzas both in form and use, but typologies can carry us only so far in a search for how piazzas contribute to quality of life in a city. In Fusch’s typology, for example, some of the best known piazzas of Florence – piazze del Duomo, della Signoria, Santa Croce, and Santissima Annunziata, among many - would seem to fall into the monumental category. Yet their place in the life of the city, how different populations use them, are quite different.
An Italian piazza engages all five senses. In the paper, however, I focus on the sense of touch because I believe it to be essential to the power of the piazza to create a shared experience from a variety of sensations. Nuvolati writes that an empathetic flaneur must draw on all five senses in order to perceive, rather than impose, a sense of place of a particular location. He cites the importance of the capacity to touch and the tangible presence of a space to a full appreciation of a sense of place. (Nuvolati (2006), pp. 135-6).
Touch is also the sense that is most threatened by new technologies of communication that create and favor virtual space over the enclosed physical space of a piazza and by other decentralizing forces that are changing how people use cities. This is not to say that the other senses, of sight, hearing, smell, and taste do not also affect the degree to which a piazza can serve as a marker of urban quality. The favoring of sight in western societies, common references to Italy being a visual country (often contrasted with a more literary Great Britain), and the appellation of sight as “the king of the senses” certainly points to the importance of vision in judgments about the quality of a piazza. (Jones, p. 109, Rubin, p. 226). And, as anyone who has tried to sleep in the early morning hours next to an Italian piazza knows first hand, the sense of hearing can seem to be the dominate one associated with a piazza.
Touch is often called “the mother of the senses,” says Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute of the Medical School of the University of Miami. (Field, p. 76). An appropriate term for a sense that is the first to develop in the evolution (evident today in simple, single-cell organisms) and in the individual growth of all animal species. Touch is also the mother of the other senses, Field says, in that the others depend on the tactile reception of rays of light on the eyes, sound waves on the ear, food on the tongue and palate, and odors on the nose. We can close our eyes and mouth, cover our ears, and hold our nose but we cannot turn off our sense of touch in the same way. Our sense of touch is always on – from before the cradle (during gestation) to just before the grave (the last sense to go as we die). It is also discerning: neuroscientists in the field of haptics (the study of touch) have discovered that a human finger can detect a tiny, one micron high (1/25,000th of an inch) bump on a smooth surface, whereas a human eye cannot resolve anything smaller than a hundred microns. (Angier)
What is more directly related to a discussion of the special nature of piazze, though, is the social nature of touch. Although the term encompasses a physical encounter with inanimate objects, touch usually involves interaction with another person. It is a form of communication that can range from culturally prescribed rituals of greeting to chance encounters with strangers. And unlike vision, hearing, smell, and taste which can be experienced alone and without effort, touch is said to be our most active sense - it usually involves venturing out into the physical world, positioning ourselves in that world, and by touching, learning about that world and changing it. Utrecht University neuropsychologist Chris Dijkerman says: “Touch is so central to what we are, to the feeling of being ourselves, that we almost cannot imagine ourselves without it.” (Angier)
Cultural differences in touching have been the subject of extensive research by social scientists over the years – from Margaret Mead’s classic studies of touch in child rearing and among adults in different cultures in New Guinea from the 1930s to more recent studies of touching among children and with parents in the playground behavior of school children in different countries. What these studies generally show, psychologist Tiffany Field says in her book, Touch, is that adult aggression is low in touching cultures and high in cultures where touch is more constrained. (Field, p. 20) Other research findings that Field points to suggest an association between a low-touch culture (in this case England) and symptoms of social isolation, and the positive impact of an nearly imperceptible touch by pizza salespersons offering free samples, by wait staff in restaurants, and by college librarians. On the basis of this and similar research, Field, like many others, identifies Italy as a contact society (along with most other Mediterranean countries), and declares Italians (and Greeks) to be among the most touching people in the world. “Italians are world-renowned touchers,” she writes. (Field, p. 23).
Research findings about touch in everyday life and cultural generalizations might best be considered suggestive, in contrast to studies on the impact of touch on newborn and prematurely born babies, on child rearing, and in touch therapy for treating medical and psychological problems in adults. There is a danger of stereotypes about national character. For example, Field notes that Americans engage in less physical contact in public than those from most other cultures, which some attribute to that country’s puritanical, Protestant history. Yet even in the United States there are signs of touch hunger. Listen, foe instance to what Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) says about the city of Los Angeles in the 2004 American film, Crash:
It’s the sense of touch.
In any real city, you walk, you know?
You brush past people
People bump into you.
In L.A. nobody touches you.
We’re always behind this metal and glass.
I think we miss that touch so much,
That we crash into each other,
Just so we can feel something.
A lasting impression of piazza Santa Croce during the time we were there is the frequency of soft crashes that took place in the square – not of vehicles for the most part because the piazza was included in the city’s extension of traffic-limited areas in the 1980s and 1990s (Marchetti, pp. 7-8) - but between and among tourists, residents, college students, bicyclists, school children, dogs, shoppers, soccer players, marathon runners, marching bands, peddlers, priests, bench sitters, drunks, drug dealers, passers by, minstrels, costumed clowns and party goers.
FLORENCE and PIAZZA SANTA CROCE
In 2004, when an annual national survey of quality of life asked Italians to name the ideal place where they would like to live (excluding their current residence), nearly a quarter of those surveyed (24.3 percent) said Florence. Rome was a close second (20.4 percent), followed by Siena, Bologna, Perugia, Bolzano, Parma, Genoa, Rimini, Trento, and Lucca. Those who choose Florence point to its rich history, art and cultural offerings, low unemployment rate, high level of civil cohesion, the attractive and accessible countryside that surrounds the city, a pace of life devoid of the frenetic and stressful rhythms found in many other large cities, and a physical and social environment that encourages life on a human scale (una vita a misura d’uomo). These are the key elements of the high quality of life in this city that emerge from this study and contribute to the image of Florence as a “happy island” in the minds of many Italians. (Indagine 2004 sulla Qualità della vita nelle province italiane)
In 2008, Florence also scored high in the financial daily, Il Sole 24 ore, annual ranking of quality of life in Italian provinces, placing 12th of 103. Florence’s highest rank on economic issues was 8th for the area of public services (particularly care of the infrastructure), environment, and health (even though the number of vehicular crashes puts Florence 102 of 103 for that indicator). For society and culture issues, Florence ranked 2d among all provinces in the area of free time (based on the number of films, book acquisitions, concerts, bars and restaurants, sports activity, and voluntary organizations). And as was the case four years earlier, Italians ranked Florence first as the city in which they would like to live. (Camera di Commercio Firenze (2008).
Another source of information about quality of life and happiness in Florence is a panel survey conducted under the auspices of the Comune di Firenze and the direction of Professors Filomena Maggino and Silvana Schifini D’Andrea of the Department of Statistics of the Università degli Studi di Firenze. The project, a “quality of life observatory,” includes three surveys a year (the first was in Fall, 2003), which ask citizens of Florence a series of 43 questions about quality of life in their district and the city. Overall, the findings of this survey reveal a positive portrait of life in Florence, with Florentines reporting high levels of quality of life (68%) and satisfaction (72%). They appreciate Florence as a unique city, well known and highly regarded throughout the world for its beauty and as a civilized, lively and stimulating place to live. Although more Florentines use private automobiles more than other means of transportation both for getting to work or school and in their free time or running errands, they also are pleased that most services in the city can be easily reached on foot.
To my knowledge, these quality of life surveys do not directly address a relationship between quality of life and piazzas. However, national survey respondents who cite as reasons for wanting to live in Florence its civil cohesion, the attractive and accessible countryside that surrounds the city (and is a visible presence in many of its piazzas), a pace of life devoid of the frenetic and stressful rhythms found in many other large cities, and a physical and social environment built on a human scale are referencing some of the important qualities that traditional piazzas bring to cities. Free time and the ease with which city users can move at a slow pace on foot are also closely tied to the presence of flaneurs and their opposite number, the tourist. A minor but perhaps noteworthy observation is that the cover picture of the 2005 quality of life survey sponsored by the comune of Florence is one of Florentines enjoying an outdoor lunch in piazzale Michelangelo, while that which accompanies a story about the survey in the monthly, “In Forma Firenze” shows residents engaged in everyday activities in piazza Santa Croce. Scenes that give some credence to one of those offhand generalizations I ran across attributed to “an Italian anthropologist” “Milanesi live in cortili, “ he said, in courtyards; Florentines live in piazze: Romans live on le scale, the steps. (Harrison, p. 250)
Piazza Santa Croce
Piazza Santa Croce was created as a place of refuge. Literally, an island of refuge for Franciscan monks who since the first decades of the 13th century had been located in the small church of San Gallo, north of the city beyond the current piazza della Libertà and near the Mugnone - more or less where the Parterre is today. The rapidly expanding Franciscan order’s preference for seclusion and silence led them to look for a new location. They found one on Isola d’Arno – an island formed between the Arno and a branch of the river that split off near what is now piazza Beccaria. In the early 1200s the secondary branch of the river ran down a path through what is now via Borgo La Croce and via Pietrapiana, turned south and flowed close to the medieval wall along the current via Verde and via dei Benci to join the main branch of the Arno again where the bridge ponte alle Grazie was built in 1237. In 1228 the Franciscans erected a small church on the island, oriented - as is the current Basilica of Santa Croce, whose construction began in 1294 – so it faces a large four-sided space well suited to preaching. (Cesati (1994), pp. 515-517, (1995), pp. 205-213)
Piazza Santa Croce is a monumental piazza in Fusch’s typology; indeed he uses a photograph of the church and piazza to illustrate his discussion of monumental piazzas. A large rectangular space fronting the historically significant church and ringed with medieval palazzi, the piazza itself is an important symbol of Florence. Richard Trexler’s history of public life in Renaissance Florence details how piazza Santa Croce was the setting for many events and rituals that heralded changes in political participation and power in the life of the city from the 14th century to the mid-16th century emergence of the Medici duke, Cosimo I: Jousts, St. John’s Day and May Day celebrations, festivals, fiery anti-sodomy sermons by the Franciscan friar Bernardino accompanied by the first Florentine burning of the Vanities, soccer matches, militia drills and mock battles, feasts of the Magi and the elaborate rituals of adolescent play-kingdoms all took place in Piazza Santa Croce during this time. (Trexler, pp. 217, 234-58, 381, 396-418, 539)
The core values that Canniffe sees inherent in the form of the Italian piazza emerge in Trexler’s analyses of these different activities: a sense of security community, a hierarchy of public and private evident in the competition between the grand families and the commune, aesthetics, theatricality, and ambiguity. Given all that, it is noteworthy that Canniffe gives only one sentence to piazza Santa Croce, and that is not so much to the piazza itself but to via Anguillara, which emerges from the west end of the piazza to join via Torta, whose broad curve follows the path of the ancient Roman amphitheater – an example of Aldo Rossi’s theory of permanences: the way in which absent ancient structures can influence urban form. (Canniffe, p. 34) In contrast, Professor Canniffe discusses at some length the impact of Filippo Brunelleschi’s employment of the laws of perspective in the 1420s to delineate and heighten the experience of space through balanced proportions and to connect a piazza with the surrounding fabric of the city by controlling visual and spatial relationships through reflections, silhouettes, and peepholes. It is significant, he says, that Brunelleschi’s early experiments in and representations of perspective concerned “the two most important piazze in Florence”: piazza San Giovanni (the Baptistery) and piazza della Signoria.
To illustrate perspective Canniffe also discusses and shows the rhythmic harmony of Brunellesci’s portico of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (1426J in piazza Santissima Annunziata. (Canniffe, pp. 77-78, Cesati (1995), pp. 222-228, 199-204). He also discusses a few other Florence piazzas: piazza degli Uffizi (1560s), whose elongated wide space between facing palazzi established dramatic sightlines between Palazzo Vecchio and the Forte di Belvedere across the Arno to remind citizens of the relationship between the civic and military authority of Cosimo I. And two piazze created as part of the master plan for Florence in the years (1866-70) it served as the capital of Italy: piazzale Michelangelo, which provides a balcony view of the unified city and its new surrounding boulevards from the Oltrano and piazza della Repubblica on the site of the ancient Roman forum, the construction of which gutted the old commercial center then considered a slum by city leaders and created in its place a modern piazza whose scale did not fit the surrounding area and is fashioned in the “stile torinese,” according to local critics, the style of Turin, which they considered an insult to medieval and renaissance Florence. (Cesati (1995), p.189)
There are good reasons why piazza Santa Croce might not be considered a good example of a public space that has a positive impact on the quality of life in Florence. Franco Cesati suggests one in the introduction to Le Piazze de Firenze, his book about the history and uses of Florence’s approximately 200 piazze, by observing that in the second half of the 20th century the habit of socializing in piazze had diminished as attention focused on conserving these public spaces as fragments from the past and from folklore. He cites as an example calcio in costume in piazza Santa Croce, a historic form of soccer played in traditional costumes since the 15th century - although the 2006 tournament was suspended after pre-game brawls between players from the Santo Spirito and Santa Croce quarters and the 2007 games canceled because of similar concerns about safety, and the games reinstituted in 2008 under new rules to limit violent play - which has become more of a tradition for tourists than for Florentines (Cesati (1995), p. 7)
Another is evident in the concept of “Renaissanceland” – a term that Pasquale Verdicchio gives to the core of the historic center of an imagined Florence that is familiar and recognizable to tourists in the form of “Florence equals Italy”. A controlled, stable, and purified environment similar to a Disney theme park. What Verdicchio calls a homogenized and simplistic tromp l’oeil that hides the diversity of Italian achievements and provides for mass tourists a false Florence that hides the city’s true qualities. (Verdicchio, pp. 196-197) Yet another reason is that piazza Santa Croce would seem to have little appeal to the polar opposite of the mass tourist, the flaneur: the wanderer who seeks to discover and interpret the nourishing, immutable soul of a city. For the same reasons Walter Benjamin gives to explain why Paris, and not Rome, created the classical flaneur. Rome, says Benjamin, is “too full of temples, enclosed squares, national shrines”. (Benjamin (2002), p. 417) And finally, descriptions of the church and piazza in some contemporary advice to travelers to Florence might be enough to send duly warned tourists running in the other direction. Listen, for example to this one in an American newspaper in Fall, 2008: (Begley, p. 6.):
In and around the Basilica Santa Croce is everything that’s delightful and appalling about Florence today. The neo-Gothic façade is still ugly, the long square in front of it dusty, bland, pigeon-infested and lousy with tourists. The interior is still, cavernous, austere and chilly, impressive but somehow dispiriting.
A quite different image of piazza Santa Croce is one that I came across a few years before our residence for nearly a year in that piazza. It appears in R.W.B. Lewis’s book, The City of Florence and describes the view from his fourth floor apartment (the same one we stayed in a few years later). “All the windows in the apartment, six of them, looked onto Piazza Santa Croce,” Lewis writes. “It is unique in Florence now, this urban opening, the only piazza that truly functions as a piazza in the great tradition. Piazza Santissima Annunziata used to be such a space,” he continues, “and with its cluster of attractions – Brunelleschi’s Innocenti, the loggia facing it, the portico of Michelozzo’s church, Palazzo Grifoni, Giambolgna’s equestrian statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I, and Tacca’s fountains – it has the makings of one of the of the handsomest squares in the world. But the Annunziata has fallen on bad days: cars and motorbikes crowd in and around it, blotting out its features; bottles and plastic containers and other debris litter its surfaces; drug-ridden derelicts sleep on the loggia steps”. Lewis, p. 278) Although I find the negative elements of this mid- 1990s description of piazza Santissima less evident today, I do think the comparison that Lewis offers does bring us back to the question of what qualities of a piazza are central to its functioning as an Italian piazza in the great tradition.
Qualities of a Piazza and Quality of Life
British architect Richard Rogers (born in Florence and a lifetime admirer of Filippo Brunelleschi) makes clear the importance of the piazza to urban life (Lumley, p. 5):
Why are cities so important? For one thing, they provide the public space without which, in this age of telecommunications, public life will wither. The paradigm of public space is the city square or piazza: without it the city scarcely exists.
Why is this so? What qualities of a piazza are essential to a high quality of life in a city? In the discussion that follows I will address some of those qualities that architects, scholars, city planners and users, and my own experience suggest contribute most to quality of life.
Touch: Porosity and Self-Congestion
Unlike the traditional flaneur, who distanced himself from the crowd he was observing, those contemporary city users identified as chorasters (who seek knowledge of the possibilities as well as the physical reality of the existing place) and city stalkers (artists and scholars who give significance to marginal places in particular through displacement and improvisation) seek to uncover a more profound sense of place through direct interaction with other users of that place. To do this requires that they engage all five senses. Touch is particularly important to establishing a physical relationship with place. To uncovering, rather than ascribing a sense of place developed over centuries to the tangible place that exists in the present. A way to move beyond the detached observations of the tourist gaze or those of the classic male flaneur. (Wearing and Wearing, pp. 234-5, Nuvolati (2006), pp.135-6) Piazza Santa Croce is, of course, a major tourist attraction in Florence, not a marginal place favored by city stalkers and contemporary flaenurs, but even here I believe the sense of touch can work to pull many tourists away from the prescribed punch list of places to see and closer to an appreciation of a sense of place.
Nine streets lead into Piazza Santa Croce: vie Borgo del Greci, dell Anguillara, Torta, dei Benci, Giuseppe Verdi, Giovanni da Verrazzano, dei Pepi, Antonio Magliabechi, and San Giuseppe. The easy accessibility of the piazza is similar to some of the other grand monumental piazzas in the center of Florence (Signoria (also nine streets), Repubblica (seven), and Santissima Annunziata (five). For piazza Santa Croce, however, I believe that it is the variety in where those streets come from and go and in the city users who pass through the piazza that make it a highly permeable public space. Porous is the term Walter Benjamin used to describe the commingled private and public life of Neapolitans in the 1920s. How street life permeates the living room and the living room reappears on the street. (Benjamin (2004), pp. 414-421) Karen Pinkus employs the term porous to describe the intermingling of local, mostly lower class paparazzi and their wealthy international celebrity targets in the moving spectacle along Rome’s Via Veneto in the 1950s. (Pinkus, p. 4.)
Five of the nine streets bring people into the west end of the piazza: vie Borgo dei Greci, Anguillara, Torta and the vehicular street that forms the west border: via dei Benci as it comes up from the Arno at ponte alle Grazie and via Giuseppe Verdi as it exits to the northeast. The south side of the piazza is an uninterrupted series of palazzi – an important feature of the aesthetic principle of enclosure in the piazza. The narrow, two-blocks long, via Giovanni da Verrazzano enters the piazza near the middle of the north side of the piazza and via dei Pepi goes in the same general direction from the front of the church and runs for seven blocks, past the the Pietrapiana neighborhood to via dei Pilastri.
On the east side of the piazza via Antonio Magliabechi comes up from the direction of the Arno, past the monumental Biblioteca Nationale to form the east boundary of the piazza in front of the Santa Croce church. At the northeast corner via San Giuseppe passes by the side of the church in the direction of Piazza Piave on the Lungarno Pecori Giraldi and along the way intercepts a number of small streets into the neighborhoods around piazza dei Ciompi, piazza Ghiberti, and the Sant’ Ambrogio market to the north: first, at the corner, via dei Pepi and then vie Pinzocherre, Cristofano, Allegri, dei Macci, and delle Conce.
Why does any of this matter? I believe it distinguishes piazza Santa Croce from some other monumental piazzas - piazze della Repubblica and Signoria come to mind – which are also porous is the sense of their being accessible through a number of streets, but not in the same sense that the dense historically working class residential neighborhoods to the west and north of piazza Santa Croce add diversity to those who regularly use that piazza.
Most visitors to Florence first see the Santa Croce cathedral and piazza as they come down via Borgo dei Greci from piazza San Firenze behind Palazzo Vecchio. It is an historic street, named for a once illustrious Ghibelline family (which Dante names in Paradiso XVI) and the site of a house of the Barberino family of 17th century Pope Urban VIII. If you go there now, especially in the ever-expanding tourist season, what you see are leather shops and souvenir stalls and a river of tourists moving in large and small groups from piazza della Signoria to Santa Croce. When I would pass the other way up Borgo dei Greci in the morning on the way to school, however, the street would be nearly empty except for those times when Uzzi bearing guards escorted prisoners to trials in the Florence Tribunal. One point about entering the piazza from Borgo dei Greci that is relevant to a later discussion of Camillo Sitte’s aesthetic of enclosure is that the street enters at a diagonal, a slight angle to the northwest corner of the piazza, so as to provide a dramatic view of the white marble church façade and what appears from this perspective to be a continuous northern border of palazzi.
Vie Anguillari and Torta also come into the west end of the piazza, flanking the 14th century Palazzo Ccocchi-Serristori, which appears to expand as it rises from its three-bay base directly across from the face of the church at the other end in a way that adds to the harmony of the piazza. It now houses the offices of the Consiglio de Quartiere 1, Centro Storico of Florence. Director Giuseppe Tornatore used the interior of the palazzo in his 1990 film Stanno tutti bene (Everybody’s Fine) for a scene, in which retired Sicilian railroad worker Matteo Scuro (Marcello Mastroianni) visits his daughter, who like her four siblings tries to hide from him the many disappointments of her adult life while out the window we see the luminous white façade of the Santa Croce church and the piazza. When we lived here, the curved via Torta was notable for the number of visitors, especially Americans, on their way to or from a gelato place many tourist guides cite as the best in Florence or to mostlyAmerican films in the hall next to the San Simone church. The rich history of these two streets is evident where via Anguillara meets the piazza; an indentation in the wall preserves a remnant of Porta San Simone of Florence’s second medieval wall (1173-1375). And the first section of via Torta near Piazza Santa Croce signals an even deeper past. It was once known as via Parlascio after the amphitheater that stood here in Roman Florence. An historic era embedded in the curvature of via Torta as it angles left to join via Anguillari toward Piazza San Firenze.
As noted earlier, Canniffe refers to the memory of this past, much-built-over, presence that can be seen in the curve of the street as an example (along with Lucca’s Piazza Anfiteatro) of what Italian architect and urban theorist Aldo Rossi calls the theory of permanency in his 1966 book, The Architecture of the City. Rossi argues that ancient amphitheaters and historic piazzas incorporate an idea of the city as a whole, made permanent in stone. Not as an individual “piece” of the city whose fortuitous development and original functions can or should be brought back. The significance of the curvature of via Torta, the remains of the medieval gate, and the shape of the piazza itself is to be found in their survival over the centuries and their reference to an enduring sense of the city. (Canniffe, pp. 34, 221-236, Rossi, pp. 55-61, 227-229) At the very least, the curve slows the pace of both Florentines and tourists as the pass along the short street and inspires many out-of-towners to ask companions or residents on the street about its shape or to get out their paperback tour guides for an answer.
Via dei Benci and via Antonio Magliabechi come into the piazza from the south at the west and east ends respectively. The Benci were one of many noble families to build palaces here, including the Alberti, whose restored 12th century tower house marks the corner of via Borgo Santa Croce and overlooks a small angled space once known as piazza Colonnine and piazza Alberti. Across the street, the pavement widens a bit to form a little piazza in front of the small Romanesque church of San Jacopo. Via dei Benci feeds all manner of vehicles and foot traffic into piazza Santa Croce; for several months in 1998, the nature of the piazza changed dramatically when the street was closed for resurfacing and buses re-routed through the piazza itself. New bars and some good trattorie along via dei Benci and the intersecting via dei Neri now account for the large number of foreign, predominantly American, college students and their peers who come this way to piazza Santa Croce.
Via Magliabechi at the east end of the piazza seems to provide a bit more diversity among those it sends into the piazza, mostly on foot. The street is named for Antonio Magliabechi, a man from a poor family who worked for most of his life in a goldsmith’s shop on ponte Vecchio and an avid book lover who when he died in 1714 left his collection of about 30,000 volumes to the formation of a public library, which opened in 1747 as Biblioteca Magliabechiana, and eventually in 1885, Biblioteca Nationale di Centrale di Firenze (Cesati (1994), p. 325). This is the monumental building you pass on the right when you walk from Corso dei Tintori up Magliabechi to Santa Croce, as students and scholars do when they take a break from the library. On the left, indicative of those who regularly come this way, is a pub (although a sign over the door calls it “An Italian Bar”) named “The William,” which offers on draft six brands of British, Irish, and Scottish ales and beers. And directly next door is an attractive small palazzo with a courtyard, which houses Florence University of the Arts.
As you approach the piazza along via Magliabechi you get a sense of how close the river is (Corso dei Tintori originates in a small piazza off Lungarno delle Grazie) and how the site of the Santa Croce church and piazza was once an island separated from the city. And why the national library and the church were so severely damaged by the 1966 flood. Cesati points out that the dyers of wool and silk (i tintori) required so much water in their work that they settled on the nearby bank of the Arno. Here they lived in miserable and unhealthy shacks not fit for humans. Indeed, what is now the area around Corso dei Tintori originally lacked the appellation “borgo” or “corso” – terms given to early human settlements and pathways to them outside the city walls. (Cesati (1994), p. 608) An early indication of Santa Croce’s long history as a working poor community around Piazza Santa Croce.
Spillovers and Chance Encounters
If cities are best thought of as “the absence of physical space between people and firms,” as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser suggests, then the porosity of public spaces should be considered an important element in the quality of city life. The bounded physical space in a piazza provides opportunities for spillovers between the different worlds of city users that energizes city life. Glaeser says this absence of physical distance is essential to the civilized life of a city, to its being a place “where people are changed by the people around them”. (Gertner, p. 96).
How can we determine the porosity of public spaces in a city? The opportunities for physical encounters and exchange with a variety of others? We could count the number of piazzas per number of inhabitants and city users, I suppose, but that would tell us little about the context of these public spaces in the fabric of the city or the heterogeneity of exchanges. Another way to get a sense of the opportunities for chance encounters is to count the number of intersections in a city. In 2005, the architecture columnist and a photographer for the Boston Globe do this in an article that compares Boston to Venice (to their eyes “the most beautiful city in the Western world”). They argue that the gradual decline in the vitality of Boston street life is at least partly due to the loss of 245 intersections in the central square mile of the city between 1880 and 1950 – from 618 to 373. Venice today has 1,725 intersections in its central square mile, they point out, and that is not counting canals. The point of the comparison is clear: the American city could enrich the quality of urban life by increasing opportunities for physical encounters among different city users. (Campbell and Vanderwarker) To make Boston more like Venice, a city whose eternal and complex beauty is said by some to enrich every city in Calvino’s Invisible Cities. But Venice also reminds us of the limits to physical proximity in the crush of humanity, which every day during the long tourist season clogs the streets between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge. Too much touch, maybe. Another question to consider in evaluating piazzas is whether city users who are free to make choices will seek out crowded public spaces that engage a sense of touch. Thirty years ago, urban scholar William Whyte studies piazza life in New York City and finds patterns of behavior that illustrate the relationship between touch and the success of a piazza. Over a period of three years, Whyte’s research group, “The Street Life Project”, studies how people use piazzas by mounting time-lapse cameras overlooking sixteen plazas and three small parks in central Manhattan. Researchers also interview plaza users to find out where they live and work, how often they use the plaza, and what they think of it. For a decade prior to this study the city has encouraged developers to build plazas by granting them an additional ten square feet of commercial floor space for every square foot of plaza they incorporated into a project. A policy that generates twenty acres of additional open space. But most of these plazas do not work well in the sense of Italian piazzas. People walk across them but do not stop or stay. During the lunch hour on a beautiful sunny day the average number of people sitting in a plaza is four per thousand square feet. The research team also finds a great imbalance in plaza use: the large outdoor space of the Seagram building draws a hundred and fifty people sitting, lunching, sunbathing, and gossiping, while other plazas designed to accommodate exactly those activities are empty. “If we could find out why the good plazas worked and the bad ones didn’t, and come up with hard guidelines, we could have the basis of a new code,” Whyte tells the chairman of the city planning commission. Which is what happens when the commission incorporates the Street Life Project recommendations into a new open space zoning code in 1975. Whyte also writes a manual to help policymakers in other cities to create new public spaces that work and to rejuvenate old ones, which I will briefly talk about later. Here I want to discuss some of the research findings as they relate to the sense of touch.
What strikes Whyte and his associates when they first review film sequences of people’s behavior in streets and plazas is that amongst all the great diversity of people and behavior there is one thing they all have in common: almost all of them are smiling. Remember, this is a time when New York City is plagued by a rising crime rate, depopulation, and the threat of bankruptcy. Whyte puts together a short film to show the rituals of street and piazza encounters and how good urban spaces contribute to quality of life in a city, to the happy expressions they see in the film. One way they do this, I believe, is through the sense of touch implicit in a behavioral pattern that Whyte calls the “tendency to self-congestion,” which in turn is supported by an essential quality of a good piazza: choice. (Whyte, p. 22)
Words like oasis or retreat often come up when plaza users are asked what they sought in an urban space. Yet their behavior shows the opposite: a tendency to self congestion. It is the presence of other people that attracts people to a piazza. And within that urban space people move into and stay in the main pedestrian flow for conversations and also sit in the mainstream when there is an opportunity to do so. Whyte and his associates discover this by plotting the location of all conversations that last for a minute or more. In addition to this preference for the middle of the traffic stream, plaza users also place themselves near objects such as a flagpole or statue and well-defined spaces such as steps or edges of pools or fountains for conversations. What they avoid is the middle of a large space, the oasis or retreat that many tell interviewers they seek. This pattern of self congestion reduces the physical distance among plaza users and increases the incidence of physical encounters among friends and strangers. And it is not just inertia that keeps people in the mainstream, Whyte concludes after seeing the consistency of this behavior over time and across piazzas, it is by choice.
Do these findings on plaza behavior apply to urban spaces in other cities? Whyte points to a brief comparative study he and his associates carry out in Tokyo, Jan Gehl’s research in Copenhagen, Matthew Ciolek’s study of Australian shopping centers, and Whyte’s own observations in Milan’s Galleria – all of which reveal similar patters of conversation and congestion. (Whyte, pp. 22-23) One explanation for this is that the center of the traffic stream is a choice location that maximizes options. The continuous flow of immediate passers by facilitates meetings and leave takings. It is easier to begin and end conversations here than in less crowded static locations in a piazza.
In preparation for moderating a forum titled “Whatever Became of the Public Square?”, Harper’s magazine editor Hack Hitt asks William Whyte what he would do to solve some of the contemporary problems of the public square. “Just put some chairs out and you’ll be fine,” Whyte advises. (Hitt, p. 59) Why do some piazzas work and others do not? Why does one plaza in the New York study draw 160 people at peak time, while another – with three times the open space – draws only 17? Whyte and his associates consider several factors that might explain the great variation in the popularity of piazzas: the presence of sunny space, aesthetics, shape, amount of space, and amount of sittable space. What they find is that the most popular plazas have considerable more sitting space. And that the most-used piazzas have sitting spaces that are physically comfortable – wide benches, low ledges, backrests. Sometimes, Whyte contends, architects give more attention to how fixed benches add punch to architectural drawings and photographs of a plaza than to how they will fit plaza users and the life of the realized space. For example, the basic bench module in Rockefeller Center at the time is seven and a half feet long and nineteen inches wide. Too narrow, Whyte says, to offer the comfortable seating that a proportionally larger rectangle would provide. What is even more important, they discover, is the presence of sitting spaces that are socially comfortable – those that offer plaza users choices: to be alone or in a group, off to the side or in the center, in the sun or shade.
In keeping with the tendency to self congestion, most plaza users choose a sittable space that bisects the pedestrian flow. Steps are popular sitting spaces that offer a wide range of positions and social groupings as well as good sightlines for the theater of a piazza. For the most part, fixed benches or individual chairs and a forced choice of permanent seating patterns do not work. As Whyte’s advice to Jack Hitt suggests, the movable chair is the gold standard of sittable place in a piazza. Videos of plaza behavior show that individuals given that option would almost always move chairs – even if only an inch or two this way and then that way, to end up in the same spot. Or to establish a social distance with nearby sitters, which could mean moving away from or toward them. A touching and moving that expresses individual autonomy.
At first, the thirty fixed stone benches - twelve each on the long north and south sides, two on the west end by the fountain, and four on the east end by the church - which line the inner perimeter of Piazza Santa Croce would seem not to meet the New York City study’s principles of physical and social comfort. They are more than long enough, at eleven feet, but too narrow, at twenty-four inches, to provide the broad based seating Whyte says is needed for comfortable sitting. Yet these benches add value to Santa Croce as a sitting piazza. One reason for this, I think, is that the benches sit forty feet or so from the residence palazzi, offices, shops, bars and restaurants, and church, which enclose the piazza. On any day you will see people sit on these benches individually and in groups, with some facing inward toward the action and the primary flow of pedestrian traffic and others facing outward toward the church steps, commercial activity, vehicular traffic along the west side, residents, and visiting groups in a secondary flow of traffic - a kind of ring path that also attracts sitters’ attention and participation and offers fixed bench sitters a choice in sitting. And because the benches are narrow, some choose to straddle the bench to engage adjacent friends and strangers in conversation or follow the action in both traffic flows at the same time. Sit in the piazza for a while and you will see that even narrow fixed benches offer another choice: to stand. Children and teenagers and dogs seem to like this option the most.
So in the end these fixed benches do not represent the forced choice sitting that Whyte and his colleagues find to be dysfunctional in some New York plazas. Rather, they provide opportunities for piazza users to make choices in how to use fixed benches. The problem with fixed benches in New York plazas, Whyte says, is not just that they are too narrow but also that there are too few of them and that they are isolated. The thirty fixed benches of Piazza Santa Croce, far from being isolated, intersect almost all of the diagonal pedestrian flows across the piazza and provide a framework for a secondary ring flow of shoppers, shopkeepers, tourists, diners, idlers, and other passersby. The range of sitting choices in the piazza is also expanded by the broad low-rise steps of the cathedral. Like the fixed benches, the stairs expand choice while at the same time the reduce the physical distance among piazza users and reinforce the sense of touch.
Sociologist Richard Sennett identifies a public space as “anywhere that people who otherwise would be isolated from one another have to deal with one another (Hitt, p. 57). The more porous a piazza, the more likely its users will encounter and have to deal with a variety of others. A community, however, requires boundaries, and much of the current discussion about the future of the Italian piazza centers around these concepts of porosity and access and community and boundaries.
In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino illustrates what a city without community is like. The continuous city of Pentesilia is a dispersed city shaped by the forces of mobility and technology. In Calvino’s story, Marco Polo says that a visitor can walk for miles and not know if he is inside or outside this soupy city. When you ask people you come across where Pentesilia is, they gesture here, or farther on, or all around you, or the opposite direction. “The city?” you ask insistently. “We come here to work every morning,” some say, and others” “We come back here to sleep.” “But the city where people live?” you ask. “It must be that way,” they say, pointing toward some buildings on the horizon ahead, while others indicate spires behind you. (Calvino, pp. 156-7)
Community is a broad term that can range from a group of people who share an experience in real or virtual space for a particular moment – even if it is only otherwise isolated people briefly dealing with one another – to a closely knit group of people with common experiences, values, and an extensive collective memory – which could include a small neighborhood, a city of origin, or a nation. Calvino’s Pentesilia is not a community in any of these senses: there are no physical or conceptual boundaries to signal whether one is inside or outside the city, no interaction among isolated individuals who either work or sleep there, and no collective memory – no one even knows where the city is.
Contemporary descriptions of piazza users talking on cell phones, ignoring those around them, and losing a sense of place raise the question of whether a virtual community of electronic communication can serve the same functions of the spatial community it displaces. There is some evidence that it cannot. For example, psychologist John T. Cacioppo cites research that compares single-strand interaction like e-mail, which lacks physical texture, to real face-to-face encounters, which provide a broad range of subliminal communication through body language, gestures, body chemistry, and mimicry. What these studies show, he says, is that the lack of physical context and variety in abstract electronic communication may partly account for a finding that a sense of social isolation actually increases with increased Internet use that replaces more tangible forms of human contact. (Cacioppo, pp. 259-260)
Opportunities to create a spontaneous sense of community to overcome this social isolation would seem to depend in part on the size of a piazza. When most of us envision the Italian piazza we are likely to think of a monumental piazza on the scale of piazza Navona, Venice’s San Marco or piazza Santa Croce. But as John Agnew and his associates write in their overview of the development of European cities, what was most characteristic of the Italian city was “the multiplicity of small piazzas, indicating a community based on living neighborhoods, with multiple foci for meeting and animated activity”. (Agnew, p. 36) In Florence these small neighborhood piazzas might fit best with what Fusch calls relic piazzas (piazze di Dante and Cimatori) – which suggest they no longer serve as places of social aggregation. Or with a neighborhood park like piazza D’Azeglio – which I find too large and functionally specific to categorize in this way. Small piazze may also perform the functions of Severgnini’s social/sentimental and therapeutic piazze, although he does not suggest that small size is necessary to serving these functions.
Just to the north and west of piazza Santa Croce and between it and piazza Signoria are densely built neighborhoods featured in Vasco Pratolini’s chronicles of early Twentieth century life in this poor working class Florence community. You find here a number of the small piazze Agnew says are important to maintaining a sense of neighborhood community. And even after decades of gentrification, small piazze, such as Peruzzi, San Remiglio, San Simone, and San Giuseepe continue to be sites of the animated activity of meetings and routine exchanges that make for community and neighborhood integration. The scale of social integration is limited by the boundaries of neighborhood in these small piazze, but they should not be overlooked in our thinking about piazzas and quality of life.
In piazza Santa Croce and other grand monumental piazzas, a community of place can be generated through triangulation - the term Whyte uses for the process by which some external stimulus links strangers, who react to this shared experience by talking with one another. The stimulus might be a fixed object, such as a statue or fountain, or a serendipitous activity of street performances, music making, pickup games, speeches, and the like. Bad street performances, off-key bands, and shrill rants make for the best triangulation. As do heavy treading bands of group tourists who, fearful of being left behind, will stop for nothing in their steadfast march to the church or their next destination. Or traffic jams and crashes along vie dei Benci and Giuseppe Verdi. Pickup soccer games in the piazza also elicit comments and coaching from piazza users and sometimes participation by those who rush to corral a lose ball with stylish, still-got-it, kicks back to the players.
At the east end of the piazza, Enrico Pazzi’s 1865 Romantic statue of a scowling Dante Alighieri in a Roman toga has, since 1971, stood above piazza Santa Croce just to the left of the massive doors of the church. It is moved to this higher location after the 1966 Arno flood waters exceed twenty feet in the piazza. Before that, the statue sits in the middle of the piazza (a violation, as we shall see, of Sitte’s second principle of artistic composition that the center of a piazza should be free of statues and fountains). A location that leaves the statue engulfed in a sea of parked cars and tour buses until the piazza is closed to traffic under a series of ever tighter restrictions beginning with the comune’s 1971 creation of the ZTL (Zona a Traffico Limitato) and continuing today. At the piazza’s west end is a baroque candelabra fountain, currently dry but sending a soothing tinkle of falling water across the quiet nighttime piazza when we lived there; it is now encircled, almost imprisoned, by a protective metal railing to which people lock bicycles and under which leave bottles and other trash. Both of these fixed objects would seem to fit Whyte’s notion of triangulation as a reference point that can generate interaction among strangers, often through questions, complaints, and criticism.
There is another permanent external stimulus whose presence we were aware of in living above the piazza and standing in certain areas there. And that is the presence, sometimes directly visible and at others not, of the green hills directly across the Arno to the southeast that appear from the perspective of the west end of the piazza to begin rising toward Monte dei Croci from just behind the cathedral and the more distant ones on the left that climb to Monte Ceceri and Fiesole in the northeast. Even here in this most urban public space, you can appreciate that dimension of quality of life in Florence cited in national surveys that rank the city as an ideal place to live: the attractive and accessible countryside that surrounds the city.
The piazza and church of Santa Croce have been important to the creation of national identity and the meaning of Florence – a national community and a local community that contributes to our understanding of the former. There are many stories to illustrate this. I choose two. First, a narrative of two 19th century literary giants and heroes of Italian unification instrumental in forging the collective memory of a then-imagined Italy, which is materially represented in the graves and monuments – including their own – of the Santa Croce cathedral: Vittorio Alfieri and Ugo Foscolo. Second, a narrative of the influential 20th century neorealist Florentine writer Vasco Pratolini, whose novels and chronicles show the power of collective memory among the poor working class families. Florence neighborhoods and political forces he knew first hand and well.
The National Community
In April, 1776, after years of traveling throughout most of Europe, a twenty-seven year-old Piedmontese count named Vittorio Alfieri comes to Tuscany to “deFrench” himself. To get rid of what he considers the obscure, pretentious language of his aristocratic education and of European literature in general and immerse himself in learning what he calls the rich and elegant Tuscan Italian of Dante and Machiavelli. To prepare himself for a literary career as poet, playwright, and political theorist. At the time Italy is more a community of shared language, as Alfieri and others see it, than a clearly defined geographical entity. Alfieri would build on this community of language in his plays and other writings in an effort to overcome the divisions and decadence that he and others say eviscerate the peninsula. He wants to connect 18th century Italians with the savage energy of their past by writing tragedies about classical subjects who struggled for freedom in the face of tyranny. And he believes this can be accomplished only through the language of Dante and Machiavelli - a virile language that evokes a long history of Italians’ struggles against internal divisions and foreign invaders.
In Florence (and also in Siena) Alfieri mines the works of Machiavelli for stories and conceives a dramatic tragedy on the 15th century Florence conspiracy of the Pazzi against the Medici and and a political treatise, Della tirannide (On Tyranny). Also in Florence, toward the end of 1777, Alfieri meets Luisa Stolberg, Countess of Albany, the love of his life. After long stays in other Italian cities as well as England, and Paris, he returns to Florence in 1792 to spend a productive decade there, where he dies in October, 1803 and is buried in the Santa Croce church.. The Countess of Albany draws on her lifelong Church connections to propose that Italy’s prominent sculptor, Antonio Canova, create a monument to Alfieri in the Santa Croce cathedral (and, by the way, that the Church overlook the sin of Alfieri’s lifelong relationship with the married countess). You can see that monument now - one of the most striking in a cathedral filled with beautiful art - in the row of tombs as you come in from the south door and walk down the right aisle: first past the tomb of Michelangelo, then the cenotaph of Dante, then the Alfieri monument, and next to it the tomb of Machiavelli. The Alfieri monument is not in the form of a statue of the great poet and patriot himself, but instead an elaborate three-tiered white marble structure in which a Greco-Roman goddess wearing a crown and toga represents a mourning Italy: a love of country deified. Canova’s divinity is said to be the first depiction of Italy as a nation, one that becomes a powerful icon for those who create the actual nation fifty and sixty years later. The monument incorporates two key elements of the national community: a strong municipal tradition that extends back to Ancient Rome and is depicted here in the city walls and towers that make up the crown, and the grieving mother who weeps for her lost son – an early example of the religious iconography of the Risorgimento. (Cerruti, pp. 18-23, 192-234, 274-312; Duggan, pp. 11-17, 34-40)
Ugo Foscolo, the celebrated poet of the Italy’s Napoleonic era (1796-1815) comes to Santa Croce in 1812 to see the tombs and leaves in a state of ecstasy. Nearly thirty years younger than Alfieri, Foscolo is a great admirer of his effort to unify Italy’s literary and political tradition. Foscolo’s first tragedy, Tieste, which premieres in Venice in 1797, is modeled on Alfieri’s dramas and in his influential poem, Dei sepolcri (On Tombs), published in 1807, Foscolo honors Alfieri by placing him with Dante and Homer. From Foscolo’s birth on the Ionian island of Zante to a Greek mother and Venetian father, to his death in England in 1827, his life as well as his aesthetic and political perspective is one of exile. A position fueled by his early, ardent support of Napoleon and the promise of the Cisalpine Republic and then, after the French concede control of Venice to Austria in the 1797 Treaty of Campoformio, by his attacks on the emperor and French invaders.
“All Italians are exiles in Italy,” Foscolo declares – a stance that evokes the anger and noble suffering, tempered by enduring hope, of Dante. Qualities that Foscolo, in Dei sepolcri, attributes also to Vittorio Alfieri, who in the last decade of his life in Florence, write his political satire, il Misogallo (the Anti-French) in an effort to forge national unity through rallying against a common enemy. Foscolo carries this idea forward in his poem on tombs by arguing that foreign invaders and overlords could deprive Italians of arms, property, and wealth (which, in the French case includes an extensive and detailed program of requisitioning Italy’s great art and historic manuscripts, one which assigns quotas to cities and order the Pope, for example, to turn over one hundred works of art and five hundred manuscripts. (Duggan, p. 12). Foscolo says invaders can deprive Italians of everything - except memory (Foscolo, Dei Sepolcri, 184-5). The collective memory of a national community.
Santa Croce is at the center of Alfieri’s and Foscolo’s invocation of collective memory to forge a national identity and to their standing as patriotic heroes in the unification of Italy later in the century. The French decree of Saint-Cloud issued September, 1806, and Foscolo’s “vision of Santa Croce” when he goes there the same year are the sparks that set him to write his great poem the following year. The French law extends to Italy a prohibition on the burial of bodies in churches (for reasons of hygiene, it says) as well as memorial plaques that included coats of arms and titles. For more than three centuries Florence has buried its most illustrious artists, scientists, and military, church, and political leaders in the Santa Croce cathedral. Foscolo calls it a blessed temple to the glories of Italy (Dei sepolcri, 180-181) – the Pantheon of Florence (or as the British sometimes have it, Italy’s Westminster Abbey). The bones buried here, the tombs and cenotaphs create a material link between the living and the dead. They embody the suffering of Dante’s exile, of Machiavelli’s torture and exile, and of Galileo’s condemnation by the Church – a collective memory that the French decree would condemn to be forgotten (Dei sepolcri, 51-90). Foscolo believes a successful unification of Italy will be achieved only with the support of the urban middle class. For one reason, he says: they now have a stake in the property and wealth that foreign invaders over centuries have always exploited a divided Italy to steal and the French now threaten to do so again.. And the corporeal presence of Santa Croce’s tombs and statues has the power to educate this class about past glories and the promise of an imagined Italy more effectively than could high art and literature directed to wealthier, more highly educated populations.
In 1817, ten years after the publication of Dei sepolcri, the French novelist and essayist Stendhal visits this Pantheon of Florence and is famously overwhelmed by a storm of senses so powerful that his heart beats irregularly, and he feels his life draining away – a phenomenon, which every summer sends scores of tourists to Florence first-aid centers and hospitals, and to which the head of psychiatry at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, Dr. Graziella Magherini in the 1970s would assign the term, “Stendhal Syndrome”. The French writer immediately leaves the church and later writes in his diary that he feels better only after he sits on a bench in the piazza Santa Croce and reads the poetry of Ugo Foscolo. (Haberman)
In fact, the significance of Santa Croce to Foscolo’s life, art, and politics extends far beyond his death in 1827 in Turnham Green west of London – ten years after he comes to London in his last, self-imposed, exile. He is buried in a church cemetery, with a small marker showing only his name and age, in the nearby village of Chiswick (both Turnham Green and Chiswick Park are now part of greater London, with stops on the District Line of the London Underground). In 1871, a year after full unification and relocation of the capital from Florence to Rome, the Italian parliament calls for the transfer of Foscolo’s remains to the Santa Croce church - “the Pantheon of the Illustrious Italians,” as it is now referred to by some in the foreign press. After a delay that starts when diggers are unable to locate a body in Foscolo’s grave – a mystery solved only after a Chiswick rector who had taken part in the poet’s burial forty-four years earlier recalls that the coffin had been placed a good four meters underground - the body is recovered, identified, and prepared for a return to Florence. More than five hundred Italian residents of the London area accompany Foscolo’s body on the first leg of the journey, to the village of Chiswick. The official ceremony of interment in Santa Croce takes place on June 24, 1871 - the festival of the patron saint of Florence, San Giovanni.
Enthusiastic crowds meet the train as it carries Foscolo’s body across Italy. Thousands welcome the funeral train when it arrives in Florence from Pistoia and cheer the elegant funeral car pulled by six horses through streets lined with soldiers and decorated with banners and placards with passages from Foscolo’s poems and political writings. The procession enters piazza Santa Croce through a triumphal arch erected for the occasion and comes to a halt at the statue of Dante. The crescent of the Ionian Islands flies amid the colors of the new Italy. Municipal and national leaders, the mayors of Rome, Venice and other Italian cities, foreign ambassadors, artists and university representatives celebrate the poet’s return from a pavilion in front of the church, and after many speeches, students carry Foscolo’s coffin to a cleared space in the crowded cathedral, between the monuments of Dante Alighieri and Vittorio Alfieri. (Caorsi)
So at long last the bones of the great poet of collective memory and national identity rest among those he had honored in Dei sepolchri. More than half a century would pass, however, before there would be a monument to link the dead poet to the illustrious dead in the church and to the living who pass through the aisles of the basilica. Competitions for design proposals for a monument to Foscolo are held in 1888, 1899, 1901, and 1910. Zullimo Rossellini, a young and relatively unknown sculptor who had studied at the Santa Croce School of Decorative and Industrial Art, wins the last competition and seventeen years later completes a monumental marble coffin with the poet lying on his deathbed on top and the muses carved into the side surrounding him. (This time an article in the foreign press about the competitions and Rossellini’s monument notes that it would be erected “in the great Pantheon Nazionale of Florence”.) (Special Correspondence, The New York Times (1910). However, in 1935 Rossellini’s monument, with its iconography of artistic creation and poetry, is replaced by Antoni Berti’s statue of Ugo Foscolo you see today. A heroic leader whose aggressive stance reflects a Fascist aesthetic in which imagined memories of Imperial Rome merge cultural and military values by portraying literary heroes as warriors. (Luzzi, pp. 163-164)
A Neighborhood Community
Piazza Santa Croce is also the anchor of an organic community that exists today mostly in the form of collective memory: the Pratolini neighborhoods west and north of the piazza. In, Vasco Pratolini’s 1945 novel of passage through adolescence in the Santa Croce district, Il Quartiere, the piazza appears in the first few pages – in a passage that portrays younger brothers following older brothers from via del Fico or from via de’Macci on the way to Piazza Santa Croce to meet a girlfriend , imitating the elders’ games and gestures – and in the novel’s final elegiac scene, in which Valerio and Marisa mark an end of adolescence and a coming to political consciousness in piazza Santa Croce as typographers and mosaicists from local studios enjoy the sun on benches in the piazza and local school children whirl round and round. (Pratolini (1945), pp. 18-19, 200-201) Via San Giuseppe, as it leaves the northeast corner of the piazza and carries past the north side of the cathedral is a doorway into our most immediate section of Pratolini’s Florence.
When we live in piazza Santa Croce we have few reasons for walking down via San Giuseppe. There are no destination markets, monumental piazze, museums, or theaters to pull us down San Giuseppe as there are along streets to the west and south. From our first days there is a sense that these neighborhoods are different. More part of an “authentic” Florence, you could say, or a window into the city’s eternal soul. Not the “Renaissanceland” discussed earlier.
Early in the morning sleepy young children talking softly and holding hands with an accompanying father or mother pass through the piazza on their way to the boys’ and girl’s elementary schools Vittorio Veneto along via San Giuseppe and return to the piazza some afternoons to play games or retrace their morning paths on the way home. This is a part of the daily rhythm that brings fresh air into the piazza and to the street life of via San Giuseppe. Another part comes late afternoon, early evening, when tour groups head back to their buses parked near piazza Piave, street vendors walk home or to new locations, and shoppers leave the street and stores nearly empty except for clerks and trattoria workers who gossip with one another.
A weekday afternoon walk down via Borgo Allegri this spring triggers sensual memories of earlier visits. I pass a fashionably dressed woman who stands next to her bicycle in the middle of the narrow street as she exchanges light hearted comments with a sanitation worker dressed in electric orange coveralls. A conversation full of laughter that appears to be triggered by sarcastic comments about Borgo Allegri residents and recent episodes in the daily theater of the street. As I reach via San Giuseppe and turned right toward the piazza the woman rides by calling out and returning cheery greetings with people she knows along the street and in windows, or sitting at an outdoor table of a trattoria set on the church side of San Giuseppe, or standing at the door of shops. The sights and sounds of civility, smell and taste of the neighborhood and of cooking odors and touch of passersby and of the hard surface of streets and buildings combine in a familiar mix of senses I had experienced on previous walks down this way stretching back over ten years. Today, the neighborhood is less densely occupied and many of the houses and garages and commercial buildings have been gentrified since the twenties and thirties era of Pratolini’s chronicles and novels, but you still get a feeling here of entering the past – the long backstage history and distinct status of this particular Santa Croce neighborhood.
A little more than halfway between piazza Santa Croce and piazza Piave, as via San Giuseppe angles east toward the river it becomes via dei Malcontenti (street of the discontented) - a name given to the entire stretch of road that once led to the gallows outside the Porta della Giustizia gate of the second medieval wall (1375). Prisoners condemned to death were escorted from their cells in the Bargello or the Stinche prison (now the site of Teatro Giuseppe Verdi (1854) across the piazza Santa Croce to the scaffold near what is now piazza Piave and La Torre della Zecca on the stretch of the Lungarno of the same name. A marker of this period in the history of Florence is the former church of Santa Maria Vergine della Croce al Tempio located on the left, just past the old monastery of Saint Elisabeth and close by the neoclassical façade of the San Giuseppe church. Santa Maria della Croce was founded in 1428 by a company known as il gruppo dei Neri (more fully, Battuti Neri) who, hooded and dressed in black and carrying a crucifix from the San Giuseppe church, would accompany the condemned to the gallows with praise songs and litany, prayers and silence and the discipline of self flagellation (battuta).
Those on their way to the gallows were not the only “discontented,” as the Florentines called the condemned prisoners for whom the street is named. A hospital for orphans of the cloth dyers (i tintori) who worked and lived in this neighborhood and an asylum for those infected by the plague were located on via dei Malcontenti. And if these activities and places were not enough to indicate the marginal nature of this area, you might consider, too, that to fix colors in cloth, dyers used urine. All of this was long ago, of course, and perhaps not a part of active collective memory either now or in the early 20th century neighborhood of Pratolini. But it is well marked as you walk down vie San Giuseppe and Malcontenti today. And the topography of Santa Croce, from its waterlogged early days outside the city walls to its enduring state of being one of the lowest areas of the city is also signaled by a commemorative plaque across from the San Giuseppe church in memory of those in a home for the disabled who were trapped by the rising waters of the Florence flood of 1966 they could see and know would consume them here, so near to the splendors of Santa Croce.(Cesati (1994), p. 326, Lewis, pp. 292-3)
“Our life flowed through these streets like the channel of a river,”
Pratolini writes in Il Quartiere (1945) “We were an island in the river which flowed in spite of everything among the carts of the tripe seller and garden markets and the cubbyhole of the chestnut flatbread (schiacciata) seller along via Pietrapiana. From the archway of San Piero to Porta alla Croce” (a 1248 gate designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in what is now piazza Cesare Beccaria). This is the first section, you might recall, of the course of the Arno river’s secondary branch – from Porta alla Croce down via Borgo la Croce and via Pietrapiana to San Piero, where it turned south to form the Isola d’Arno, on which Franciscans built the first Santa Croce in 1228. For the adolescent Pratolini and his friends to continue straight on Pietrapiana past the San Piero archway and follow via del Corso into piazza della Repubblica and the city center, as they occasionally did, meant confronting a foreign land of fine cafes and light dinner music. And they would quickly return to the quarter, where their real lives unfolded, just as older residents of the neighborhood who worked in factories outside it would rush home after work to spend evenings in their tightly knit community. (Pratolini (1945), p. 18)
For the most part, Vasco Pratolini’s early writings consist of articles on political issues and lyrical stories. It is during World War II that he finds a voice that becomes the foundation of his literary reputation in the memories of his youth in Florence, as he and his generation grapple with the appeals and then the dangers of Fascism. The places of the Santa Croce rione and other neighborhoods he writes about in Via dei Magazzini (1941). Il Quartiere (1945), Cronaca Familiare (1947), and Cronache dei Povere Amanti (1947) – the streets and street corners, and piazzas, and the river with its bridges, and the shops – are the key characters in the stories and chronicles, as Andrea Vannini and others have pointed out. They provide the toponymic interplay, through which readers can get a sense of Florence in the 1920s and 1930s and a glimpse of the city’s eternal soul. (Vannini, pp. 9-10).
Pratolini tells us at the beginning of Il Quartiere that he and his friends came to regard via dei Malcontenti as a warning, a severe and solemn admonition more than a thoroughfare. And via dell’ Agnolo, just two blocks north of piazza Santa Croce, was known as the most disreputable section of the city. Valerio, the novel’s narrator, lives at via dei Pepi, 25, at the corner of via dell’Ulivo – a street just north of the Piazza, which runs parallel to it between via Verdi and via Buonarroti. Just down via dei Pepi toward piazza Santa Croce, at the corner of via del Fico, there is a reminder of the long history of this area as the most disreputable of Florence.
At the time we live there the Blue Guide Florence includes a front matter photograph of a beautifully framed but empty via del Fico; it captures the serenity and human scale of this short street, but also its current museum-like otherworldliness. To get a better sense of via del Fico in Pratolini’s time and earlier, you can read an inscription just down the street: an order from the magistrates for criminal affairs (the Otto di Balia) in 1714 that prohibits prostitutes not only from working this area but even living on via del Fico. (Pratolini (1945), p. 26, Cesati (1994), p. 219)
Pratolini tempers his realistic depiction of the neighborhood in pointing out that the disreputable via dell’ Agnolo also intersects via Borgo Allegri. Although, as Cesati points out, the street is named for the family Allegri, who lived nearby, most people - including Pratolini, who cites it - seem to prefer to think of it as “street of the happy ones” (a counterpoint to “street of the discontented”) after Giorgio Vasari’s account of a visit in 1280 by Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily to see Cimabue’s Madonna in his studio here. A crowd follows the King and Vasari reports that when they see Cimabue’s painting they joyfully parade it down the street. (Cesati (1994), p. 24, Lewis, p. 293). There is life and hope in Pratolini’s neighborhood reflected in his descriptions of laundry at the windows beside slouching underdressed women, of the prideful suffering of poverty in the carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, mechanics, and mosaicists. And the taverns, the shop windows blackened by smoke but still somehow shining, and the 19th century cafes.
In the street, Pratolini says, Florence, Quartiere di Santa Croce. The city was more or less our republic Pratolini writes, one which for he and his friends and neighbors had a sense of “archeology and of El Dorado, together”. (Pratolini (1945), pp. 17, 20)
Alfieri and Foscolo and Pratolini, are three among the many who, inspired by the cathedral and piazza and by the neighborhood of Santa Croce, have infused the place with collective memory – the glue that holds together a national and local community. “Time forms in our memories prominent events but cancels out the small print of days in which gestures and words are made to last from dawn to sunset,” Pratolini writes in Cronaca familiare, “The days of your childhood passed”. (Pratolini (1947), pp. 26-7) And in his postwar chronicles he employs the power of this collective memory to important historic national and global events as well – the attraction of and resistance to Fascism by a rising generation of Florentines. Through stories that Cecilia Mangini, who directed a 1959 documentary on the Florence of Pratolini, says rise to the level of a “Florentine mini- Iliad”. (Vannini, p. 36)
SECURITY, SAFETY and DISCIPLINARY SPACE
The security of a piazza, in its most immediate sense, means public safety: whether those who use the piazza can feel confident they will not be a victim of a crime or milder form of aggression. According to the “broken windows” approach to crime control, the condition of the neighboring infrastructure and the piazza itself can have an effect in depressing street crime. Security can also mean a general sense of protective enclosure created by buildings that border the piazza - l’aspetto di un ambiente chiuso, whose spirit you can still feel in piazza della Santissima Annunziata even though the harmonious aspect of the piazza’s closed environment was seriously compromised by the 16th century opening of the piazza to what is now via della Colonna. And historically, many Italian piazzas convey security through symbolic representation of the authority of the state.
Security in the immediate sense of public safety is never in question during our nearly year-long stay in piazza Santa Croce. At the time, piazza Santa Spirito in the Oltrarno and piazza Santissima Annunziata are Florence’s monumental piazzas more likely to appear in newspaper stories and in direct encounters as sites of public disorder, personal aggression, and drug dealing. The success of a piazza reflected in the extent and variety in its use, however, is likely to depend more on perceptions than crime rates, although the two are of course interrelated. The Street Life Project’s New York study finds that these perceptions center on what business people, tourists, and some city users call “the undesirables”. Not muggers, drug dealers, and the truly dangerous, but mostly harmless but marginalized people such as the homeless, beggars, and drunks. Some local retailers expand the category to include just about anyone they think acts “strangely” in public – teenagers, hippies, the very old (and probably, at first, the project’s researchers themselves).
Years of observations and interviews lead Whyte and his associates to conclude that concerns about public safety in plazas have less to do with the presence and behavior of undesirables than it does with security measures to exclude or limit them by making benches too short to sleep on and edges and ledges uncomfortable or impossible to do just about anything on. Managers of one plaza, in which drug dealers are starting to operate, for example, remove benches and close in two open sides of the plaza with steel bar fences. The result? Many of the regular piazza users stop coming, so that a growing proportion of drug dealers and their customers now have more room to operate. A sense that the city is a dangerous place, which lies behind many of the public concerns of the American business district, results in the creation of defensive plazas in some New York locations. Places built on a distrust of those whom they will attract. The end result is an empty space that attracts those undesirables it was meant to keep out. The New York researchers conclude that the best response to fears about public safety in empty piazzas is not electronic surveillance – something that can be effective in narrow public spaces and pass ways than in the broad space of a piazza – but rather to fill that empty space with people. To reduce the perception of danger by making the piazza more attractive to everyone and encouraging the self-policing by local retailers and regular users that occurs in successful plazas. (Whyte, pp. 60-65)
Piazza della Signoria
In Florence, piazza della Signoria probably best incorporates security in all senses and shows how they are interrelated. Over years of passing daily through the piazza on the way to school or work, using it in all seasons and times of day, and sitting for countless evenings in a café directly across from the Palazzo Vechio while my son and his friends played a form of hide and seek in which the best strategy was to attach oneself to families and school groups and tourists passing through the piazza and called, of all things, “bomba” (until they were thirteen or so, when the police told them to stop) I came to appreciate more fully that the dominant theme of the piazza della Signoria is the state’s claim to be the only legitimate source of coercion in society. The statues, the palazzo, and the size and form of the piazza itself reflect the violence that ensues in challenges and response to that legitimacy.
“Whoever holds the piazza, always achieves victory in the city,” is how the politically active 15th century Florentine historian, Giovanni Cavalcanti described the strategic importance of piazza dell Signoria. (Rubinstein, p. 91) What is most striking about the piazza today, especially if you enter it at the northwest corner from via dei Calzaiuoli, is its irregular form: the off-center seat of town government, Palazzo Vecchio - a rusticated fortress designed to resist attack - with its asymmetrical, crenellated tower that looms in the distant southeast corner of the piazza and has been likened to “a mailed arm and fist in masonry that stretches towards the sky”. (Levey, p.30). It is a perspective that bestows great authority on the building and the piazza.
This is not a piazza that just happens to take the form it does; the pieces that account for the unusual shape of this public space reflect decisions to reinforce the political authority and military power of the many alternating governors of Florence since the 13th century. The violence of political conflict is embedded in this space even before construction of the Palazzo Signoria begins in 1299: The irregular shape of the open space and askew position of the palazzo are determined by an earlier Guelph government’s destruction of the palaces of the powerful Ghibelline family, the Uberti, in 1258. A decree that no new buildings are to be built on this platea Ubertoruum creates an open space larger than those of alternative sites for a communal palace, such as that around the cathedral (Santa Reparata) and the old market (now piazza della Repubblica) and also orders the off - center site of the new palazzo so as not to touch the condemned Uberti space just to the north of the new building.
The popular government seeks to create a permanent seat of government fronted by an open space for public assemblies. However, a lesson from 1295, when a mob captures the existing seat of government, the palace of the Podestà (now the Bargello), is that a communal palace needs to be surrounded by an open space in which the government can assemble troops. The short-lived government of the Duke of Athens, 1342-1343, lays the groundwork for further expansion of the piazza to achieve this goal, which plays out over forty years with the removal and relocation of three churches, piecemeal extensions of the piazza to the south, west, and north, and the completion of the loggia in 1382. Cavalcanti’s observation about the military importance of controlling the piazza is confirmed in 1434, when the city recalles Cosimo de’ Medici to power and to prevent the opposition Albizzi faction from entering the piazza fills it with more than 6,000 armed troops. (Rubenstein, pp. 93-4)
The piazza’s military, coercive, violent spirit is also evident in the Loggia della Signoria, built by the commune for public receptions and ceremonies, and renamed Loggia dei Lanzi for the German mercenary guards housed here to protect the Duke of Tuscany, Alessandro I de’ Medici, in the 1530s (Alessandro also builds the massive Fortezza da Basso northwest of the city). Today, the Loggia holds statues that represent the same spirit: Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women and his Hercules Slaying a Centaur, a Roman statue, Ajax with the body of Patroclus, Fedi’s Rape of Polxena, and Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseo holding the bloody head of Medusa, said to be a clear warning to the enemies of Cosimo I, who comes into power after the 1537 assassination of Alessandro. In the piazza itself, we see Giambologna’s grand equestrian statue of Grand Duke Cosimo I, a copy of Donatello’s Marzocco (the symbol of the Florentine militia), Ammannati’s giant Neptune, representing Tuscan naval forces, a copy of Michelangelo’s David (1501) signaling the triumph of republics over tyrannies, and a copy of Donatello’s Judith Slaying Holofernes.
This spirit of government authority and coercion carries over into the narrow piazza that runs from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Arno. In 1560, Cosimo I begins the construction of the original Uffizi to consolidate in one place the offices of Florence magistrates. Thirty years later, Grand Duke Ferdinando orders the construction of the Forte de Belvedere high above the Pitti Palace across the river so that the narrow Uffizi piazza establishes a direct sightline between the government’s military force in the Belvedere and the civil authority of Palazzo Vecchio and brings into piazza della Signoria a clear sense of government surveillance.
Piazza della Signoria is where the nine-year old Niccolò Machiavelli could see the “the streets full of the parts of men” and the hacked bodies of eighty conspirators hanging from windows of the Palazzo, including that of the Archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Cardinal Salviati, still in his sacerdotal robes, for his leadership role in the assassination of Giuliano Medici and failed popular uprising of the Pazzi conspiracy in April 1478 – an event he later writes about to illustrate ideas about leaders and popular revoltsIt is also the site where the now twenty-nine year old Machiavelli witnesses the hanging and burning of the Dominican friar and leader of the new Republic, Girolamo Savonarola in May 1498 – four days before Machiavelli’s surprise elevation to the post of secretary of the Second Chancery. The piazza servs Machiavelli well as a classroom on political legitimacy and the role of force - the controlled violence of effective statecraft. (Martines, pp. 125-128, Viroli, pp. 14-15, 28) Violence with a purpose and to be remembered – all gathered here in a public space carved into the earth that Dante in the Commedia sees from on high: “The little threshing-floor which makes us so fierce”. (Paradiso, XXII, 151-152, Freccero, p. 218)
HIERARCHY of PUBLIC and PRIVATE SPHERES
By the end of the 15th century, the essential form of the Italian Renaissance piazza, which serves for centuries as the model for cities and around the world, is based on the ideas of Leon Baptista Alberti. One in which mathematical order, geometry and perspective are fused with military values to create closed spaces within the larger enclosed space of the ideal city. But as French geographer Marcel Roncayolo points out, the geometry of a piazza is not neutral: it privileges the social hierarchy and organizes space differently than a competing model proposed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini and others, which drew inspiration from the form of the human body to articulate the functions of a public space. (Roncayolo, p. 69, White, pp. 132-4)
Alberti’s mathematical ordering of space in a piazza is best known today and most evident in the public elements of a piazza. However, we can still find elements of Martini’s metaphor of the human body present in the way piazza users structure the private, social use of a public space. Giovanna Del Negro’s research on the passeggiata illustrates the point. She spends a year in the mid-1990s studying the use of private and public spaces in her mother’s hometown, the hilltop village of Sasso, in the Abruzzo (population: 3000). Here is part of what she says about the village passeggiata along the broad area in the center of town of Sasso’s Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which serves as the town piazza: “In everyday life, Sassani use bodily metaphors to bring meaning to the social space of the piazza. The church and the villa are often referred to as il capo (the head), while the lower half of the piazza and beyond is called quart da peda (side by the feet)”.
Del Negro found meditation and quiet conversation among friends to be the most common form of social behavior in il capo. The broad panorama from the villa in this area is conducive to introspection, a place of refuge from the speed of modern life. The primacy of religion and nature here, make Il capo “the mental and spiritual center of the body politics”. In contrast, social behavior along il corso in the quart da peda is more akin to a secular form of la dolce vita, with its emphasis on commerce and cheap amusements - on “the sensual pleasures of life”. Del Negro says the metaphor of the piazza as a human body that the Sassani employ is not simply one of those local fancies that outside visitors find amusing; it is instead a blueprint for social behavior that defines boundaries within the space of the piazza and helps residents to navigate the piazza in socially acceptable ways. As they follow the contours of the body in the daily passeggiata, the residents of Sasso illustrate the aesthetic of la bella figura, - the presentation of self which governs private individual uses of a piazza and which, in Del Negro’s words, “make beautiful the body social”. (Del Negro, pp. 22-4, 130-136)
Piazza Plebiscito (Naples)
The transformation of Naple’s piazza Plebiscito in 1993-4 illustrates the competing claims of public and private use that establish the dialectics of the piazza. In 1602, the largest piazza in the center of the city, which fronts the Royal Palace, is the public space at the center of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies – the site of state rituals and military parades. In 1861 the piazza is given the name Plebiscito after the public referendum to include the South in a unified Italy. The political and public significance of the piazza has all but disappeared by the 1990s as Piazza Municipio next to the city hall and commercial center of the city to the northeast assumes some of those functions. Two of the poorest neighborhoods in the city center – Spanish Quarters and Pallonetto – lay just to the north and southwest. And the buildings that enclose the piazza – the Royal Palace, National Library, San Francisco di Paola church, the Palazzo Salerno (the Italian Army’s southern headquarters) and Palazzo della Prefettura (office of the prefect of the province of Naples) are for the most part closed to or offer only limited formal access to the public. The primary function of the piazza at this time is that of transport: the road in front of the Royal Palace that serves as the piazza’s northeast boundary is an important cross-town traffic corridor while the piazza itself serves mainly as a bus terminal and municipal car park.
The direct election of mayors, which is part of the Italian political reforms of the 1990s, brings a new mayor to Naples in 1993: Antonio Bassolini, who embraces the social democratic left agenda of citizenship as a way to generate support across established class divisions. The concept of municipal citizenship in Naples calls for direct public participation to replace clientelism, a broadened sense of individual and collective rights such as environmental quality and public access to Naple’s cultural heritage, and stronger affective ties between city government and citizens. This agenda - combined with the Bassolini administration’s efforts to replace the negative public image of Naples as an un-civic place of urban decay with that of an international city worthy of hosting a G7 summit in July, 1994 - becomes the impetus for transforming piazza Plebiscito from a bus terminal and parking lot to a public space for the exercise and celebration of citizenship.
In 1994 the piazza is closed to traffic, its concrete surface replaced with quarry tiles, and surrounding buildings refurbished. Government officials close much of the city center, remove the homeless to outskirt locations, ban public demonstrations and bring in 8,000 soldiers to patrol the city during the G& summit meetings in the Royal Palace. The restored piazza Plebiscito is now a stage for world leaders to be photographed. A beautifully restored, heavily guarded, mostly empty “ideal” piazza. Public use once again dominates the hierarchy of the piazza, despite complaints by local shopkeepers about traffic bans that hurt business and by other residents concerned stuck in traffic jams in other parts of the city.
The Bassolino government continues to promote the piazza as an emblem of municipal citizenship and collective identity in the years following the G7 summit. State events, parades, concerts, art exhibits, and an annual New Year’s eve celebration inspire supporters and some of the local media to speak of the piazza as “il salotto di Napoli - “the drawing room of Naples”. Between these periodic public events, however, the piazza remians mostly empty. And that is how it is meant to be – in the words of a city planning assessor: “Empty and silent. So that means no traffic, but no flower boxes and benches either. There should be nothing at all”. (Dines, p. 123) Early on and in that spirit, a special commission charged with regulating organized activities in the piazza rejects a local sports club’s proposal to stage a beach volleyball tournament there. As Nicholas Dines points out, this favoring of public over private use of the piazza is evident ten years after the traffic ban and transformation of piazza Plebiscito in the absence of benches, public toilets, and trash cans.
To view the public space as an ideal piazza, an enclosed space with boundaries and activities closely regulated by government, favors those with high cultural capital who live anywhere in or near Naples as well as visitors to the city. At least initially, it discourages private use of this public space by mothers walking children, seniors getting air and meeting friends, teenagers hanging out or playing pickup soccer – the already marginalized residents of Spanish Quarters and Pallonetto. In 1997, groups of jobless Neapolitans challenge this official view of the piazza with demonstrations to call attention to the city’s longstanding shortage of housing and jobs. A challenge that implicitly recognizes the newly restored political symbolism of piazza Plebiscito and its public/private hierarchy. But it is the unanticipated reaction to a publicly funded art installation in the piazza two years earlier that really tests the established public/private hierarchy itself and illustrates urban scholar Nicholas Dine’s thesis on the importance of contested claims to public space on the life of a piazza.
Mimmo Paladino’s La Montagna del Sale is the centerpiece of the 1995 New Year’s celebration in piazza Plebiscito. It features twenty some wooden horses scattered over a high mound of salt. The salt mountain represents the challenge of Naples’ regeneration and renewal, in the mayor’s reading of the art installation, and the wooden horses scaling the mountain (and some failing) the citizens of Naples. But then, much to the shock of the artist and the surprise of official sponsors, a number of those climbing citizens actually do climb to the top of the salt mountain, some take away salt as a souvenir (or a tribute to the mayor, they say), and others climb on the backs of horses to play and have their picture taken. As a result, the city has to truck in more salt, organize patrols to protect the installation, and offer guided tours that keep to the perimeter.
The local press distinguishes between “Neapolitans” who stay behind protective railings to view the artwork and street urchins or vandals from the local neighborhoods who use the salt mountain in the piazza as a playground. And in the end, these challenges to the public/private hierarchy of the piazza, this “deviant behavior” in the eyes of officials and supportive citizens, doe not reverse that hierarchy. It is somewhat mediated, however, by the emergence of alternative private uses in the form of small shops and carts, cafes, teenage gatherings, tourists, and even soccer around the edges of the piazza and the colonnade in front the San Francesco di Paola church and small open spaces beside it.
Nicholas Dines’ case study of the restoration of piazza Plebiscito illustrates the limits to prescribing a single, public, “ideal” piazza framework on an existing public space without fully taking into account its place in the fabric of the city and its history of alternative uses. To understanding the contradictions between “the conceived and lived spaces” of a piazza. (Dines, p. 123) Yet it could also be said that the value of this case lies, too, in the fact that competing claims on the use of public space and debates about citizenship and quality of life do focus on the restoration of a historic forum for such considerations: the Italian piazza.
Those who experience and write about piazzas often use the elusive term beauty to describe human activity in a piazza and the piazza itself. We see this in Del Negro description of the how the passeggiata in a small town of 3,000 residents serves to “make beautiful the body social”. (Del Negro, p. 130) Whyte uses similar language to characterize people’s movements through the plazas of New York City, with a population of eight million. “The scene comes alive with movement and color,” he writes. “People walking quickly, walking slowly, skipping up steps, weaving in and out on crossing patterns, accelerating and retarding to match the moves of others. There is a beauty that is beguiling to watch, and one senses that the players are quite aware of it themselves”. (Whyte (1980), p. 22) This dance of the piazza is certainly one element in the aesthetics of the piazza. Interestingly enough it is an element that is missing in early images of the classical Ideal City and in recent concepts of the ideal piazza that guides the transformation of Naples’ piazza Plebiscito.
The “immense and empty” piazzas of northern Europe, “where the crowd has disappeared,” is exactly what Camillo Sitte seeks to correct through his articulation of the underlying principles of composition in the aesthetics of the historic Italian piazza. (Sitte, pp. 38-9). Here are six principles of composition, which Sitte says can help to fill those piazzas:
1. Rapport among buildings, monuments and piazzas
Sitte’s first principle of composition is rapport between a piazza and its public buildings and monuments. Those who create modern piazzas, he argues, do not distinguish among the ancient forms of cathedral, civic, and market piazzas and instead create a composite form, which lacks the harmony among the elements of ancient piazzas. Almost always there is a fountain – a vestige of the market piazza – but in these modern piazzas the parliament or civic building no longer dominates the markets that surround it, and the cathedral and the university no longer emerge in an atmosphere of silence. The aesthetic of the ancient piazza is destroyed by disruptions in scale between an immense modern piazza and surrounding buildings and statues and fountains. To illustrate this principle, Sitte talks about Michelangelo’s David. The sculptor’s own preferred and original location of the fourteen-foot statue is beside the principal entrance to Palazzo Vecchio, where it stands from 1504 to 1873. Here, the rapport among the irregular and comparatively modest dimensions of the piazza, the stature of humans passing below, and the rusticated red brown façade of the palace reinforce the imposing presence of the statue known to Florentines as il Gigante.
Sitte calls the decision to move David to its present location in the Accademia, even for legitimate reasons of preservation, an example of modern errors. One that suffocates its spirit in a museum setting (“prisons of art”, he calls them), in which the statue serves primarily as a model for art students, a subject for historians and art critics, and an inspirational work of art only to those able to overcome the distractions of the setting. But Michelangelo’s David is no longer a political act reified in marble that it was in Piazza della Signoria, I would add, nor does the lifeless copy you now see before the palace achieve that status. Sitte does find a positive example of this principle of composition in the same piazza in the rapport among piazza and buildings and monuments and the scale of the Loggia dei Lanzi and its collection of statues. But he returns to David to show what can be learned from violations of the principle. This time it is the bronze copy of Michelangelo’s statue in the panoramic piazalle Michelangelo -a terrace really - carved into the side of Monte alle Croce across the Arno in 1875. Set on a small pedestal in the center of the immense space just off the heavily trafficked viale; surrounded by tour buses, parked cars, souvenir stalls, and camera wielding tourists; and open to the immense sky, the bronze David - even though it is cast in the dimensions of the original - is reduced to the scale of ordinary humans in the piazalle. It signifies nothing of Michelangelo’s political warning to tyrants. Tourists either ignore it or take the obligatory photograph or two and move on to focus on the panorama of the city across the river. “That David’s everywhere!” I hear a young man exclaim in English as he steps out of a car beside it. Sitte would probably correct him. “Nowhere,” he would say. (Sitte pp. 35-41)
1. Free space in middle of the piazza
This is Sitte’s second principle of composition. Another aesthetic of Medieval and Renaissance Italian piazzas, he says, which more recent designers of piazzas overlook because of what he calls their infatuation with the lines and compass and rules of geometry. Those who built and chronicled the elements of early piazzas considered this idea to be an inspiration of nature more than an aesthetic rule derived from accumulated human knowledge. Watch children build snowmen in an unpaved piazza like those still found in small villages or in a cleared open space, Sitte says, and you will see that they instinctively build them in the same locations that the ancients place fountains and statues in a piazza – away from and in between the pathways free of snow created by traffic in and across the piazza, in untouched spaces disposed irregularly around the edges. Ten of the twelve illustrations Sitte provides in his chapter on this principle are of Italian piazze, in Padova, Verona, Rome, Piacenza, Palermo, Lucca, Vicenza, Brescia, and, of course Florence. Sittte cites Ammannati’s 1575 Neptune fountain in Piazza della Signoria as a prominent example of the principle that fountains should be placed off center or on a perimeter. To imagine the effect of locating in the center of the piazza this immense white fountain, (nicknamed il Biancone, the Big White One, by Florentines, which celebrates naval victories and the new aqueduct for the city commissioned by the Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici is to take Sitte’s point: it would do great damage to the aesthetic represented in the line of statues, of which the fountain is a part, that runs north across the front of the palace and beyond. It would block the sight lines and perspectives that establish the Palazzo’s dominant position, and it would alter the circulation of traffic across the piazza.
Sitte does not talk about piazza Santa Croce in this chapter, but I believe it embodies the principle. First, the tradition of locating fountains or other water features on the perimeter originates in the market piazza for the practical reason that watering animals or washing food, bodies, laundry, and other dirty things are activities best served by a water source at a point where an easily accessible and navigable street enters a piazza. The candelabra fountain on the west end of piazza Santa Croce ornamented by the Florentine lily of the Republic, the Medici palle, and the Grand Duke’s coat of arms, is located where in earlier times, in a widening of the street here, there is a simple fountain for such utilitarian use. An earlier aqueduct fed by springs near San Miniato al Monte across the river provisions the first Santa Croce fountain. (Hunt, pp. 194-195) Second, the placement of Enrio Pazzi’s statue of Dante in the center of the Piazza, where it stands for more than a century (1865-1968) contradicts Sitte’s principle. Photographs that show the statue in the center, surrounded by parked cars and tour buses (and particularly those taken shortly after the 1966 flood, which show tree trunks and smashed cars, and other debris encircling the statue beneath the scornful glare of Dante) underscore the point. Third, many of the Italian examples that Sitte uses to illustrate this aesthetic have to do with relations between a piazza and a church, which he says should never be isolated in the middle of a piazza. In most of the historic Italian cathedral piazzas, he notes, the church is embedded in or adjacent to buildings that service the church. Nor should there be any statues, fountains, or monuments that block the principal façade and doors of the church. Some might argue that the 1971 placement of the Dante statue before the gleaming white marble façade of Santa Croce undercuts this aesthetic, but to my eyes its lateral position toward the northeast side of the church mitigates that effect. (Sitte, pp. 42-56)
Sitte calls this third principle of composition an essential condition of a piazza. He says that an open space within a city does not become a piazza unless and until it gives the impression of being closed. I talked earlier about how an aspect of enclosure reinforces a sense of security and might seem contrary to the porosity and therefore equal - or at least widespread - access to a piazza. And I believe that for Sitte, the art of constructing a piazza includes elements that can give the appearance of enclosure even in piazzas with many points of entry. The piazza della Santissima Annunziata is probably the Florence piazza most often held up as a model of the aesthetic of enclosure (l’aspetto di un ambiente chiuso) – although Sitte himself cites piazza della Signoria at the juncture of the Uffizi Portico, and piazza Santa Maria Novella in his discussion of this principle, not Santissima Annunziata. All three, however, underscore how this principle of composure can work even in a piazza adjacent to or intersected by an important thoroughfare or a number of smaller streets.
Franco Cesati says in his book on Florence piazze that the 15th century opening of piazza Santissima Annunziata to what is now via della Colonna shatters the harmonious symmetry of the piazza. Stand in the piazza today when buses, cars, and motorcycles roar down Colonna and you would probably agree. Sitte might, too. But then again he might point to elements of the piazza that even today create an appearance of enclosure: the porticoes on three sides of the piazza and Bruneleschi’s 1426 colonnade of arches of the Spedale degli Innocenti echo around the piazza and church on the side to create a sense of enclosure even with the direct and significant openings of via della Colonna and via dei Servi.
In his discussion of the principle Sitte references the way in which Bernini’s grand colonnade that embraces visitors as they enter the massive Piazza San Pietro in Rome achieves this effect in this vast open space capable of holding 300,000 people. How it refills, to a degree, the emptiness of free space inherent in a piazza. The Florence piazze that Sitte discusses – and, I would add, Santa Croce - give an impression of enclosure through the disposition and scale of streets that enter the piazza at different angles. Via de Calzaiuoli, the most common entrance to piazza della Signoria, directs our eyes toward the Palazzo Vecchio and the enclosing and enclosed Loggia dei Lanzi. The loggia is flanked by the Uffizi portico, which from this angle appears to be just beyond the grand piazza itself and the narrow chiasso Baroncelli - an alleyway, which Florentines use as a pedestrian shortcut from the piazza to via Lambertesca. The aspect of enclosure in piazza Santa Croce is achieved in much the same fashion – a predominant building, the cathedral, that attracts the eye, streets that enter the piazza at angles so as to interrupt only minimally the continuity of bordering palaces, and perspectives that diminish the impact of those streets on the visible piazza. (Sitte, pp. 57-66)
4. Dimension and Form
Sitte opens his chapter on dimension and form, his fourth principle of composition with a sketch of Santa Croce – a piazza of depth from the perspective of someone who enters the piazza from its west end, as most do. The height of the cathedral’s white marble face creates an aesthetic harmony with the length of the piazza before it. In contrast, a piazza organized on a primary building whose width rather than height is the predominant dimension will be wide rather than deep when viewed from a perspective in front of the edifice. This principle of composition, in which the form of the piazza follows the dimensions of the dominant structure is an important element in the aesthetic of Medieval and Renaissance Italian piazze that Sitte holds up as models of urban design. And he notes that most church piazzas are piazzas of depth based on church height and most communal piazzas are piazzas of width based on the width of the communal palace. He cites many examples of this principle, including the church and communal piazze, San Domenico and Reale in Modena, in which intersecting and connecting streets create perspectives of depth and of width, side by side, with great effect. (Sitte, pp. 67-76)
In Florence, I believe you can see the principle of dimension and form at work in a single piazza. If you enter piazza della Signoria from the north side by ways of via dei Cerchi or via dei Magazzini, you look across the older and once predominant section of the piazza to the lateral, work-place face of Palazzo Vecchio. The prevailing dimension of the communal palace from this perspective is width, as is the form of the piazza immediately before you. If, however, you enter the piazza from via Vacchereccia at the southwest corner, or better yet, sit at a table at Caffè Rivoire, you look across the more recent extensions of the original piazza to the dramatic, ornamented façade of Palazzo Vecchio, which incorporates the medieval tower of the Forabeschi family, which in 1310 sold its houses, palaces, and tower to the commune. The prevailing dimension from this angle is height – the steeple bearing the Marzoco at the top of the tower reaches nearly ninety five meters, a dramatic step up from the forty meter height of the parapet and roofline of the northern perspective. (Grimaldi (2005), pp. 31-34) The asymmetric placement and foregrounding of the communal tower reinforce the dominant dimension of height, which, to some extent, gives this section of the piazza an appearance of depth. To be sure, it does not match Santa Croce’s form of depth, but comes close enough for us to appreciate the aesthetic of dimension and form.
Sitte broadens his analysis of this principle to include what he calls a “recent illness” of the 19th century: agoraphobia, a nervous condition he ascribes to the fear of traversing a large empty space, such as the enormous piazzas favored by 19th century urban designers and architects. Something that does not happen in smaller Italian piazzas of old. He does not mention, but could have to make the point, the legendary piazza of Carpi, a town north of Modena, which at the beginning of the 16th century built a grand piazza two hundred and seventy meters long (nearly three football fields laid end to end, we Americans would say) and sixty wide, capable of holding five thousand people in a city whose population then was about eight hundred. The 16th century courtier and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione (spoiled perhaps by his service in Mantua and Urbino) defined Carpi as “a city in the form of a piazza”. And even a recent book featuring photographs that record the beauty of this “most spacious and noble piazza” also mentions how visitors to Carpi are disoriented by the dimensions and form of the piazza. Stupefied by its great emptiness, they say. (Garuti, pp. 7, 43)
“Avoid triangular piazzas,” could be the watchword of Sitte’s discussion of this fifth principle of composition. They are ugly. They produce the unpleasant effect of making it impossible to create or experience an optical illusion. No matter what you do, the lines of enclosing buildings are going to crash into one another at three corners. They can be salvaged only by making all three sides completely irregular, creating spaces for statues and monuments outside the circulation of traffic. There is no hope when the sides of the piazza are drawn rigorously with precise angles. And, Sitte argues, it is the latter condition that gives rise to a modern belief that the only decent piazza is a regularly shaped one, with a space for monuments or a fountain in its geometric center.
Triangular piazzas and geometric centers are symptoms of a larger problem Sitte addresses in respect to the failure of 19th century northern piazzas: a search for symmetry. A disease of the day, he calls it, the only rule that counts for too many urban architects and engineers, an idea that has conquered the world. But the Austrian architect contends that his contemporaries understand the term to mean the identity of two figures with respect to a common axis, whereas those who build antique piazzas have a different sense of the term. He refers to the meaning of symmetry articulated by the 1st century BCE Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius: the relationship that every work of art or composition has with its parts and that these parts have separately with respect to the whole, according to the measure of a certain part (Sitte, p. 82) Symmetry in this sense is a consequence of proportionality, closer to the Greek term, analogy, than to 19th century theories of symmetry. The irregularity of Italian piazzas that Sitte sketches as models in his book grows out of symmetry in this older sense, he says. And to a sense of naturalness that emerges over centuries of developing and reconstructing urban space in Italian cities. (Sitte, pp. 77-83)
6. Harmonious grouping of piazze
The first five principles of composition that Sitte expounds in his book on the art of constructing cities are based on the general proposition that successful piazzas are those that are imbedded in the broad fabric of the city as a whole. And that the isolation of churches or public buildings in the middle of a piazza or the isolation of a piazza from its immediate context through new construction, urban renewal, or a process of monumentalization will create piazze that are both ugly and empty. Sitte’s sixth principle of composition, a harmonious grouping of piazzas, incorporates the first five principles into the ambience of the city as a whole. In all of the Italian cities that Sitte discusses in his book there is a group of piazzas in the center of the city associated with most of that city’s principal buildings. He provides his own sketches of three linked piazze in the center of Modena; of the San Andrea church and piazza delle Erbe in Mantova; and of the shared space of piazza del Papa, piazza del Duomo, and Palazzo Communale in Perugia. He points to the aesthetic impact of the relationship between Florence’s piazza della Signoria and the secondary Portico degli Uffizi, which he says combines every principle of composition with such art that one senses its beauty without being aware of its sources. And to the complex and rich combination in Venice of piazza San Marco, the piazetta to the right facing the Basilica that links the piazza and church to the Grand Canal and seaports around the world (both of which are piazzas of depth and piazzas of width when viewed from different perspectives), the campanile in the seaward corner of the grand piazza that delimits its border, and the rich works of art visible in every direction. This is the most beautiful place on earth, Sitte says. A view of the city as a work of art beyond even the imagination and genius of Titian and Veronese, he says. City users who walk from piazza to piazza, whether by design or by routine, can best understand the power of this principle of composition. But you can also get a good sense of the aesthetic principle, according to Sitte, by looking at the many and various photographs of Florence’s piazza San Marco and piazza della Signoria available on postcards and prints throughout the city. Each one seems to offer such a different perspective on the two piazze and their urban context that it is hard to believe they are the same piazza seen earlier from a different side or angle. You cannot do that with pictures of most modern piazzas, Sitte says, because the multiple perspectives that create a spirit of place are lost in calibrated straight lines that produce an empty surface trapped in square meters.
More than a century has passed since Camillo Sitte wrote his book on the art of building cities. The problem he sought to correct then – the detrimental effect of failed piazzas on “the quality of places in which we live” remains a concern today. (Sitte, p. 10) Over the years, critics have noted that the Viennese architect has taken some liberties with the historical evolution of piazzas in not acknowledging, for example, a practice common in some periods of Imperial Rome of wealthy families competing with one another to place monuments in the center of piazzas as symbols of their power. Or that Sitte’s declaration that square piazzas are rare overlooks an ancient tradition in Spain and Latin America of building piazzas in that form. (Although he might find some support on a related point that square piazzas give a bad impression in Florence’s piazza della Repubblica. “A disappointing intrusion into the historical center of the city with its somber colonnades and undistinguished buildings disfigured by advertisements,” says Alta Macadam in the Blue Guide: Florence (Macadam, p. 80) This was the square forum of the original and square Roman town (castrum) founded in 59 BCE on the plain by the river. The piazza’s north-south streets known today as via Roma and via Calimala trace the lines of the Roman cardus and its east-west streets, via del Corso and via degli Strozzi the lines of the Roman decumano Massimo, the crossroads on which the forum stood in Roman towns of that era.
All six straight streets that intersect piazza della Republica - these four and vie Brunelleschi and Pellicceria, enter the piazza on a direct, perpendicular angle, via Strozzi through the outsized triumphal arch on the west side, to form a piazza that seems to violate every one of Sitte’s principles of composition. The irony that this is a lively piazza - filled day and night with crowds of people -could be explained perhaps by its central location and the bars and restaurants, hotels, souvenir stalls, carousel, post office, shops, designated taxi stand, school groups, petitioners’ tables, bands, and street performers that lure people here. What makes Sitte’s principles of composition of value in 21st century discussions of piazzas and quality of life is not that he is always right, I think, but instead that his general point that the symmetry and prospective of the traditional Italian piazza that gives rise to those principles cannot be translated into fixed rules and geometry. Or left up to engineers, he would say. That intuition and attention to the senses by those who create and use piazzas are essential to the aesthetic value they bring to the quality of life in a city. (Sitte, pp. 208-210)
Artistic Inspiration: La dolce vita
The piazza as a source of artistic inspiration and as an icon in visual representations is also a part of the aesthetics of the piazza. An important and early example is Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 1337 fresco, The Good City Republic, Effects of Good Government on the east wall of the Sala dei Nove in Sienna’s Palazzo Pubblico. An inscription beneath the fresco tells us how sweet life is and how peaceful is that of a city where (Justice) is served, in Italian:“E come e dolce vita e riposata quella de la città du’ e servata”. The horizontal, tracking focus of the scene painted above the inscription is a piazza filled with the activities that sweeten medieval life in Siena and demonstrate the peaceful character of a city ruled by Justice. In the forefront, nine women surround their teacher in a dance. The large scale figures pull a viewer into the piazza scene, a panorama of individualized activities and architectural forms. We see merchants selling their wares, crafts men and women at work, costumed officials in session, builders on roofs, and processions of people and animals that mark the depth and width of the painting. The piazza is filled with a variety of people acting freely as individuals and in groups who are also contributing to the well being of the city. It is a secular painting whose focus is on good citizens rather than on the state or church (on the left, the Siena cathedral, with its distinctive horizontals, rises in the distance from behind other buildings).
Art historian George Rowley points out that in this fresco Ambrogio Lorenzetti succeeds in representing in a piazza both the essential character and activities of a city. An achievement not to be found in later representations. Renaissance painters usually limited the scope of architectural settings to a single piazza, he writes. Rowley cites Baroque examples of piazzas which were distant views, more like landscapes and impressionist views of crowded city spaces but not the panoramic sense of the whole city captured by Lorenzetti. A representation of la dolce vita and an Italian piazza quite different from those attributed to Fellini, in some accounts, more than six centuries later. (Rowley, Starn, Castelnuovo)
In October, 1909, Giorgio de Chirico leaves Milan for a trip to Florence and Rome. He is twenty-one. This is how the artist describes a moment in which he senses for the first time images of a world unknown: (de Chirico, p. 206)
One clear autumnal afternoon I was sitting in a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen the square. I had just come out of a long and painful intestinal illness, and I was in a nearly morbid state of sensitivity. The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and the fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent.
In the middle of the piazza rises a statue of Dante draped in a long cloak, holding his works clasped against his body, his laurel-crowned head bent thoughtfully earthward. The statue is in white marble, but time has given it a gray cast, very agreeable to the eye. The autumn sun, warm and unloving, lit the statue and the church façade.
Then I had the strange impression that I was looking at all these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind’s eye. Now each time I look at this painting I again see that moment. Nevertheless the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable. And I also like to call the work which sprang from it an enigma.
The painting he composes from this experience, Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, dramatically alters the physical appearance of familiar aspects of piazza Santa Croce: the cathedral and its adjoining cloister and chapels metamorphise into a Greek temple adjoined by a wall of rustic, time-worn buildings with broken tile roofs. The 19th century Dante statue in the middle of the piazza is now an antique statue of introspection, turned so we see only its back and moved off-center and closer to the church. It dwarfs what appears to be a despairing (or mourning) couple dressed in court (or maybe court and church) robes. The sail of a ship passes by behind, but too close to, the wall of buildings, in the direction of the Arno (a lower portion of the sail drapes over a tile roof). There are many ways to read the painting – the ship represents an artist seeking unknown shores, the wall of buildings separates the visible and invisible world, and so on – but in this and a later series of enigma and piazza paintings the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which the artist had been studying at the time, is present. Neitzsche writes about a “dancing” art, inspired in part by “the love of the enigma”. Man should allow his thoughts to wander “light-footed”, he says, in order to interpret the mysterious metaphors and signs of the world.
The painting includes many rather than one vanishing point - a multiple perspective through which de Chirico invites the viewer (or a bench sitter in piazza Santa Croce) to imagine, and to create, or more precisely, reveal this world, too. To participate in a metaphysical aesthetic of experiencing architecture, in recognizing that what is important is not what a piazza and its architecture look like, but the way they feel. (Holzhey, pp. 15-21) De Chirico says that the revelation of a work of art that grows out of the reality of an arrangement of objects is similar to that which appears in the mind of the artist and is closely linked to the circumstances that inspire its genesis. They resemble each other but are different. Like two brothers, or an image in a dream of someone we know and that person as they appear in reality. “The revelation of a work of art,” de Chirico says, ”is proof of the metaphysical reality of certain chance occurrences that we sometimes experience in the way and manner that something appears to us and provokes in us the image of a work of art. (de Chirico, pp. 206-207)
In a recent book on the de Chirico brothers and the politics of modernism, Professor Keala Jewell cites this moment as the inspiration of the “Santa Croce narrative,” of Giorgio de Chirico’s subsequent enigma and piazza paintings. “An ‘impossible bringing together of disparate temporal elements occurs as a matter of course in the Italian piazza, she writes, which de Chirico combines with the metaphysical – a term that refers to an ability to imagine and create a world rather than to some undefined space beyond it. The layering and juxtaposition of the architecture and art of different eras of history in an Italian piazza frees artists and piazza users from the constraints of any single period of history and of the unity and purity of idealism. The piazza provides a stage for Giorgio de Chirico (and his brother, Alberto Savinio) to develop an influential aesthetic and also a theory of Italianità – of what it means to be Italian – which is at the center of heated political discourse and conflict in the early decades of the Twentieth Century and continues in the Twenty- first. A politics that challenges the uses of history, the created collective memory of unity and purity in the vision of Italianità of nationalist and fascist ideologies, and promotes a modern national identity. One that is based on the qualities of multiplicity, ambiguity, and mixedness celebrated in de Chrico’s representation of Santa Croce and other Italian piazzas. (Jewell, pp. 10-12, White, pp. 1-3), Cresti, pp. 5-28)
Professor Giampaolo Nuvolati talks in his recent book on the flaneur about ways in which attention to the aesthetics of place and to the insights of artists and writers can help social scientists who study cities move beyond the limits of the questionnaire, the tape recorder and speculation. To engage all five senses and direct experience in order to create an empathy with a sense of place and the spirit of particular places. To recognize the ambiguity and uncertainty inherent in public space. And by so doing, to generate new ideas about their construction and care. (Nuvolati (2006), pp. 134-137). Surrealist errance is term that art historians use today to describe a strategy of some early 20th century painters to engage in “an aimless wandering in the city’s streets meant to encourage the eruption of unconscious images into the perceptual field”. (Sharingham, p. 92, Laxton) An example, I believe, of the value a flaneur can contribute to perceiving and making known the enduring but invisible spirit of a piazza that lies beneath its physical appearance and beyond representational art.
Piazza Santa Croce is an excellent theater, in the many senses of the term. One noteworthy example of this is a spettacolo, which some describe as a return of the traditional singer of verses, il cantastorie, to the piazza in the form of actor, self-described clown, and long-time student of Dante, Roberto Benigni (“We need to have the nerve to understand why a man with a big nose seven hundred years ago had the heroic shamelessness to write,” he tells a reporter, in keeping with all these multiple roles). (Sisario, p. C1) Over the course of thirteen evenings in July, 2006, Benigni recites thirteen cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy from a stage at the front of the church and next to the Dante statue. He mixes his own leftist political commentary with riffs on Dante, characters from the Comedy, the city’s history, and even modern tourists, with passionate declamations of poetry. All of the more than four thousand seats in the piazza sell out every evening. Television RAI broadcasts the shows the following year (with cameras that provide sweeping views of the softly lit piazza and encircling buildings); a subsequent video of the program sets a record for dvd theatrical sales in Italy. In piazzas throughout Italy in the following three years, more than a million people see live performances of Tutto Dante. A 2008-2009 world tour brings the show to indoor theaters and concert halls in nearly twenty more cities of Europe and North and South America.
When we live in the piazza the historic soccer spettacolo is the only one to fill the piazza to the extant that Tutto Dante does, although there are other sporting events like the Florence marathon, a beach volleyball tournament, and an ice skating rink for a couple of months. And a New Year’s eve rock concert, a few pageants and marching bands, and food exhibitions. In April, 1998 (the same year that Benigni recites Inferno, canto five in Florence, the first installment of Tutto Dante) we look out our window late one evening to see passing through the piazza a solitary figure on high stilts dressed in a black toga like Dante wears in most depictions of him, decked out with flashing red lights and carrying a boom box emitting loud infernal music. He comes from the direction of piazza della Signoria and heads toward the river behind the church. About a dozen people follow him through the nearly empty piazza and into the night It is one of the best nights of theater in the piazza during our stay.
The Italian piazza has a long historic association with theater. The social revolutions and technological improvements of the Industrial Revolution also change the lives of city dwellers. As opportunities for interaction increase and diversify the chances of social encounters in the city also grow. What emerges is the city-as-theater, according to John Agnew and his associates in The City in Cultural Context. A dramatic increase in the number of theaters and performances, plays, operas and other musicals, comedy shows, and historical and religious dramas. But it is also designed “so that everyone can make a show of themselves for others” Agnew says, “It is the city as mirror. The models are Italian. Rome, with its papal court, and Venice has great influence in the transformation of Europe”. (Agnew, p. 45)
The concept of the piazza as theater is more likely to bring to mind large audience performances such as Tutto Dante than the late night passage of a solo Dante-on-stilts. Paul Woodruff’s definition of theater in his book, The Necessity of Theater, however, is broad enough to encompass Agnew’s point that everyone can make a show of themselves for others. Woodruff’s says “Theater is the art by which human beings make human action worth watching, in a measured time and space”. (Woodruff, p. 39) Severgnini refers to a term that he hears Neapolitan teenagers use for what they spend a great deal of time doing on the city’s street and in piazzas: intalliamento - which he translates expansively into English as “the practice of hanging out while you decide what to do, reflect on life, nibble a snack, and observe the world” – a form of theater that is part of every day life in a piazza. (Severgnini, p. 135) One in which the seeming non-activity of waiting, not wanting anything and not doing anything, of loafing, - of using leisure time for what sociologist Domenico De Masi calls “creative idleness” (ozio creativo) is a part of the contemporary Italian piazza with roots that go back to the ancient Roman forum. (Rossi, pp. 162-163, De Masi (2002)
There would always come a time when piazza Santa Croce would be empty, when the only sound is the splash of water in the fountain at the west end. This is usually late at night or very early in the morning, but sometimes it happens in the middle of day or late afternoon, most often in winter. After the crowds and souvenir sellers move on is the best time to see a quality that Canniffe says gives Italian piazzas their ultimate character: endurance. Their careful design, seamless integration with the city, and ambiguity in accommodating different functions, he says, differentiates classic Italian piazzas from “the functionally specific, provisionally constructed and attention seeking urbanism of the present day”. (Canniffe, p. 259)
One way to get a sense of the ambiguity of Italian piazzas is to look at different interpretations of their significance in the films of Federico Fellini, a master of the ineffable, and in particular in his 1960 classic, La Dolce Vita. In his book on the politics of the piazza, Eamonn Canniffe offers one perspective in a chapter called “Neo-Realism: Urban form and la dolce vita”. He writes that Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita represents a new Italy, in which public space is re-appropriated, after years of Fascist dominance and bleak postwar imagery of neorealist films, by an aesthetic of sensation and public display. In the film, historic piazzas and public spaces serve as backgrounds for spettacoli rather than places of collective memory and traditional values, Canniffe says. Two scenes in particular – one overlooking piazza San Pietro and one in Piazza Trevi – I think illustrate Canniffe’s point.
Although the film’s opening sequence begins with a helicopter carrying a statue of Christ the Laborer for the Pope’s blessing in Piazza San Pietro – an annual event celebrating collective memory – it is a later scene in Saint Peter’s I have in mind. One in which Sylvia, dressed in a fashion that evokes a monk’s habit, looks down on the piazza from the church cupola as she stands beside Marcello and begins to seduce him. She asks him to point out Giotto’s famous bell tower - which we all know is in not in Rome but in Florence. The second scene, one of the film’s most famous, takes place in the small but purposefully theatrical piazza Trevi. Here, Sylvia - whose pagan nature has emerged in the preceding scenes - appears to baptize Marcello with the water of the fountain built under several Popes. And in that moment the water stops flowing. The sequence triggers an epiphany for Marcello, who suddenly realizes he has been “wrong about everything all along, that we have all been wrong”. Wrong about precisely what is open to interpretation.
In both scenes, piazzas and public spaces are represented as tourist destinations, as images of Rome that some characters in La Dolce Vita (the Swedish actress Sylvia and the Italian paparazzi, as well as the real celebrities and photojournalists they are or represent, for example) carry around in their own heads and which serve them as sites of spettacolo. What is lost or at least diminished, Canniffe says, is the authenticity of these public spaces as manifestations of Italy’s urban culture. (Canniffe, pp. 217-218) Fellini scholar Frank Burke takes the idea of spectacle one step further. He says that in La Dolce Vita – just as in that era’s actual Hollywood-on-the-Tiber Rome that inspired and is reflected in the film, “the society of the spectacle loses its specifically Italian character and becomes the reflection of an American media imperialism that has indeed been a principal characteristic of post-modernity and image globalization. (Burke, p. 268). So there you have one interpretation of the meaning of the piazza in Fellini’s films. Maybe two.
We get a sense of the ambiguity of the piazza and its power to inspire when we hear another Fellini scholar, Peter Harcourt, say that the recurring image of an Italian piazza in the director’s films, is that of “a place of reckoning, divorced from it’s more sociable associations of being a place where people meet”. An image he likens to another artist sensitive to Italian space and light: Giorgio de Chirico: (Harcourt, pp. 248-9)
The Italian town square with its fountain in the middle is a recurrent image in Fellini. It is generally seen at night or in the early morning, generally presented as a place of reckoning and is divorced from its more sociable associations of being a place where people meet. In Fellini, the town square is never felt to be the social center of a community.
De Chirico too seemed to be sensitive to the empty feeling of such places at unused times of day – indeed, to the very irrelevance of such vast structures to the little intimacies of human life. And so in de Chirico, we find a number of such paintings that depict huge buildings and exaggerated shadows, where the tiny figures serve both to emphasize the hugeness of the structures (as do the miniature trains that we frequently see puffing away on the horizon) and to give a feeling that the little human things don’t really belong in such a space. . . .
This recognition of the bizarre is at the center of Fellini’s world, the physical parallel of his response to the irrational, the source of both his humor and of his sense of dread. For if humor is uppermost in most films by Fellini, beneath the comic observation of the discrepancies of human life there is always this feeling of something beyond our control, something not fully known to our rational minds.
Harcourt is not alone in finding similarities in representations of a piazza in Fellini’s films and de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings. Jacopo Benci, a Rome-based artist associated with the British School, points to another scene in La Dolce Vita where this is the case: Marcello sits at a bar under the colonnades of a modern building and overlooking a piazza formed by similar buildings and a late 1950s church. He is waiting for a photographer named Doria, who stands on an unstable café table to finish a fashion shoot of a model dressed in white; in the next shot the model stands on the table. There is a black horse in the background. The setting, Benci says, “bears clear references to de Chirico’s ‘metaphysical paintings’ of 1910-1914” - a representation of Nietzche’s ideas on architecture that call for cities to have more public spaces of seclusion and self-communion, “quiet, spacious, and widely extended places for reflection, places with long, lofty colonnades for bad weather, or for too sunny days”. And Benci compares the black horse in the background (which Marcello, in keeping with the spirit of the scene tells Doria to put on the table for the next shot) to “the haunting equestrian monuments often seen in de Chiro’s piazzas. (Benci, p. 80)
There is no seclusion, reflection, or self-communion on the part of Marcello in this scene; he reads a newspaper and banters with the photographer until he gets up to join his friend Steiner whom he spots going into the church. There is also no spettacolo, no sensation or public display in the sense that Canniffe talks about. There is however, an ambiguity about the uses and meaning of a piazza that leads us to consider the significance of a piazza to the life and fabric of a city,
To the sociologist Richard Sennett, a piazza is best considered not as a site for empty display, an entryway into another world of the irrational and the bizarre, or a place of seclusion and individual reflection.. For the classic ideal of a public space, he says, is that it is a place of shared truth. It is where people come to better understand other people in society by talking to them. Yet he also recognizes the value that ambiguity brings to the form. (Hitt, p. 58) Sennett argues that modern artists who experiment with indeterminacy and fragmentation can teach urban designers and policymakers to think of public spaces as something that city users themselves develop over time, give meaning to, and possess. In his own study of why a plaza at the base of New York’s AT&T building fails while others like Paley Park are filled with people, Sennett concludes that the key difference is that the latter could be altered by use. “Successful spaces prompt people to believe that something’s possible there, that the space is not complete and that they are invited to complete it,” he says. An invitation that brings to mind once again, Federico Fellini, who says that he thinks it is immoral for a filmmaker to provide an ending because it deprives viewers of making their own choices. And that one meaning of his film La Dolce Vita is the necessity to choose. (Burke and Waller, p.6, Costello, p. 34)
A PIAZZA IS A PLACE TO BE
It is novelist Robert Hellenga’s narrator, Margot Harrington, a book conservator from Chicago in her twenties, who speaks in the epigraph at the beginning of this paper. Who says that piazzas are charged with meaning. That what she likes about a piazza is that it gets away from the common American metaphor of life-is-a-journey. In the novel’s final scene, she is standing in Piazza Santa Croce. Her love affair with Alessandro (Sandro) Postiglione, a married Italian art expert in his fifties, is over, as is her clandestine mission of restoring and selling an antique volume of erotic engravings. After eight months in Florence, she should be going back home to resume her life, to get on with the journey. (You Anglo-Saxons come to Italy “to taste the sweet life,” Sandro tells her early on, “to swim in the nude, to drink the wine, to live close to nature, to experiment”.) She remembers now a time months earlier when she stands at the window of the rented apartment above the piazza and watches her lover Sandro make his slow way across the piazza – he comes down Via Verdi carrying flowers he has just bought for her, stops to look in shops, buy a lottery ticket, kick a wayward soccer ball, drink a coffee, smoke a cigarette with a friend, and greet a half dozen acquaintances along the way. She understands now that a piazza is “not a way of getting from one place to another. There’s no goal implied in a piazza, no destination.” She decides against returning to her life in the states and comes back instead to Florence. And knows now what Sandro always knew about a piazza. That “it’s a place to be, and not just anyplace either”. (Hellenga, p. 327, pp. 175-6)
Boston’s City Hall Plaza: The Application of an Italian Prototype to a North American Space:
About the same time but nearly four thousand miles from where Margot Harrington comes to understand the power of the Italian piazza (It is the Arno flood of November, 1966, which lures her to Florence and provides an opportunity to restore water-damaged books in the National Library), Boston mayor John Collins and his redevelopment and planning director Edward Logue are well into one of the most significant interventions to reshape the downtown fabric of a major city in U.S. history: the Government Center Urban Renewal Project. A key element in the new City Hall and City Hall Plaza when the project is completed in 1968 is the image of an ideal Italian piazza. In 1960, when the new mayor and his planning director initiate the urban renewal program Boston’s economy is stagnant; it is a city in distress. During the preceding decade the city’s population fell from a peak of 801,000 in 1950 to 697,000 in 1960. The Collin’s administrations sought to reverse this trend through downtown renewal programs to create new public and private office space – a building boom that would bring people back to the city to work and live.
There would be many pieces to this New Boston – the Prudential Center in Back Bay (a fifty-two-story building that would remain the tallest in Boston for more than a decade); a major residential complex, Charles River Park, in the razed West End neighborhood; a new Callahan Tunnel to connect the downtown with East Boston; a coordinated plan for development of Boston’s waterfront initiated in 1964; and an improved public transportation and parking system to support the highly valued asset of Boston’s reputation as a walkable city. The catalyst for a building boom and the symbol of the New Boston, however, would be the public and private office buildings of the new Government Center. (Kreiger, pp. 224-245, Nolan,, Schweitzer, Thrush)
When the Government Center Master Plan is unveiled in 1960, those who create it under the direction of architect, I.M. Pei have a blank slate to work with – more than fifty acres of open space created by demolishing hundreds of buildings on the narrow winding streets around Scollay Square – theaters, burlesque halls, gambling houses, restaurants, hotels, night clubs, tattoo parlors, and shooting galleries. The square is a major attraction for sailors and other visitors out for fun in the center of Boston, but to city leaders and many citizens it is a center of urban squalor that shames the city’s historical reputation - a symbol of the old, derelict Boston that has to go. When the bulldozers of urban renewal have finished clearing the area, more than nine hundred businesses and twenty-two streets have disappeared from the heart of old Boston. (Krieger, pp. 163-5, p. E4)
In 1962, the local architecture firm of Kallman, McKinnell, and Knowles wins an international competition for the design of City Hall and, in association with architects Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty, of City Hall Plaza, with an aggressively modern city hall of rough-hewn concrete and brick in the style of Le Corbusier’s New Brutalism set on the edge of an eleven-acre brick piazza. The intended political message of a transparent and accessible local government that engages citizens is articulated in a grand stairway that leads directly from the plaza to the fifth floor’s ceremonial spaces of the mayor and city council, an interior courtyard that brings light inside all levels of the building, the extension of the plaza’s brick pavement into the interior of the open-circulation ground floor, and the projection of the city council chamber out into the plaza.
After City Hall and the plaza are completed in 1968 and in the years that follow another political message emerges. The term most often used in conjunction with both the building and the space is “monumental” – a reference to the imposing nine-story bulk of the former and the vast space of the plaza, but also a term that reaches back to medieval and renaissance town halls and Italian civic piazzas. And the political message they conveyed, among many and at different times: to inspire awe and impress both citizens and outsiders with the might of government.
In 1972, four years after the completion of City Hall and the plaza and with most of the thirty coordinated buildings of Government Center in place, The New York Times’ Ada Huxtable writes: (Huxtable, p. 73)
With the plaza, and specifically because of it, the Boston Government Center can now take its place among the world’s great city spaces. Roughly the size of St. Peter’s Square in Rome, it lends a unity and style and sense of logical and rewarding spatial relationships to the complex that are a clear illustration of the best and most basic principles of urban design. It is in the direct tradition of historic Italian piazzas and European squares.
The plaza, Huxtable says, is the “urban and esthetic glue that holds the whole thing together” and lists its virtues in terms that sound very much like Camillo Sitte’s principles of composition in the traditional Italian piazza. There is a rapport among the forms, color and scale of surrounding buildings and the monumental City Hall, and the piazza, she says. Free space is created in the middle of the piazza by placing s sunken pool and fountain, trees and benches at the edge of the piazza formed by Cambridge Street and the Federal Building and the dominant City Hall to the rear (East) margin. There is at least a semblance of enclosure created on three sides of the piazza by the new federal and Central Plaza buildings and the preserved Sears Crescent building of 1841. The trapezoidal shape and terraced red brick pavement that steps down the gentle last slope of Beacon Hill to City Hall and toward the sea accord with Sitte’s aesthetic principles of dimension and form and irregularity.
Huxtable also praises the sight lines of the New Boston plaza, which provide views of Old Boston such as the Custom House Tower (added to the original 1847 building in 1915), - which Alex Krieger of the Harvard School of Design says “dominated the skyline, almost in the manner of a campanile in a medieval town” until the completion of the taller Prudential Building in 1964 - and the Old State House (1713) framed by the arcade of the New England Merchants Bank tower close to the Piazza. A modern application of Sitte’s principle of the harmonious grouping of piazzas (Krieger , pp. 166-167, Huxtable, p. 73).
Architects and urban planners also praise the new Government Center plaza and city hall. In 1969, the Boston Society of Architects awards it the Harleston Parker Medal for the “most beautiful piece of architecture” in the city and the American Institute of Architects selects it for an AIA Honor Award, the profession’s highest recognition of excellence. A reviewer in the March, 1964 Architectural Record adds St. Mark’s of Venice to Huxtable’s invocation of St Peter’s plaza in Rome, but also characterizes it as “a great plane on which people move” – a perspective more in tune with an American business model of plazas (“a way of getting from one place to another”) than it is with the “graceful Italian piazzas” (“a place to be”), to which City Hall Plaza is initially compared. (Nolan, Schweitzer, p. B1) And in a New England winter, people do indeed move quickly across (or avoid altogether) City Hall plaza – a season when even to a fan like Huxtable, the plaza seems “cold and windswept” (Huxtable, p. 39) Terms that evoke Sitte’s description of the immense and empty piazzas of northern Europe but question his belief that successful piazzas could be built north of the milder climate of the Mediterranean. (Sitte, pp. 19 and 39)
Those who write about piazzas often express a belief that direct experience is essential to understanding a piazza and its contribution to the quality of life in a city. It doesn’t take long for the most frequent users of City Hall and the Plaza to express reservations about, even disapproval of the new space. Boston mayors who succeed John Collins are among the first to offer opinions about the plaza quite different from the initial positive responses of architects and newspaper columnists. Kevin White, who takes over from Collins in 1968 and serves sixteen years, is quite frank. “Horrible,” is what he calls it, and suggests (tongue in cheek, I think) that the space be used for drive-in movies or public vegetable gardens. For a while, the White administration welcomes pushcarts selling food and local merchandise to the plaza, but ends that program in response to complaints that grease from the food carts stains the bricks. The next mayor, Raymond Flynn, who is elected in 1984 and leaves office to become U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in 1993, calls for getting rid of all those bricks and replacing them with trees and fountains to create a “European-style” public space. Budget considerations, however, put an end to that proposal.
Thomas Menino follows Flynn to office in 1993 and becomes perhaps the strongest and most persistent critic of the plaza of all mayors. In 1994, the city sponsors a competition for proposals to transform City Hall plaza and is inundated with many, often-bizarre, proposals (one is to build on the plaza a “Tomb of the Bambino” to honor the Red Sox years of fabled Yankee slugger Babe Ruth). The next year, Menino creates a panel representing public and private interests, the Trust for City Hall Plaza, and charges it with coming up with proposals to improve the plaza and creating a revenue source to finance them. In 1996, the Trust presents the Boston Redevelopment Authority with a mix of proposals: to connect the plaza with the outdoor food market and the city’s historic “Italian” neighborhood by extending its main artery, Hanover Street, through the west side of the piazza to Cambridge Street; to support private development of a revenue-generating hotel or parking garage between the extension of Hanover Street and the John F. Kennedy Federal Building; to create a music garden based on themes from Bach’s Cello Suite Number 1 and designed by the internationally acclaimed Boston-area cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and finally, to build an electronic billboard, which, like the other proposals, would bring more pedestrian traffic into the plaza.
The General Services Administration objects to a hotel that might encroach on the space of federal office buildings. Citizen groups oppose all proposals that would privatize public space. And some planners and financial experts question the revenue-raising capability of these proposals. When the Trust for City Hall Plaza completes its work in 2003, the most tangible result of eight years of studies and proposals is an illuminated wood and steel arcade built in 2001 – a $2.7 million project funded by the Trust – which provides some sense of enclosure and a space for music making, farmers’ markets and other small scale activities along Cambridge Street. Two subway stations close to the plaza are also remodeled. Menino tries again to improve use of the public space. He creates a Government Center Task Force, which advances a number of long debated ideas on how to humanize the plaza: a visitors center, a pedestrian-only extension of Hanover Street, a new fountain, additional green space, a parking ban. But no plans for implementation or funding or a timetable for these proposals emerge from the final meeting of the task force in June, 2003. (Nolan, Schweitzer, Palmer)
The director of Boston’s Northeastern University School of Architecture, George Thrush, offers this judgment of City Hall Plaza in 2007, a year before its 40th anniversary: the new City Hall and plaza did serve as a catalyst for economic renewal that creates a New Boston in the sixties and seventies. But he also says that 21st century Bostonians now look at this public space in the heart of the city and are justified in thinking that unless something is done they face “an eternity of cold, dark public buildings on barren, wind-swept plazas”. In particular, Thrush points to how the plaza fails to achieve certain functions essential to a piazza’s contribution to the quality of urban life: “to connect adjoining neighborhoods, to provide activity both day and night, and to provide enough density to define usable public and private space”. (Thrush, p. E4) Decades of direct experience has turned on its head Huxtable’s early characterization of City Hall Plaza as being “in the direct tradition of historic Italian piazzas and European squares”. Thirty years after Huxtable writes those words, Stephen Carr, a Cambridge architect and urban and public space designer writes these: “Boston City Hall Plaza provides one example among many of a failed attempt to apply an Italian prototype to a North American space”. To illustrate the point, he notes that: (Carr, pp. 248, 88)
The Italian plazas, such as the elegant shell-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena, after which the City Hall Plaza is modeled were and still remain truly civic spaces.
They function not only as monumental forecourts to city hall but as the marketplace and as a space for festivals, tournaments and civic celebration today, often rimmed with cafes and shops, Italian plazas remain the heart of the city.
There are many good reasons why architects and urban designers would choose to model Boston’s 20th century City Hall Plaza on Siena’s medieval Piazza del Campo. First, the size, shape and downward slope of the open space cleared in the center of Boston is similar to Siena’s Campo The organic Siena piazza, like the ancient Roman fora from which Sitte derives his principles of composition, is shaped by and draws its beauty from its natural setting. The Boston site would provide 20th century planners, it would seem, with a rare opportunity to incorporate these principles and that aesthetic into a modern piazza. Second, Piazza del Campo is a purely civic piazza. Unlike Rome’s St Peters and Venice’s Saint Marks, in which religious authority is dominant or shared with secular authority, the Piazza del Campo is one in which, in Canniffe’s words, “secular authority was without challenge”. (Canniffe, p. 65) The new Boston City Hall, located at the edge of the piazza as is Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, would be a symbol of a fresh, pro-active and pro-development city government dedicated to creating the New Boston. Third, City Hall Plaza, like the Campo, would provide a central and commodious open space for civic celebrations and festivals. What could go wrong?
Thrush’s summary of failures above show what does go wrong. He also identifies a fundamental flaw in the conception and execution of Government Center – the big thing that goes wrong - which I believe best illustrates the power of the traditional Italian piazza to improve the quality of life in a city. A model for successfully applying an Italian prototype to a North American (or Sitte’s Northern European – or any other) space. And a cautionary tale for those who attempt it. I think that part of the answer to the question of what goes wrong in Boston can be found by considering what went right in Siena and how that has to do with the spirit or soul of a city.
Piazza del Campo, Siena
“You know this place,” Beppe Severgnini says about the Campo, “or better still, you recognize it” (Severgnini, p. 118) For most Italians and for summertime tourists in Tuscany, this is true at least in part because of the Palio – the festival and the minute-and-a-half horse race three times around the edge of the Campo held every July 2 and August 16. About 30,000 spectators scrunch into the piazza itself (a number that is about half the city’s population) to see (and sometimes touch) the race directly, while millions watch it live on television. The riders and horses in the race carry the colors of Siena’s contrade (neighborhoods – there are currently seventeen contrade, but only ten race at a time. The winner is awarded a painted banner (palio), but the attendant year-round preparations and rituals and the ferocious intensity of the competition indicate that much more is at stake. If there is a defining spirit, a soul to the city of Siena (despite Florentine assertions to the contrary) it must have something to do with the city’s contrade. And with the piazza where the horses run.
Here is something else Severgnini says about the Campo: “It wasn’t designed on paper”. (Severgnini, p. 118) This applies in particular, he says, to two qualities that make the piazza so well-known: its unusual shell shape and its steep slope from the Fonte Gaia on the northwest edge down to the Palazzo Pubblico. Both owe more to the natural setting and historic development of Siena than they do to the close design of an ancient Roman town (the origin of the name Siena is attributed to the Roman colony of Saena Julia in most accounts, but the city itself is a creation of the sixth and seventh centuries, not an expansion of a Roman town, which typically takes the form of concentric circles. (Bowsky, p. 11). The settlement of Siena emerges along the spines of three ridges that come together to create its distinguishing form of a inverted “Y” on an approximately north- south axis. The main roads (including the ancient Roman Via Francigena) run along those ridges and descend to a crossroads close to the present day Campo. The convergence of the three ridges form the half circle located in a neutral space that gives shape to the original Campo, and the downward slope of the field toward the Montone Valley drains rainwater from the center. This topography also shapes the government structure of the medieval city in the form of terzi (thirds) – the basic administrative units of the city named for the early settlements on the three ridges – Città, Camollia, and San Martino – with each having equal representation in the governing bodies of the republic.
The three terzi are further subdivided into three forms of territorial units. First, the popoli, which bear the names of parish churches and consist of their parishioners. Second, the contrade, the neighborhood units of unequal size, which historically were designated as the area within approximately two hundred feet in all directions from one’s house. Third, the lire, which are fiscal and administrative units of the city. In the early 14th century there are thirty-six popoli, more than two hundred contrade, and sixty lire. Some of the key features of the Campo during this early period are directed toward creating a sense of unity in the fractured landscape of divided loyalties in the city. The fortress-like city hall, Palazzo Pubblico is completed in 1310, the Torre del Mangia - which soars from the low side of the Campo to become the highest point in the city - in 1348, and the Campo is paved in brick in 1349. The nine sections of both city hall and the Campo represent the Council of Nine, which governs from 1287 to 1355, and the small territorial units on which it is based. The piazza is not designed on paper, maybe, but the government of the Nine closely oversees the development of the urban core by realigning streets and buildings on the perimeter and promulgating detailed design regulations such as those that require that windows in private houses conform with those of the Palazzo Pubblico in order to create the enduring harmony of the space. (Bowsky, pp. 1-22, 294, Starn, pp. 11-19)
Although the contrades’ earliest functions of raising funds and militias and serving as administrative units of the commune diminishes over the years and the number of contrade falls to the present-day seventeen in 1675, these neighborhoods continue to be essential elements in the fabric of the city. The Campo is where the city celebrates its soul in the permanence of its architecture and twice every year in the Palio. Each contrada has a coat of arms, colors, motto, symbol, association, military company, patron saint and holiday, oratory, museum, stable, and web site – all of which reference the contrada’s role in the history of the city. For example, the contrada Bruco (caterpillar), located just inside the Orvile gate north of the Campo in the Terzo di Camollia is a working class neighborhood of Siena in medieval times with a high concentration of silk workers (the caterpillar symbolizes how hardworking the residents are). The Bruco motto: Come rivoluzion sòna il mio nome (My name sounds like a revolution) refers to the contrada’s leading a revolt against the government in 1371, which, after a bloody counterattack, ushers in an era that historians regard as the height of democratic government in Siena, 1371-1385. The strong emotional attachment of Sienna’s citizens to their neighborhood on display twice a year in the brief horse race is the driving force behind year-round activities such as the election of leaders, rehearsals for the pageant before the race, the sewing of costumes, and a series of meetings to develop the contrada’s race strategy. Any resident of the contrada over the age of eighteen gets to vote in assembly elections and participate in meetings. Most people are baptized in the contrada’s open air fountain and attend the parish church. Even today it is considered a good idea to marry within the neighborhood. (Nobil Contrada del Bruco, Jarratt)
Where tourists see a horse race and visitors at other times see a piazza that seems to exemplify in every way the beauty and harmony of an Italian piazza, residents of Siena see a public space that symbolizes both the unity of the city and the neighborhoods dear to their own identity. “To apply an Italian prototype to a North American space” is not an easy thing to do in any case. To model a new civic piazza in Boston on Siena’s Campo, it now seems evident, poses an even greater challenge.
Project for Public Spaces: Principles for Creating and Evaluating Piazzas
Northeastern University’s George Thrush, as we have seen, identifies many ways in which City Hall plaza fails to achieve some of the essential functions of a successful piazza such as connecting adjoining neighborhoods, providing activity around the clock and drawing on a surrounding area with enough density and diversity to define usable public and private space. He also calls attention to how the original conception and creation of Boston’s civic piazza might have planted the seeds of failure. A point that makes more sense when looked at from the perspective of Siena’s Campo.
The Boston project, you will recall, begins with the removal of twenty-two streets in and around Scollay Square. But those are not just any streets. They are narrow streets that wind through and around the square and connect the historic Pemberton Square with Faneuil Hall and the urban buzz of a wholesale food market at Quincy Market. They link Scollay square with key hubs of the city center: Beacon Hill, the downtown financial district, and the Bullfinch Triangle They are streets alive with a mix of commercial activity – the sort of small workspaces and shops that energize Siena’s Campo from the beginning. These narrow winding streets – which often baffle outside drivers to the point they become strong believers in the urban legend that the original streets of Boston are laid out on cow paths – let you know right away that it is grid- averse Boston you are in, not Chicago or Manhattan. And this street fabric, Thrush says, links the modern city to earlier Bostons all the way back to the densely built – because it is surrounded by water - late 17th century Boston. “There is no more irreducible aspect of Boston’s character,” he says, “than its complex network of neighborhood street patterns.” (Thrush, p. E4)
Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a non-profit organization founded in 1975 whose mission is to work with cities and smaller communities to create and sustain public spaces that add value to quality of life. Based in New York City, PPS works with William H. Whyte and seeks to extend his insights about social uses of streets, plazas, and parks to the current global place-making movement. An early signature project is the development of Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens. Since then PPS has worked with more than two and a half thousand towns and cities in forty countries to add social value to public spaces. The organization likens its role to that of a global town square, in which planners, architects, engineers and other trained professionals exchange ideas and experiences with each other and with government officials, foundations, and residents to create a shared vision of and principles of implementation for successful public spaces.
The organization’s observation and analysis of hundreds of public squares over more than thirty years are the source of the PPS “Ten Principles for Creating Successful Squares”. Most of those principles reflect values associated with Italian piazzas in this paper. Briefly paraphrased, they are that a successful square or piazza is one that: (1) reflects and reinforces the image and identity of a city; (2) includes a variety of smaller spaces with different uses and participants; (3) has amenities that encourage piazza users to stay a while, such as benches, trash receptacles, lighting, art, and live music; (4) is flexible and can be adapted to many and varied uses; (5) operates under a seasonal strategy of promoting different activities at different times of year; (6) is easily accessed; (7) encourages the development of an inner and outer square, with informal social activities in the inner square and retail spaces such as cafes and shops in the outer square; (8) extends out to surrounding neighborhoods and adjacent or nearby public spaces; (9) is well managed with clear lines of authority and accountability to make the square safe and comfortable; and (10) is supported by diverse and private funding sources to augment limited municipal budgets.
In an effort to promote a discussion of these principles and other ideas about why some public squares succeed and others fail, Project for Public Spaces develops a list of the world’s best and worst squares and plazas. The plazas under consideration are all ones with which PPS has direct experience from observing and studying them at various times of year, working with others to improve them, and visiting them at least five times. In September, 2004, PPS releases a ranking of the world’s best public squares. In first place on the list of fourteen is Piazza del Campo in Siena. A separate list identifies the world’s worst squares and plazas. At the top of this ranking, the world’s worst plaza, is City Hall Plaza in Boston. (Project for Public Spaces (2004)
To Understand a Place To Be You Have To Be There
After a decade of studying plazas and public spaces in New York City, William Whyte recognizes the difficulty of objectively measuring their impact on quality of life in the city and expresses frustration with this in terms that sound a lot like those of Professor De Masi at the beginning of this paper: (LaFarge, p. 296)
The time to worry is when street people leave a place. Like canaries in a coal mine, street people are an index of the health of a place. This is not reflected in the kind of city rankings lately so popular: the ten best quality-of-life cities in the U.S., the twenty happiest communities, and so on. Cities like New York go at the bottom, the top going to communities that could also qualify as the highest on any blandness index.
While one would not wish to add yet another spurious statistical exercise, it might be in order to come up with a city index of enjoyability – the number of street entertainers, food vendors, people in conversation, the number smiling. A silly index, perhaps, but there is a simple point to be made. Street people are not just a problem; they are the heart of the street life of the center. Its liveliness is the test of the city itself.
The number and variety of piazzas and their relationship to the fabric and enduring soul of the cities in which they are located makes it difficult to develop comprehensive measures of their impact on quality of life in a city. I have found that most of those who study and write about this subject agree on the importance of direct experience in a piazza, which of course makes it more difficult to include in any survey of a large number of cases. “To understand a piazza, you have to frequent it,” Severgnini says. (Severgini, p. 115) In his book, Populations in Movement, Cities in Transformation, Professor Nuvoltati says that the most significant phenomenon behind the revaluation of the authenticity of places is to be found in qualitative rather than quantitative profiles. And as discussed earlier, in his 2006 book, Lo Sguardo Vagabondo, Nuvolati talks about the heuristic value of the artistic experience, as well as social science, for understanding a sense of place in an ever changing postmodern world. (Nuvolati (2002), p. 178, Nuvolati (2006), p. 134) And here is how Eamonn Canniffe characterizes the research work for his fifteen-year study of the Italian piazza: (Canniffe, p. 10)
The principle method of research employed to produce this book, and which I would claim to be vital for any architectural historian, is not documentary or archival or bibliographic.
Instead it has to be the experience of the place itself, not simply in its accumulated detail but in the generality of its effect, since juxtapositions and discontinuities play an important role in the aesthetic composition of the piazza.
Two of the most important characteristics of a successful piazza that emerge from this survey, both difficult to measure, are aesthetics and choice. They seem more amenable to qualitative than quantitative measurement. The extensive research and writing on the Italian piazza does identify aesthetic elements and principles that can add value to quality of life in a city. And there is certainly a wealth of promising research opportunities within the range of measuring benches and reading metaphysical paintings of piazzas. The importance of choice to the success of a piazza is a finding that emerges from video observation of actual behavior more so than it does from piazza users responding to questionnaires, who are not likely to say that they go to a plaza in order to read a book in the middle of a crowd or to engage the aesthetics of a piazza to relieve the tedium of everyday life. Designers, builders, and curators of piazzas can best provide users with choices by thinking of piazzas as a place to be, but with a dynamic in which they are never complete. Good piazzas encourage city users to bring to the quality of urban life the benefits that errant artists do. So that, in Nuvolati’s words, “Interactions and reciprocity root themselves in territory and daily life, dimensions in which they can form alternative proposals of construction and development of public spaces”. (Nuvolati (2006), pp. 136)
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