Florence squares, cradles of art, history, music and culture

On a June afternoon at sunset, an American woman and her daughter fended their way along a crowded street in Florence and entered with relief the spacious Piazza della Signoria. – E. Spencer

The squares of Florence have many stories to tell. For centuries, they were the centre of political, economic and religious life of the city. On the squares of Florence people argued, made purchases and listened to the sermons of friars who contrasted the behavior of lax citizens, and, there in the same public square (“Piazza”), often murderers, thieves or heretics were condemned to death, hanged or burned at the stake.

Florence’s Squares have a thousand stories to tell, funny and tragic stories of powerful people and Ciompi alike, who were the outcast of the minor arts. The Grand Dukes of Tuscany have competed to make those places more beautiful and alive, ordering to build palaces and churches of wonderful workmanship, made and decorated by architects and masters of art famous throughout the world.

The squares of Florence are vital places that over time have been able to give spaces of freedom to the people and today, patient and always cheerful, welcome the millions of tourists who every year land in the Tuscan capital, cradle of the Renaissance, home of art, mother and stepmother of a great number of artistic geniuses, like no other city in the world.

Piazza Duomo, Dante’s Favorite Bench

Among the strangest anecdotes involving Piazza del Duomo in Florence, there is that relating to the so-called Sasso di Dante (Dante’s Stone.) It seems that the Great Poet was in the habit of laying on a specific stone to contemplate and often criticize in a low voice the construction activities of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. One day, a passer-by saw him sitting there and asked him what his favorite food was: “The egg,” said the Poet. A year later, as if to challenge him, the same passer-by asked him point-blank: “With what?”. “With salt” Dante replied promptly, thus showing all its sharpness and excellent memory. The Sasso di Dante, which today is also the name of a restaurant located at number 54, is right on this beautiful square of Florence where, in addition to the Basilica, stand Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistery of San John and the beautiful Archbishop’s Palace, Loggia del Bigallo and Palace of the Canons.

Piazza della Repubblica and the epic Column of Abundance

According to the Romans, today’s Piazza della Repubblica was the navel of the city, right at the intersection of the Cardo and the Decumanus. There, they placed a column that has undergone many vicissitudes in time. Today’s Column of Dovizia or Column of Abundance, visible on the right coming from Via degli Speziali, was erected in 1431. One day in 1721, this statue of the Goddess Dovizia, by Donatello, fell down, and was replaced with a similar one. Meanwhile, the square had become the Old Market Square, which was pulled down in the 19th century along with the column itself, and, dismembered, ended up in different parts of the city. In 1956, a special committee had it reset in its original point. The statue, however, is a copy, as the original is kept in the Palace of the Savings Bank of Florence, in via dell’Oriuolo.

In Piazza della Signoria, an act of Vandalism by Michelangelo

On one of the stones of the Palazzo Vecchio, overlooking Piazza Signoria, is the engraved sketch of a man’s profile, called the Intruder. Legend has it that the engraving is a portrait, made by Michelangelo Buonarroti, depicting a prisoner condemned to death and executed in public. It is said that the artist, not to be surprised in the act of vandalism, he carved the portrait with hands behind his back.

In front of the Fountain of Neptune, always in Piazza della Signoria, a granite disk in the pavement remembers the point where on May 23rd, 1498, Friar Girolamo Savonarola was burned after being hanged because he was condemned for heresy. A ceremony named La Fiorita takes place every year in Florence to commemorate the morning after the burning of the monk, when in the place of the execution were found flowers and rose petals.

Piazza San Lorenzo and the Unsolved Question

This centuries-old question is: what is the statue of Giovanni delle Bande Nere holding in the right hand, placed on the pedestal in front of the massive Basilica of San Lorenzo? Some believe it’s the handle of a spear, but the debate remains open. The statue, commissioned by Giovanni’s son, Cosimo I De’ Medici, however, was placed inside the Basilica, leaving bare the powerful base, and repositioned by 1850. With the usual irony that characterizes Florentines, the statue is nicknamed the Great Captain Had because of the writing on the pompous plaque placed in the 19th century, which reads: “A part of this monument commissioned by Cosimo I to honor the memory of his father Giovanni delle Bande Nere, long stood here untreated and people called it the base of San Lorenzo, restored in MDCCCL and placed here, the statue of the great captain had finally reached completion.”

In Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Franciscans vs. Dominicans

Under the portico entrance to the church of the Hospital of St. Paul, which now hosts the Alinari National Museum of Photography, a sculpted terracotta depicts the meeting, in 1221, between St. Francis and St. Dominic. The embrace of the founders of the respective orders put an end to a never explicit antipathy that existed between the Dominicans, who built the Church of Santa Maria Novella, and the Franciscans who built instead, just on the opposite side of the square, a shelter for pilgrims that once expanded became the Hospital of St. Paul. The friars glared at each other on opposite sides of the square and only the meeting between the founding fathers marked the complete pacification and mutual respect. Thus avoiding the threat of possible ‘crows’.

How many Bees in Piazza Santissima Annunziata?

The museum of the “Spedale”, on Piazza Santissima Annunziata, holds an original collection of small objects, ribbons, buttons, holy pictures and medals. These are the ‘anonymous signs’ that desperate mothers used to leave beside the newborns that they abandoned in the “Wheel of the Innocents” located under the portico of the Hospital. The babies were placed on this wooden wheel through a small window, so that the nuns could collect them to take care of them. The ‘anonymous signs’ remained attached to the babies, in order to be recognizable by their mothers whether the latter would have regretted their decision.

However, the challenge for tourists visiting Piazza Santissima Annunziata is counting the myriads of bees around the queen bee engraved on the pedestal of the equestrian statue of Ferdinand I. The concentric circles confuse and force to start the count over and over again, and eventually give up (don’t tell anyone: they’re 91, but with or without the Queen Bee?)

Piazza dell’Indipendenza, the Square without Churches nor Palaces

The importance of Piazza dell’Indipendenza with regards to Florence’s toponymy is remarkable. The square dates back to the early ‘40s of 1800 and represents the first example of breaking old patterns of urban development, which for centuries, unchanged, characterized the city. Indeed, there where the residential area of the new Barbano district has been set for a few decades now, for the first time a square was built where there were no secular or religious palaces. The square is located on the road that leads from the centre to the Fortress of St. John the Baptist, also called Fortezza da Basso, which nowadays hosts fairs, exhibitions and conferences. The new district was intended for middle-class Florentines, who represented the cultural change occurred in the period between the end of the Grand Duchy and the beginning of the history of Italy’s unification. So much so that the square even changed its name: initially dedicated to Princess Maria Antonia of the Two Sicilies, it soon became Piazza dell’Indipendenza (Independence Square).

In Piazza San Marco, amid Elixirs and Odd Liqueurs

Near the convent of San Marco and close to the Cloister of the Scalzo, you can still see the large entrance to the Old Pharmacy run by Dominican friars. Since the time of the Renaissance, the friars were highly regarded for their wisdom and culture, but also for their expertise in the preparation of medicines. Around the front door of the pharmacy you can still read, carved in marble, the preparations that were sold until the 19th century. Among these: the Alchermes – much appreciated by Lorenzo the Magnificent – a liqueur made from 95° alcohol, water, sugar, cinnamon, cochineal, cloves and cardamom; Anti-Hysteria water – sedative and antispasmodic; Stomatal Elixir prepared with herbs, spices and saffron; Rose Water.

Piazza Santa Trìnita: Engravings and Legends

The first thing to know is that the name of the square is pronounced with a stress on the first “I” rather than on the “a”, as usual, in Italian. On the square, which is located on the beautiful Via de’ Tornabuoni, stands a granite monolith donated in 1560 by Pope Pius IV to Cosimo I. The monolith came from the Baths of Caracalla, after a 15-months’ trip along the Tiber, the Tyrrhenian Sea up to Pisa and then along the Arno towards Florence.

Very interesting are also the engravings on the elegant Palazzo Bartolini-Salimbeni, designed by architect Bartolomeo Baglioni, after he was kicked out of the construction project of the Duomo due to his contrasts with Michelangelo. Baglioni engraved on the entrance door the statement: Carpere promptius quam imitari (it is easier to criticize than to imitate) in response to the criticism he received for his architectural style. Per non Dormire (more or less: “To stay awake”) instead, is engraved on the windows of the second and third floors. Legend has it that the silk merchant Bartolini, on the eve of an auction for a load coming from the East, set up a feast for all of its competitors during which he put them to sleep with powerful sedatives. The following day, being the only bidder, he won the load for a pittance. So he mocked his competitors with the inscription on the façade of the palace.

Piazza dei Ciompi, for Lovers of Vintage Shopping

Piazza dei Ciompi has nothing to do with the Ciompi people, workers and artisans of the ‘minor’ arts (tailors and dyers) who, for the sake of greater dignity and recognition, made the famous Ciompi Revolution in 1378. The square’s name probably derives from the fact that the monks of the nearby church of Santa Croce hosted the rejected and discredited Ciompi people here. The importance of the square is entirely due to the delightful Flea Market that it hosts daily since the mid-1900s, proposing lovely antiques and crafts. On the last Sunday of every month, the market is enriched with other stalls along via dei Martiri del Popolo, borgo Allegri and via Buonarroti.

Piazza Ognissanti: Madonna’s Stage

The large open space that opens parallel to Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci, Piazza Ognissanti, hosts the church of the same name, as well as the Hotel Excelsior – rebuilt in the 19th century – to the east, and both The St. Regis Florence and Palazzo Lenzi – the seat of the Consulate of France and Florence French Institute – to the west. The square is dominated by the statue of Hercules fighting with a lion made by Romano Romanelli in 1935. In the summer of 2012, the large square has been the site of an event that has given it international prestige. It was used, in fact, as the set for Madonna’s “Turn Up The Radio” music video, from the album MDNA. The singer-performer, who stayed at the St. Regis and shot some scenes in Galliano, Mugello, shot a scene in which, in a black leather mini-dress, glasses and high heels, comes out gasping from the hotel to get on a Cadillac Eldorado.

Piazza Strozzi, the Defeat of the De’ Medici Family

Palazzo Strozzi deserves tribute, both from a historical and tourist perspective, especially because it is one of the few buildings in Florence not commissioned by the Medici Family. The Strozzi Family, in fact tried, unsuccessfully, to impose their power over the city, in fierce opposition to the Medici. Among the many disputes between the two families, there was also the one about the largest building, the only challenge that the Strozzis eventually won. Palazzo Strozzi – now home to prestigious cultural events and exhibitions, seat of the Cabinet Viesseux for literature, of the Italian Institute of Human Sciences and the Institute for Renaissance Studies, despite being very similar to the Palazzo Medici in Via Cavour – is much more impressive.
Very nice to see is the so-called Diavolino del Giambologna which is located on the Vecchietti Palace, on the corner between Piazza Strozzi and Via dei Vecchietti. The little satyr was a tribute by the Flemish master to the Vecchietti Family, to thank them for their hospitality during his stay in Florence.

Piazza del Carmine: the Most Authentic Florence

Piazza del Carmine, in the Oltrarno area, is long rather than wide, always cluttered with parked cars, frequented by tourists and in front of the beautiful unfinished facade of the Church of the Carmine. All this makes it a very lively square in one of Florence’s most Florentine areas. Moreover, because of its distance from the main centers of tourism, many bars and clubs have been opened on the square, frequented especially by young locals. As for many squares of Florence, the origin of Piazza del Carmine is linked to the need to accommodate, in 1300, the multitude of people who wanted to attend the sermons delivered by the friars of various religious orders. Such a huge number of people couldn’t be hosted in the church, so these squares were created in front of it, to accommodate pilgrims and faithful.

In Piazza del Cestello with the Girls of San Frediano

In Piazza del Cestello stands the church of San Frediano, one of many in Florence with an unfinished facade, like the Church of the Carmine, the Church of San Paolino – near Santa Maria Novella, or the Church of Badia Fiesolana, in Fiesole, near Florence. Speaking of unfinished works, one cannot but remember that the same facade of the Basilica of Santa Croce, where are buried the great personalities of Florence’s history, was completed only in the mid-nineteenth century. The name Cestello (“Basket”) is borrowed from the Cistercian monks, who were also known as ‘brothers of the basket.’ It is worth mentioning the small Cestello Theater right on the square, where sensational performances take place in a desecrating vernacular Florentine dialect. In the district, writer Vasco Pratolini set his novel The Girls of San Frediano, where five young women, proud and very witty, force the playboy Bob to choose one of them after being repeatedly deceived.

Piazzale Michelangelo, where Florence is at your feet

The beautiful viewpoint of Florence, Piazzale Michelangelo, in Oltrarno, was built in the mid-1800s, a period known as Restoration, when the bourgeoisie gave a deep shock to town planning of the historical centre and the Oltrarno area, in response to new economic and social needs. On the square, designed by architect Giuseppe Poggi, there are copies of the works of Michelangelo and the same lodge is designed in neoclassical style: the view you can admire from Piazzale Michelangelo is truly unique. All Florence, its bridges, religious and secular buildings, lay at the feet of tourists who can enjoy the show comfortably seated at an outdoor restaurant or bar.

In Piazza Santo Spirito to party and stroll

The square in front of the Church of the Holy Spirit, very nice place of worship despite the very poor and anonymous facade, has always been one of the favorite places for Florentines to party and stroll. The market set up every day, and which, on specific Sundays of the month, turns into an huge market of antiques and crafts, is a source of pride for the residents of the ward. On the square are held the celebrations for St. Rocco, patron of Oltrarno, and St. Martin, with the exhibition of fabrics and wool products. The area is totally pedestrian, very well maintained and illuminated at night. In short, a nice place to spend evenings in good company.

Piazza della Passera, Brothels and Whorehouses

Well, yes. The “Passera” that gave its name to the square in Oltrarno, a short distance from the Pitti Palace, refers exactly to women’s external genital organs. The city administration has tried to mitigate the issue attempting to pass the legend that in mid 1300, a little sparrow (Passero in Italian) was vainly treated by the inhabitants of the area (which sparrow was sick with the plague that struck Florence in 1348), but the story is totally different. Indeed, the area around the square has always been occupied by brothels and whorehouses. In 2005, the Administration has finally given up and the name of the square has officially become one: Piazza della Passera. On the square you can admire an interesting fountain with a waterfall, but the not-to-be-missed stop is at the restaurant-tavern Il Magazzino where you can enjoy the excellent traditional dishes.