Buried, about 9 feet under. Did you realize that the true foundation of Florence is entirely Roman?
However, in Florence, unlike Rome, where majestic stretches of crumbled pillars and shells of temples lie in plain site, the ruins in Florence are much more discreet. They pose a difficult but thrilling challenge for the determined history buff to sniff out.
First, an aside. Just before and during Easter, the weather in Florence was spectacular. I started to believe that summer was just around the corner.
Then it cooled off–suddenly and drastically. With rain. I was caught dressed for summer, not believing that winter could possibly crop up again. Boy, was I wrong!
So, with the cooler weather, yesterday seemed like a great day to go underground and catch up on my history lessons by visiting the Roman ruins under the Palazzo Vecchio in the heart of Florence. And that’s how this complicated, historical post got started. Sorry, but every now and then I have to learn something new and today, Roman Florence is it.
This is how Roman-era Florence was laid out.
In case you didn’t remember, Florence was founded by the Romans as a military camp situated on the Via Cassia, the main route between Rome and the north. We even know who established Florence: Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 80 BC.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla built Fluentia as a settlement for his veteran soldiers. The camp was originally named Fluentia, as it was built between two rivers; the name, of course, was later corrupted to Florentia. Sulla built the camp on the orders of Caesar, who specified the building of a military outpost or a castrum, to be built over a 1,800-meter plot that is today the historic center of Florence.
The castrum was quadrangular, enclosed by fortifying walls punctuated by towers and four central gates at cardinal points.
As you can see from the map above, Fluentia was laid out in the style of an army camp with the main streets, the cardo and the decumanus, intersecting at the center. These two major cross-axial streets divided this new Roman settlement into a grid; the cardo ran north-south and was called via Cassia, linking Florentia to Rome. Today that street is called via Roma. The 2nd major roadway was the decumano running east-west. The former decumano is now named both the via degli Strozzi and the via degli Speziali, running parallel to the Arno.
The cross-point of the Roman cardo and decumano is in current-day Piazza della Repubblica. The sculpture that adorns the piazza marks the point of the intersection of the 2 Roman streets.
When standing in the piazza today, to appreciate Roman-era Florence, you must think away all of the currently standing 19th-century palazzi and glitzy cafes in the Piazza della Repubblica, replacing them in your mind’s eye with ancient Roman temples, markets, and courts. For, originally, this area was the Roman period Forum.
The map below shows you where Roman Florence existed within the context of the current city.
The map above outlines the original Roman walls, as well as Via Roma and Via del Corso, and shows you how Florentia, now approximately 3 meters below the modern Florence street level, continues to shape the fabric of the city.
Indeed, the Piazza Della Repubblica has very proud ancient origins for it was once the civic heart of the Roman city, the forum urbis. Around the square was the curia, the ancient senate, and a triad temple dedicated to pagan gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.
If you walk north on via Roma, to the site of the present day Piazza del Duomo, this was the second Roman center of the city; its ruined temples are now buried beneath the Baptistry and Duomo.
South along what would have been the camp’s eastern wall, now the via del Proconsolo, a left turn at via degli Speziali leads to where the eastern city gate would have been. The east gate led to the city’s thermal baths, traces of which can be found inside a modern hotel.
Several street names pay homage to the Roman city, reminding passersby of the more ancient Florence that has been both literally and figuratively buried by history. For example, Via delle Terme is sited where the Roman bath house was located.
Other traces of Rome survive: if you go west along via degli Speziali and turn right onto via delle Farine, you are led to Piazza Sant’Elisabetta. Here survives the Torre Bizantina della Pagliuzza, the oldest tower of Florence, dating back to the sixth century. It is now incorporated into Hotel Brunelleschi, which houses a museum in the tower containing artifacts found during the restoration, including ruins of a Roman calidarium, the classical version of a steam room.
Many other remnants of Roman life can be found. From Piazza della Signoria, which was also an open public space in its Roman past, one can find the former site of the ancient south gate in the city walls. (Near it, in front of the Chanel boutique, notice a map of the ancient Roman city to help guide you on.) And, while you are in the Piazza della Signoria, be sure to notice an ancient Roman treasure. There are a few demure Roman works among the Renaissance statues in the Loggia di Lanzi: this elegant Roman woman pictured below is one such example.
After admiring the Roman lady, leave the piazza by walking along the north side of the Palazzo Vecchio on Via dei Gondi. You will notice that the street slopes down. This is because you are walking down into the ancient Roman theater. The formerly steep steps are now nothing more than a slight slope, built over with centuries of history, but the parts of the theater still exist and you can visit them by going into the Palazzo Vecchio and buying a ticket to see the excavations. That’s what I did yesterday.
The modern excavations have made it possible to bring back to light ruins of ancient thermal baths and other services related to this outdoor theater designed to accommodate 5,000 spectators. The excavation is now open to the public and you enter the area from inside the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio.
We just walked down the sloping road that leads from the facade of the Palazzo Vecchio to the street behind it, the via dei Leoni. The theater in its heyday would have looked something like the diagram below.
A side elevation of the Roman theater would have resembled the diagram below, with increasingly large arches emanating from the stage area toward the back, where the balcony seats would have been.
This is the site of a Roman semicircular theater along the back of Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Gondi (follow the curved street of via dei Leoni); the theater was positioned at a slight angle within the city walls and is clearly visible in the same old map.
The diagram above shows the more or less rectangular Palazzo Vecchio situated on top of the Roman theater. The theater is the shape that looks like a lemon wedge, with the rectangular Palazzo Vecchio superimposed on top of it.
The studies have shown that it was a relatively big theater, capable of seating 8000-10000 spectators; the auditorium (cavea) had its back towards Piazza della Signoria and the scene was along the actual Via dei Leoni. The theater remained active until the fifth century, then, following the crisis of the Roman Empire, it gradually fell into disuse and decay, subject to damage and looting.
The archaeological excavations brought to light some parts of the radial corridors, on which the auditorium was set in a semicircle, the vomitorium (the central corridor through which the public could access the theater), and the edge of the orchestra platform.
During the following eras, the radial corridors of the theater (burelle) were used in various ways: as landfills, burial places, animal shelters or for a time even as prisons (12th and 13th centuries).
In the Medieval period, typical tower houses were built over the theater’s remains.
The construction and expansion of Palazzo Vecchio marked the ultimate demise of the Roman theater, the memory of which was gradually lost.
It’s only in the second half of the 19th century that the Roman remains “hidden” under Florence begin to resurface, especially during the heavy architectural transformation of the city due to the shift of the Italian capital to Florence in 1865.
Like other structures from the Middle Ages, subsequent layers have come to light: wells, the foundations of houses and other buildings.
Here are the pictures I took yesterday inside the excavations:
Then, looking further afield, there is the Via Vacchereccia, across from Palazzo Vecchio, leads to via Roma (which turns into via Calimala at this point; this is Italy and nothing is simple); this is where the south gate would have opened up to the ancient market place.
The south end walls continued along via delle Terme, turning 90 degrees north on what is now via de’ Tornabuoni. Where via de’ Tornabuoni and via degli Strozzi cross stood the west gate of the Roman city. The west walls turned at a right angle at what is now via dei Banchi, leading to via de’ Cerretani, and the north gate stood where via de’ Cerretani crosses via Roma.
Also from the Roman period, the current day Piazza San Firenze is the site of a Temple of Isis.
Before I end this long complicated post about Roman Florence, please notice the amphitheater, looking a lot like the Roman Colosseum, below.
This picture is of a wooden scale model of Fluentia, as it was originally laid out, with the semi-circular theater we’ve been discussing visible on the city’s walls, just above the model of the oval amphitheater.
Outside the walls of the Roman castrum was a second Roman theater, just in front of what is now Piazza Santa Croce: its circular form is still traceable in via Torta and via de’ Bentaccordi.
Archeological excavations carried out for years by Archaeological Cooperative,
under the scientific direction of Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of
Tuscany, revealed an ancient Roman amphitheater was located precisely under
what is nowadays, and was during the Renaissance, the heart of Florence,
Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio. The discovery was announced
during the 2014 UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries.
The following sources informed this post:
And my later post.