I walk by or through the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence at least once a day, sometimes many more times.
On a particularly fine day, such as today about noon when I took this picture, (I mean, look at that blue sky! and this photo wasn’t photoshopped, I promise!) the inscription above the impressive arch on the south end of the piazza stands out and demands to be noticed.
Translated, it tells us: The ancient center of the city / restored from age-old squalor / to new life.
The context for this bold announcement is that both the arch itself and the inscriptions speak to the 19th century re-ordering of this remarkable and very hallowed city space.
By the medieval period, the area looked something like this (Piazza del Mercato Vecchio, by Giovanni Stradono (Palazzo Vecchio, Sala di Gualdrada):
What was once a Roman forum was now a commercial center of the city, serving as a lively meeting place and home to the market. Like other Italian towns, Florence developed certain city spaces intended for precise functions; the Piazza del Duomo, for example, was where religious affairs took place and another key area in the city, known then as the Piazza del Comune, (now known as the Piazza della Signoria), was for political and civic affairs.
We know what the area looked like thanks to contemporary prints, paintings, and drawings owned by the Museo di Firenze com’ era. Later painters, such as Telemaco Signorini, depicted with melancholy the old part of town that soon disappeared.
Now, we fast forward to the 19th century.
Unfortunately, a plentiful number of works of art and architectural fragments were sold through the antiquarian market. Only some of them could be saved for the Museo nazionale di San Marco. Other fragments allowed the founding of the likes of the Museo Bardini and the Museo Horne. Vasari’s Loggia del Pesce, which had been a part of the market area for 400 years, was fortunately saved. It was dismantled and reassembled in the Piazza dei Ciompi. It is still there today, out of context of course, but at least it exists.
In September of 1890, with many of the future palazzoni building sites still empty, the Piazza della Repubblica was formally inaugurated. The palazzi that rose in the new square followed the eclectic fashion of the time and were planned by well-known architects including Vincenzo Micheli, Luigi Buonamici, Giuseppe Boccini.
Following the transformation, the square became a kind of recreational center for the town; it was built up with the refined palaces, luxury hotels, department stores and elegant cafes, including the Caffe’ delle Giubbe Rosse where famous scholars and artists met and debated (argued).
So, now we return to the arch, which was meant to be a triumphal arch, designed by Micheli and inspired by the Roman monuments in Rome as well as by the most courtly Florentine Renaissance architecture. The decorative elements of the arch veer far from Roman or Renaissance models. The proclamation on the arch, with which I started this post, is said to have been taken from a literary source, possibly by Isidoro del Lungo.