Piazza della Libertà, Firenze

Chances are, you don’t know this Florentine piazza, even though it’s right in the city.  Unless you live near this particular neighborhood, you probably wouldn’t have reason to ramble over to it.


But, maybe you should!  The Piazza della Libertà.


I happened to be there on a recent evening, on my way to meet a friend for dinner at a great neighborhood trattoria, and the sky was particularly dramatic as I walked by the piazza’s centerpiece, the neoclassical arch pictured above.

Piazza della Libertà is, in fact, the northernmost point of Florence’s historic center, at the end of Via Cavour. The piazza was created in the 19th century when the Viali di Circonvallazione was constructed around the city.   You can find the piazza in the center of this Google map.

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 10.04.36 PM.png

The most recognizable aspect of the piazza is the neoclassical Arco di Trionfo dei Lorena, or the Triumphal Arch of the Lorraine, which was constructed on this spot in the 1730s to celebrate the arrival of the new rulers of Tuscany, the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty.

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 10.06.13 PM.png


The arch was begun after 1737 in order to be finished in time for the January 1739 arrival of Francis Stephen of Lorraine, Holy Roman Emperor and Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Francis traveled to Florence with his wife, Maria Theresa, and his brother Charles.  They arrived on 20 January 1739 and stayed 3 months. Tuscany was governed by a viceroy, Marc de Beauvau-Craon, for the entire reign of Francis.

220px-Maria_Theresia_Familie Francis I and his family, by Martin van Meytens

The arch is attributed to Jean Nicolas Jadot, who was sent to Florence in anticipation of the arrival of the new ruler.  It is likely that Francesco Schamant of Lorraine also helped design the arch.  The statuary was added later, in 1744.

To celebrate the arrival of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty, the newly-constructed arch would have been decorated with many ephemeral elements, including tapestries, to greet the new rulers as they processed along the Via San Gallo and into Florence in January 1739.  Below are the Grand Duchy of Tuscany’s flag and coat-of-arms.

Coat of arms
 The Arch was constructed just outside of the walls of Florence and in particular just outside the 14th-century Porto San Gallo, the main northern gate of the city. The gate is shown below.

The arch itself has 3 openings, a larger central one flanked by two smaller ones.  Ten classical columns with Corinthian capitals are attached to the arch. Most of the sculpture on the arch were added later, after the entry of the Habsburg rulers.  The sculptural program was probably produced locally.  They include bas-reliefs and depictions of flags and arms. The southern facade has two double-headed ages, which were the symbol of the Habsburg dynasty.  An equestrian statue is mounted on top of the arch; it is supposed to depict King Francis.



Six allegorical figures perch along the plinth, appearing to cringe as they are besieged by the swirling traffic that zooms around the piazza.

As for the rest of the elliptical shaped piazza, it was designed by architect Giuseppe Poggi in the 1860s and 70s; it is surrounded by palazzi Poggi designed, and has a pool with fountains in the center of the tree-lined park.

The square was originally named Piazza Camillo Cavour; it was changed in 1930 to Piazza Costanzo Ciano, in 1944 to Piazza Muti, and in the 1945 to Piazza della Libertà.




The long history of dried pasta in Italy



Pasta has long been a part of Italian cuisine, but only quite recently acquired the dominant, pervasive role it plays now.

The oldest form is thought to be lasagna, which is known to have been cooked in ancient Rome, though not quite in the way it is today.

Dried pasta seems to have been invented quite separately, in North Africa, as expedition food for desert caravans. It was probably brought to Sicily by the island’s Muslim conquerors. In a codex published in 1154, a Moroccan geographer and botanist known as al-Idrisi described a thriving pasta manufacturing industry near Palermo, which exported its products to Muslim and Christian countries alike. Among them was a stringlike pasta then known by the name itrija.

Dried pasta had the same advantages for seafarers as it did for camel drivers, so it is hardly surprising that it next appears in Genoa.

It is mentioned in a document written in 1279, and production of vermicelli, which was to remain a Genoese specialty, had begun by the fourteenth century.

The consumption of pasta continued nevertheless to be associated with Sicilians until in the 18th century the nickname of mangiamaccheroni gradually came to be bestowed on the Neapolitans. By 1785, Naples had 280 pasta shops.


Hooper, John. The Italians (pp. 99-100). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Piazza della Repubblica

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.

The square looks like this today:


But, originally, this key area of Florence was created by the Romans when the town was a mere Roman camp.  We think it then looked something like this:



By the medieval period, the area looked something like this (Piazza del Mercato Vecchio, by Giovanni Stradono (Palazzo Vecchio, Sala di Gualdrada):

As you can see, the former Roman forum area was by now densely inhabited.  The city had grown and urban crowding led to tenements with ever rising floors, including the tower houses for which the city was once famous (case di torri in Italian).

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.

It was decided that the square needed to be completely refigured, and that required the complete destruction of the city fabric, including warrens of zig-zagging old streets and buildings, both proletarian and aristocratic. Lost forever were some medieval towers, churches, the corporate seats of the city’s guilds, a few palaces of noble families, as well as craftsmen’s shops and residences.  On the positive side, the physical place and the idea of the ghetto were also demolished.
The politicians who envisioned what became the Piazza della Repubblica, sold their radical ideas as a part of the new city planning required when Florence became the capital of the new Italy from 1865 to 1871.  They determined that this unsanitary old section of the city was best completely removed. In fact, ironically, the particularly intense building activity in this Piazza took place between 1885 and 1895, well after the capital had been moved to Rome.
But it was in this period, known as the Risanamento in the 19th-century terminology (or,  the sventramento or ruining, by detractors), that this large part of the city center was demolished and rebuilt into the piazza as it exists today.

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.



Ah, Roma…



Imagine being three thousand years old. Suppose by some mysterious process you had managed to avoid the limitations of mortality, and year after year you keep going, adding more and more experiences to your life story until you have no choice but to repeat them because you have exhausted all possibilities.

You are the very essence of what it means to be human. You have had more than your share of victories and defeats, triumphs and tragedies, moments of glory and those of abjection, times when you wish you had never been born and times when you want to go on forever. You have loved and lost, have abandoned and been left behind, been rich and poor, skinny and fat, lived high on the hog and been forced to scramble for a few morsels of stale bread. You have seen it all, done it all, regretted it all, and then gone back and done it all again.

You are la città eterna, Rome, the Eternal City.

Epstein, Alan. As the Romans Do: The Delights, Dramas, And Daily Diversio (p. 1). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


Sometimes you get lucky.

Sometimes you are at the right place at the right time.  I had that fortunate experience yesterday in Arezzo, as the commune prepared for today’s Medieval Saracen Joust.

The Saracen joust of Arezzo (Giostra del Saracino, Giostra ad burattum) is an ancient game of chivalry, dating back to the Middle Ages and born as an exercise for military training.


The game acquired an important social function within the urban community: it was used to commemorate great public events, such as during the visit of important sovereigns or princes, and was also used to make certain civil feasts more solemn (carnivals and local aristocratic weddings).


The joust – which became a typical tradition of Arezzo at the beginning of the 17th century – declined progressively during the 18th century and eventually disappeared, at least in its “noble” version. After a brief popular revival between the 18th and 19th century, the joust was interrupted after 1810 to reappear only in 1904 in the wake of the Middle Ages reappraisal. The joust was restored in 1931 as a form of historical re-enactment set in the 14th century, and quickly acquired a competitive character.


The historical reenactment takes place every year in Arezzo on one Saturday night in June (the so-called San Donato Joust, dedicated to the patron saint of the town) and on the afternoon of the first Sunday of September.


The teams in the event are the four quarters of the town of Arezzo:

  • Porta Crucifera, known as Culcitrone (green and red),
  • Porta del Foro, known as Porta San Lorentino (yellow and crimson),
  • Porta Sant’Andrea (white and green)
  • Porta del Borgo, today called Porta Santo Spirito (yellow and blue).

The jousting day starts in the morning, when the town’s Herald reads the proclamation of the joust challenge, and then continues with a colorful procession of 350 costume characters and 27 horses parading along the streets of Arezzo. The highlight of the parade, which is given by the Bishop of Arezzo and takes place on the steps of the Duomo, is the blessing of the men-at-arms and their horses.


The knights’ tournament is held in the Piazza Grande, guided by the Maestro di Campo and preceded by the costumed characters and the town’s ancient banners entering the square, accompanied by the sound of trumpets and drums.  The highest authorities of the Joust enter the square (the magistrates, the Jury, the quarters’ presidents), the performance of flag-wavers, the jousters galloping into the racing field, each knight representing an ancient noble family of Arezzo, the knights’ arrangement on the lizza (jousting track), the Herald reading the Challenge of Buratto (a poetic composition written in octaves in the 17th century), the crossbowmen and the soldiers greeting the crowd shouting “Arezzo!”, the magistrates’ authorization to run the joust and finally the Joust’s musicians playing the Saracen Hymn, composed by Giuseppe Pietri (1886–1946).

Then, the real competition starts. The jousters of the four gates gallop their horses with lance in rest against the Saracen, an armor-plated dummy representing a Saracen (“Buratto, King of the Indies”) holding a cat-o’-9-tails. The sequence of charges is drawn on the week preceding the joust during a costumed ceremony in Piazza del Comune. It’s almost impossible to foresee  the result of the joust will be: it depends on the ability, the courage and the good-luck of the eight jousters who alternate on the packed-earth sloping track (the lizza) that runs transversally across Piazza Grande.

The competition is won by the couple of knights who hit the Saracen’s shield obtaining the higher scores. The quarter associated to the winning knight receives the coveted golden lance. In the event of a draw between two or more quarters after the standard number of charges (two sets of charges for each jouster), the prize is assigned with one or more deciding charges. At the end of the joust, mortar shots hail the winning quarter.

The rules of the tournament are contained in technical regulations that repeat – virtually unchanged – the Chapters for the Buratto Joust dating back to 1677. They are easy to understand, and yet worded in such a way as to guarantee a long-lasting suspense. The outcome of the fight between the Christian knights and the “Infidel” is undecided until the very last moment due to dramatic turns of events. For instance, jousters may be disqualified if they ride accidentally off the jousting track, or their scores may be doubled if their lance breaks after violently hitting the Saracen.