The Column of Abundance

From forum to piazza

Deirdre Pirro
September 15, 2011

Possibly no other monument in Florence is more widely used than the Column of Abundance in Piazza della Repubblica. Tired tourists and weary locals often sit on the steps surrounding the base of the monolith, where they can rest and watch the ebb and the flow of people passing by, perhaps listening to a group of itinerant musicians or a fledging opera singer performing in the square. Few realise they are sitting right at the centre of Florence's ancient Roman settlement, on the site of the forum where the intersection of the cardus (north-south) and decumanus maximi (east-west roads) once met.

 

In the Middle Ages, this piazza, then known as the Piazza del Mercato Vecchio, was a hub of urban life with its central market and its vicinity to the bustling Jewish ghetto, set up in 1571 by Cosimo I, whose previously liberal policies towards the Jews changed once he became the grand duke of Tuscany. Not only did he order the Jews to live in the ghetto but also to wear badges. He even closed the Tuscan border to non-resident Jews and shut down Jewish banks.

 

Soon the rich merchants who lived in impressive palaces in the area began to move away, the few remaining churches and towers to crumble, and the presence of the old guilds started to disappear as the narrow streets running off it filled with densely populated, squalid and unsanitary dwellings and stalls.

 

All this changed in 1865, when the municipal authorities decreed that this thirteenth-century blight be demolished as Florence had become the new capital of the newly united Italy. Although such local luminaries as English writer Vernon Lee unsuccessfully sought to have this destructive city-sponsored redevelopment halted, the municipal will prevailed-witness the plaque still visible over the triumphal arch in the piazza: L'antico centro della citt? da secolare squallore a vita nuova restituito (?The ancient centre of the city restored from age-old squalor to new life').

 

Erected in 1431, the original granite Column of Abundance was topped with a statue by Donatello in pietra serena sandstone representing the goddess of plenty holding a wicker horn of plenty, or cornucopia, filled with fruits and vegetables. A small bell attached near the top of the column was rung at the opening and closing of the market, whilst at the bottom, a pillory-two chains joined by an iron collar-was used for exposing petty criminals to the wrath of the public.

 

On October 20, 1721, a victim of bad weather and the brittle nature of sandstone, Donatello's goddess fell to the ground and broke into a thousand irreparable pieces. Giovanni Battista Foggini (1652-1725), the then fashionable sculptor and architect to the court of Grand Duke Cosimo III, was commissioned to replace it with another statue resembling that of Donatello.

 

However, during the gutting of the Piazza del Mercato Vecchio and the ghetto, the Column of Abundance did not remain unscathed. It was, in fact, dismantled. The column finished up near Porta Romana along with the other discarded rubble from the piazza, whilst the capital and statue were sent to the National Museum of San Marco. It was not until 1956 that funding from the tourism agency permitted the Florentine Committee for the City's Aesthetics to return the column to its old location, but not without first substituting Foggini's statue with yet another copy, this time by Mario Moschi (1896-1971). Foggini's original is currently displayed at the headquarters of the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze in via dell'Oriuolo.

And what might Plenty, the goddess of abundance, be thinking today, watching over the centre of Florence? Throughout July and August this year, whilst many of us sat under our beach umbrellas or wandered along shady paths in the mountains, a serious economic crisis developed both in the United States and in Europe: not only were Greece, Ireland and Portugal in trouble but also Italy and Spain. To prevent a financial meltdown, America, for the first time in its history, downgraded its debt status; whereas here on the continent, the European Central Bank stepped in and began buying up Italian and Spanish bonds to shore up the economy and avoid debt default.

 

Pundits-perhaps voicing Plenty's thoughts-tell us, however, that to prevent these kinds of crises, collapsing share markets and recession, in the future, there must be real fiscal union and the ?europeanisation' of the national debts of the various member states of the European Union, that a common euro-bond market should be created and that national governments should concentrate on growth and not simply on passing austerity measures. Pessimists among them predict that otherwise the single currency could run the risk of becoming a thing of the past.

 

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