Parole di Piazza

Tales of the city, Santa Croce speaks

Mari Kenton Wright
March 9, 2006

Athletes at this year’s Winter Olympics may have been surprised to find that the coveted medals they had come to the Apennines to compete for were missing their golden centers. The Olympic officials who had commissioned the new medal design said that the hole was no mistake - it represented the piazzas of Italy.


It should come as no surprise that the piazza was chosen as the symbol of Italy at such an esteemed international gathering. These open spaces have defined and nourished public life and Italian culture for centuries. Italy, one might argue, wouldn’t be Italy at all if it weren’t for its piazzas.


Florence is abundant in piazzas, all of which are steeped in history and the unique character of each one’s respective neighborhoods. One of the city’s most distinctive piazzas is that of the basilica Santa Croce, situated in one of the oldest districts of the city. Today, Piazza Santa Croce is lined with chic leather shops and touristy pizzerias and sits in the heart of a vibrant and bustling quarter. But this rectangular expanse of uninterrupted stone hasn’t always been a destination for Italians and tourists looking for good buys and eats.


In the 12th century, the area surrounding the piazza was suburban marshland, prone to floods and pestilence. Despite this, it became a lively neighborhood of laborers and artisans who lived outside the ancient urban walls of the city. It’s no coincidence that the streets nearby the piazza bear names like Tintori (wool dyers) or Conciatori (tanners), for these were the kinds of occupations that were most common in this area, and similar workshops are still prevalent near the square today. It was a worker’s quarter that had developed depressed slums, making it the perfect spot for the austere mendicant order of the Franciscans to settle.


Construction of the basilica began in 1295 under the expert direction of Arnolfo di Cambio. The front of the church looked out onto the large, rectangular square, thought to have been used for sporting events as far back as the 5th century by the Romans. But the Franciscans had other intentions for the space. As the first monastic order to be allowed to preach to the public in the vernacular, the Franciscans of Santa Croce drew massive crowds to the square or oratory in front of the church.


They needed that much space, more in fact. They could pack the piazza all day long with their marathon sermons. Vernacular lectures on religion were the height of entertainment for the weary laboring citizens of medieval Florence. The Franciscans breathed new life into the district and developed a formidable following. Seeing their success, the commune of Florence helped finance the continued building of the church, and called on the Franciscans to be the defenders of the faith for the city.


Because the space was so friendly to crowds, the piazza became a popular city-wide meeting place for celebrations and important religious days. It was the location of the May Day festival each Spring and during the Renaissance was used for jousts and tournaments, many of which were attended by city elite, like the Medici.


Violent and colorful football matches were played in the piazza, beginning in the 15th century. Four teams, verdi, rossi, bianchi and azzuri represented the four main districts of the city. In 1530, when Florence was under the attack of Charles V of France, a football match was organized in the piazza between verdi and bianchi as a contemptuous gesture to the invaders and a clear statement that Florentine culture could not, and would not, be interrupted. Matches were staged frequently and were a popular pastime for young, rowdy noblemen. In 1865, a frowning statue of Dante was placed in the center of the piazza, making it impossible for the football matches to take place. But the Florentine public was unhappy with this development and the statue was later removed, allowing the games to continue. The tradition of Storia Calcio continues to this day, as players in period costume meet on June 24 and several other days in early Summer to bring the renaissance sport back to life.


Today, you’ll find the piazza much quieter than in the days when it was a Franciscan oratory. The putrid smells of tanneries have been replaced by orderly leather shops that surround the square as proud reminders of the area’s legacy of labor and artisan greatness. Benches for quiet contemplation now sit where spectators once stood to watch joust tournaments. Like all of Florence’s piazzas, Santa Croce is a space of historical significance and present-day importance.

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