Joyous celebrations were held in Florence for several weeks before and after the wedding on December 18, 1565 of the legitimate heir of Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, Francesco de’ Medici to Johanna of Austria, daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and Anna of Bohemia and Hungary. (Although the marriage was politically advantageous to Cosimo, the union forced upon his son turned out to be a very unhappy one.) Wanting to impress his newly acquired relatives, Cosimo commissioned an array of art and architectural works in the bride’s honour. These included a series of frescoes in the Salone de’ Cinquecento at Palazzo Vecchio, the Fountain of Neptune in piazza della Signoria, and the Vasari Corridor, which connects Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. However, to support the foundations for the Vasari Corridor, the fish market from near Ponte Vecchio on today’s lungarno degli Archibugieri had to be moved. The butchers’ stalls on Ponte Vecchio were also closed down to prevent the stench of the meat reaching the Vasari Corridor and were replaced with the goldsmith shops that we still see today.
To rehouse the fishmongers who sold the eel, tench and carp fished from the Arno river, Cosimo had painter, architect and writer Giorgio Vasari draw up plans for a new Loggia del Pesce. Erected between August 1568 and September 1569 on the site of the Old Market in what is now piazza della Repubblica, the Loggia del Pesce remained there until Giuseppe Poggi’s urban renovation and gutting of the medieval ghetto and Old Market between 1885 and 1895. During that period, the Loggia was haphazardly dismantled piece by piece, but thanks to art historian Guido Carocci segments of the structure were stored in the lapidary of the San Marco museum of which he was director, ready to be put back together again in the future. Surprisingly, this did not occur until 1955, when the Comitato per l’estetica cittadina, backed by funds from the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, decided to reconstruct the Loggia del Pesce in piazza dei Ciompi in the Santa Croce quarter.
Originally featuring a spacious double row of eight arches (increased to nine by Cosimo III in 1699) on alternating pairs of square and round columns holding up canopied vaults, the Loggia is decorated externally with eight colourful tondos on each side, depicting different kinds of fish and fishing. Unfortunately, during its disassembly in the nineteenth century, 12 of the original tondos were broken; another 4 disappeared from the San Marco museum sometime between the last inventory in which they were listed (1925) and the mid-century reconstruction. There are coats of arms on each corner, including those representing the marriage of Francesco I and Johanna of Austria as well as another of the couple’s crest. The emblem of the magistrate of Grascia, who supervised the sale of food products in Florence, is also there. Another, always of the magistrate of Grascia, displays a wooden measuring barrel full of grain with two golden ears of wheat beside it and two dolphins engaged in the unlikely task of trying to swallow two oxen. In the centre of the facade, facing via Pietrapiana, you’ll find the coat of arms of Cosimo I and Eleonora of Toledo, topped by the ducal crown.
A scroll celebrating, the grand duke’s generosity in building the loggia is on the opposite side facing the piazza. An English translation: ‘The fish market which until now was held, in the periods of Lent, near Ponte Vecchio, now the most illustrious and eminent Cosimo de’ Medici, second Grand Duke of Florence and Siena, and his son Francesco, a great prince, have built another at far greater expense and with more magnificence to the previous one, so that, from now on, fish can be sold here. 1568.’
In the summer, the Loggia del Pesce is occasionally used for cultural activities or as an outdoor café. What spoils its unique beauty is the dilapidated flea market in the piazza behind it. The market, which gradually started up in piazza dei Ciompi after World War II, included, by the 1960s, the unsightly wooden shacks, divided into stalls and covered with the tin and perspex roofing we see today. Despite numerous proposals and promises to renovate or move them, they have not been touched since. Something meant to be temporary somehow has become permanent. But, finally, hope is in sight as, yet another new proposed redevelopment of the piazza has been announced. The Corriere Fiorentino newspaper reported on April 27, 2013, that in September 2013, work will begin on a new flea market in the piazza. Designed by architect Guido Ciompi, two new low-set iron-and glass-structures topped by plants, like inverted hothouses, will replace the ugly huts. There will be room for 28 stalls and the entire piazza will be repaved in pietra serena stone. All this, the architect says, will be ‘in total respect of the single true architecture of the piazza that is Vasari’s Loggia,’ a fervent wish shared by Florentines and all those who love the city.