Piazza Beccaria is not one of the places in Florence most visited by tourists. But it is known to residents as the point where the ring road (viale) round central Florence splits, somewhat overwhelming this elegant piazza with fast-moving vehicles. Perhaps that’s why the tourists don’t go there much, but park the car, look about and there is much to be seen here.
The focal point of the piazza is Porta alla Croce, a tower gate from the late 1200s, all that remains of the medieval city walls that were demolished to make way for the viale in 1865. It was through this gate that criminals sentenced to death would be led beyond the city walls to the gallows and the grave, having travelled slowly by cart from the Bargello, accompanied by the Compagnia dei Neri, dressed in a hooded black canvas, to offer spiritual comfort.
It was surely this grim historical association that led the Comune to name the new piazza after Cesare Beccaria Bonesana in 1876. For Beccaria was the influential Enlightenment thinker, whose 1764 treatise On Crimes and Punishments, made a passionate case against torture and capital punishment: the basis for Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo’s abolition of the death penalty in Tuscany in 1786, the first state in Europe to make this bold reform.
The project to demolish the walls and build the viali was part of the grand urban renewal scheme visited on Florence as it became the first capital of the newly United Italy: Firenze Capitale. The programme was led by Giuseppe Poggi and piazza Beccaria is graced by a number of fine villas designed by Poggi himself. Firenze Capitale only lasted for six years before the famous victory of the bersaglieri at Porta Pia allowed the King to complete reunification and move the capital to Rome in 1871. So, when King Umberto I granted a royal decree suspending executions throughout Italy in 1877, he was not in Florence to do so.
The environment of piazza Beccaria was transformed again in the 1970s by the construction of the imposingly brutalist Archivio di Stato di Firenze, designed by Italo Gamberini. The reinforced concrete exterior suggests the building’s (fortunately untested) claim that it can protect the city’s archival patrimony from a repeat of the great 1966 flood, when the State Archives were badly damaged in the basement of the Uffizi.
Piazza Beccaria is currently being redeveloped again with the works to install a third line of the Florentine tram network. It is destined to host one of the new line’s 17 stops, as it winds its way from piazza della Libertà to Bagno a Ripoli. It is a back to the future for the piazza, which was home to the Stazione Porta alla Croce from 1890 until its demolition in 1896, as the terminus for the steam-powered tranvia del Chianti.
So there you have it: 800 years of Florentine history to be seen in the architecture of one well-known but overlooked piazza.