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Piazza della Repubblica

The Ancient Forum, Emptied

Piazza della Repubblica

On the map, it’s easy to pick out the small rectangle of narrow, straight streets around Piazza della Repubblica, just behind the Palazzo Strozzi; these remain unchanged from the little castrum of Roman days.

At its centre was the old Roman forum, with its temple of Mars, the city's patron god, with a statue that was the ancestor of the Marcocco. The forum deteriorated through the Dark Ages into a market square and the Jewish ghetto, a piquant, densely populated quarter of medieval tower houses, chapels, workshops and guild headquarters known as the Mercato Vecchio. It was the commercial heart of the city, filled with historic buildings, the epitome of the picturesque for 19th-century tourists; see the photos in the Palazzo Vecchio.

Piazza del Mercato Vecchio, by Giovanni Stradano

Down it went

When Giuseppe Poggi was given the task of making Florence a worthy capital for the new Italy in the Risanamento or'Restoration', he and his ascendant bourgeoisie employers took aim at the Mercato Vecchio and wrought the biggest change ever to the historic centre. Claiming the area was unhealthy, its destruction began in 1885, well after Italy's capital had moved to Rome.

Lovers of Florence squawked in protest, but down went its alleys and miniature piazze. The only building that was salvaged was Vasari's fish market, the Loggia del Pesco, since reconstructed in Piazza dei Ciompi. Antique dealers picked up the scraps; speculators purchased the plots around the square.

The sad result of this well-intentioned urban renewal is one of the most ghastly squares in Italy, a brash intrusion of ponderous late 19th-century buildings. Orignally it was called Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, and boasted a bronze equestrian statue of the king in the centre installed in 1890 that no one ever liked (and was removed to the Parco delle Cascine in 1932).

Inauguration of the Statue of Vittorio Emanuele

In 1895, when the builderswere done (and had run out of money to continue the project) they erected the Arcone, a triumphal arch to themselves and proudly blazoned it with the inscription: 'THE ANCIENT CITY CENTRE RESTORED TO NEW LIFE FROM THE SQUALOR OF CENTURIES'. Originally the Arcone sported three female figures, symbolizing Italy, Art and Science, but the Florentines mockingly renamed them after three of the city's best known prostitutes, La Starnotti, La Cipischioni e La Trattienghi.

The 15th-century Colonna della Dovizia (or Colonna dell’Abbondanza) marks where the ancient cardus and decumanus (the main Roman streets) met. It once had a bell on it that warned market goers whenever a pickpocket was in the area. The original column was toppled along with everything else, then re-erected in 1956. On top is a copy of the 18th-century statue by Giovanni Battista Foggini that replaced the original by Donatello that had eroded away (you can see Foggini's original version in the Cassa di Risparmio bank in Via dell'Oriuolo).

For all that, the Piazza dell Repubblica is popular with locals, tourists and buskers, with its carrousel and outdoor cafés, offering something of an oasis among the narrow, stern streets of medieval Florence. The best known of the coffeehouses is the Giubbe Rosse, founded in 1896 and named after the waiters' red jackets, where the Futurists liked to meet, out of sight of the historic Italy they abhorred.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Glenfarclas, GNU Creative Commons License, PD Art, Comune di Firenze, Creative Commons License