The beauty and uniqueness of these piazze starts with an impossibility to translate the word in English. Indeed, the word “square” would come short of the reality of these hubs of civic, religious and political life, which, because of their historical background evolved into elliptic, triangular, shell- or L-shaped piazze, which are anything but “square”.
1. Piazza del Campo, Sienna
Called Il Campo by the Sienese, Piazza del Campo is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful medieval piazze in Tuscany, if not in Italy. The focal point of public life in the city, it is shaped like a shell and divided into nine sections, radiating from the entrance of the Palazzo Pubblico. The nine segments of the Campo are symbolic of the Goverment of The Nine (Noveschi) who laid out the campo and ruled Siena during its Golden Age between 1287-1355.
The Government of the Nine promulgated a series of ordinances which regulated the style and dimensions of the houses (with twin-arched or triple-arched windows), in order to guarantee a certain harmony in the layout, composition and facades of the piazza.The building of the Palazzo Pubblico, the seat of the communal government, was started around the same time. Siena seems to have some special relationship with the number three and its multiples, as the city is sited on three hills and divided into terzieri, instead of the usual quarters (quartieri), with three main arteries gracefully curving around the back of the Campo.
2. Piazza del Duomo (Piazza dei Miracoli), Pisa
The four religious buildings on Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli – the Duomo (cathedral), the Campanile (the cathedral’s free standing bell tower, world renowned as the Leaning Tower of Pisa), the Baptistry and the Camposanto – form one of the finest architectural entities in the world.
The name Piazza dei Miracoli was coined by the Italian writer and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio who, in his novel Forse che sì forse che no (1910) described the square in the following way:
L’Ardea roteò nel cielo di Cristo, sul prato dei Miracoli.
L’Ardea roteò nel cielo di Cristo, sul prato dei Miracoli.
(The Ardea rotated over the sky of Christ, over the meadow of Miracles.)
The square was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
3. Piazza del Duomo, Firenze
Piazza del Duomo in Florence is one of the most visited squares in Italy. Some of Florence’s most beautiful monuments are located on this piazza: the Florence Cathedral (Duomo), Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Florence Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni) and the Loggia del Bigallo. See also: Florence Baptisery.
4. Piazza della Cisterna, San Gimignano
The evocative piazza in San Gimignano derives its name from a cistern or well (cisterna) dating from 1237. One particularity of this triangular-shaped piazza is its pavement, consisting of bricks laid on their edges in a herring-bone pattern.
One of San Gimignano’s prides were its towers, originally 72, of which only 15 survive today, among which on Piazza della Cisterna: Torre del Diavolo and the slightly diverging twin Ardinghelli towers. Note that by law none of these towers could be taller than the Torre Rognosa (on Piazza del Duomo), seat of the town government.
5. Piazza della Signoria, Firenze
Piazza della Signoria is an L-shaped square named after the Palazzo Vecchio, also known as the Palazzo della Signoria, which looks onto the square. It is surrounded by other important buildings: the Loggia della Signoria and the Palazzo degli Uffizi, Palazzo degli Uguccioni and the Palazzo del Tribunale di Mercanzia (about 1359).
Historically it was the political stage and civic center of the Florentine Republic, as opposed to the Piazza del Duomo dominated by religious buildings. The many beautiful statues on the square – the equestrian statue of Cosimo I, the Fountain of Neptune, the Lion of Florence and Michelangelo’s David – make the square look like an open air museum. Located near Ponte Vecchio and Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Signoria is also a starting point for tourists visiting the city.
6. Piazza del Duomo, Pistoia
Piazza del Duomo is an impressive square surrounded by medieval buildings: the Duomo with its Campanile, the Palazzo Vescovile and the Battistero and, on the other side, the Palazzo del Podesta’ end the Palazzo del Comune.
At the corner of Via Tomba stands the 30 meter high medieval Torre di Catilina, iconic of the town of Pistoia. It is named after Lucio Sergio Catalina, a roman patrician and senator, famous for the plot bearing his name, directed against the oligarchy of the Roman Senat.
7. Piazza dei Priori, Volterra
A lovely, medieval square lined with austere buildings, among which the 13th century Palazzo Pretorio, linked with the Torre della Podesta’ and Palazzo dei Priori, the present-day town hall, decorated with terracotta, marble and stone coat of arms of the Florentine governors. Engraved between the banner and torch holders, is also the canna volterrana, the ancient unit of measurement of the commune.
Markets have been held on Piazza dei Priori since AD 851.
8. Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, Lucca
Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca was built by the architect Nottolini on the ruins of a Roman amphitheater which determined its elliptic structure. The actual square is 3m higher than the original Roman amphitheater and only one of the four gates giving access to the piazza correspond to an original gate. In medieval times the piazza was known as parlascio, a bastardisation of the Latin word paralisium (“amphitheater”).
9. Piazza Grande, Arezzo
The beautiful and unusual Piazza Grande in Arezzo is surrounded by medieval houses, Renaissance palaces, the Palazzo del Tribunale, the magnificent Palazzo della Fraternita dei Laici (Lay Brotherhood Palazzo) and the grand Palazzo delle Logge with its 16th century galleries designed by Vasari. The square’s most unusual feature is the fact that it is built on quite a steep slope.
10. Terrazza Mascagni, Livorno
Terrazza Mascagni is an elegant and wonderful belvedere in the town of Livorno overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Photo credits (top to bottom): Piazza del campo by Edgar Barany and Mark Sehnert; Pisa panoramic view by Georges Jansoone; Pisa © MasterLu/Istockphoto; Florence parnoramic view by MatthiasKabel; Florence Duomo by RThiele; Piazza della Cisterna San Gimignano by conlawprof; Piazza della Signorina by Sailko; Pistoia by Malles; Lucca by erickgonzalez50 and Giuseppe Moscato; Terrazza Mascagni by Giuseppe Moscato; Arezzo © jeremy3079/Fotolia.com; Arezzo © jeremy3079/Fotolia.com; Arezzo by night © clodio/Istockphoto; Arezzo by LPLT; Terrazza Mascagni view over the sea by hippydream.