Piazzas come in all different shapes and sizes.
Piazza San Pier Maggiore is a city “hinge”. The main street joining it to the centre – Borgo San Piero – runs straight into commercial hub of the Renaissance city at Mercato Vecchio. It’s a tendril sprung out from the core of the city in the early Middle Ages as the Roman walls became too small to accommodate the population. In fact, it is the extension of the main east-west artery of the Roman town of Florentia – the decumanus – and heads out, beyond the piazza, out of the city east, towards Arezzo. The piazza formed around the church and the city gate on the second (late twelfth century) set of walls just beyond. From there, outside the walls, streets radiate in three different locations, the channeled movement directing to different districts (including Sant’Ambrogio to the East and Monteloro to the North). As an important node Piazza San Pier Maggiore attracted powerful residents – like the Donati and Albizi – as well as being the stage for various urban rituals. It was also a thriving commercial area, adjacent to the gates, where taverns and other amenities provided for travelers.
The Piazza San Piero is quite an unusual space – it has none of the regular forms or columnated order of the “ideal piazza”, and yet it was a key space in the city, both for its association to a number of leading city families, and for the presence there of the most important and oldest Benedictine convent in the Florence, dating from at least 1066.
The space had acquired its form by the end of the twelth century, as the road leading from the city towards Arezzo (Borgo San Piero) widened out in front of the church of San Piero Maggiore, and before the city’s eastern gate, just beyond – and also now-demolished. All that remains of the church today is a seventeenth-century three bay portico originally built to buttress the ancient church. Facing it, across the square is a fourteenth-century palace of the Corbizi, with distinctive stepped overhangs that allowed the building to be larger on its upper floors. Flanking the palace to the left is a medieval tower, alegedly belonging to Corso Donati, whose constant fighting with neighbouring Cerchi family won him a place in Dante’s Divine Comedy as one of the instigators of the city’s thirteenth-century factional split between black and white guelphs.
As Giovanni says, during the Renaissance the Albizi had become the key family on the square and the principal ritual played out there was the remarkable “marriage” between the Abbess and each new Bishop of Florence. This event symbolically sealed a relationship between equals between male bishop and female monastic orders; as Sharon Strocchia has argued, the changing nature of that relationship by the later sixteenth century “recast the abbess as a dutiful daughter subject to paternal commands, rather than as a subordinate but still powerful wife.” The decline of the fortunes of the convent of San Piero (and its associated rituals) can be seen by the eventual erasure of the church itself, demolished as unsafe in the eighteenth century.
While you’re here you may like to try the new Hidden Florence 3D app that shows you how the church of San Pier Maggiore originally appeared. Read more about this here. Download it now!
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘A slice of piazza’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/giovanni/7-a-slice-of-piazza/
Eamonn Canniffe, The politics of the piazza: the history and meaning of the Italian square (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)
Emma Mandelli, ‘La piazza di S. Pier Maggiore in Firenze’, Studi e documenti di architettura 3 (1973), 113-170
Sharon T. Strocchia, ‘When the Bishop Married the Abbess: Masculinity and Power in Florentine Episcopal Entry Rites, 1300–1600’, Gender & History, 19.2 (2007), 346–368