Florence’s streets were a stage where daily performances of commerce, socializing, and movement took place. Merchants hawked their wares, women socialized on the street and in doorways, soothsayers proclaimed fortunes (for a price), and game runners collected bets.

Monitoring street life was key to keeping a grip on civic order. Stone inscriptions like the one Marietta points out aimed to do just that. The plaques were posted by the Eight of Security, a branch of the Medici government charged with public surveillance and criminal sentencing. A walk through almost any neighbourhood in Florence will reveal stone inscriptions like this one. Roughly 85 have survived today, in varying conditions of decay. A plaque next to the Palazzo Vecchio warned Florentines not to wash their ink pots in the ornate Fountain of Neptune. Another inscription forbid Florentines to ‘piss or make foulness’ in the street. Others banned prostitutes, noisy instruments and games.

The smells, sounds, and sights these activities produced required civic attention. Laws sought to maintain public health and civic decorum. For Florentines these were deeply linked categories and ‘pollution’ bridged spiritual, bodily, and social worlds. Of course, the presence of the plaques also stand as evidence that Florentines often did exactly what the inscriptions forbid. As Marietta points out, these regulations were easily ignored.

Marietta mentions ball games because she would have been well familiar with the general clamour that accompanied such streets games. Institutions like the Orbatello and the city’s many convents complained about the shouting, racket, and sound of balls slamming against walls that they were subjected to as youths gathered in the city’s narrow streets. These gatherings drew crowds of participants and observers, complete with bonfires and musicians. Marietta would have learned to navigate these gatherings carefully. Working class women moved throughout the city more widely than upper class women, but had to be ever mindful of their safety around boisterous crowds.

Julia Rombough


To cite this essay, we suggest:
Julia Rombough, ‘Sounds of the street’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/marietta/marietta5_sensory/

Further Reading:

David Rosenthal, Kings of the Street: Power, Community, and Ritual in Renaissance Florence. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015.

Kelli Woods, “Balls on walls, feet on streets: Subversive play in Grand Ducal Florence”, Renaissance Quarterly 32.3 (2018): 365-387.

John K. Brackett, Criminal Justice and Crime in Late Renaissance Florence, 1537-1609. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.