If you stay in Florence long enough, you’ll find a piazza–one where you feel at home, one that you’ll seek out after being away. On my first stay in Florence a few years ago, passing through the centrally located Piazza della Repubblica was part of my daily routine; I thought of it as a “throughway” piazza. The space is quite plain. Unlike Piazza della Signoria, you won’t find ornate sculptures of David or Neptune, nor is it bordered by a beautiful Franciscan basilica like the one found in Piazza di Santa Croce. But, as often happens with rituals, I started to like passing through the square.

cheryl_piazza-della-repubblica

After a couple of weeks, instead of racing through to reach one of the cafés on via Corso, or heading straight for via Calimala toward Ponte Vecchio, I’d stop and sit for a spell on the stone seat at the base of the piazza’s only column.

I would just sit there, under the statue of Abundance that tops the column, watching. Near the booths where soccer jerseys are sold, a woman would sing opera to a crowd that gathered quickly; a Romanian band would set up their amps under the arches of the loggia that runs along the western side of the square; spritely music would float over from the spinning red and gold carousel. After several visits, I soon realized that the column was one of the few places in Florence where I could sit in peace and just be. I didn’t have to buy an expensive coffee or scurry out of the way; while sitting under Abundance, I could simply experience the spontaneous theater unfolding before me. It was a rare, singular feeling.

Sitting at that column became a kind of meditation–and still is. When I returned to Florence last September, I spent the first couple of weeks running around with friends, going to dinner parties, taking the train to Pontassieve out in the countryside, eating out. Nearly a month went by before I finally had a chance to pay a proper visit to my piazza.

Abundance column (photo: wikimedia)

It wasn’t planned. I had been shopping and doing errands nearby when I realized that I had nothing else to do and no one expecting me. The sun was about to set. I bought a gelato and sat down at the column. Within a few minutes, a woman in the southeast corner of the square started singing an aria. As I listened, the sun slowly burnt the sky behind the arch and the colors of the carousel brightened. The time since my last visit dissolved; I felt as if I’d never been away.

I’ve heard that most Italians don’t even like Piazza della Repubblica, possibly because of its plain character, but also because medieval streets, buildings, churches–even ancient ruins–were torn down to make way for it in the late nineteenth century. The new square commemorates the reunification of Italy, and the spirit with which it was built can be read in the Italian verse on top of the Arcone, the grand arch:

L’antico centro della città
Da secolare squallore
A vita nuova restituito

The ancient centre of the city
restored from age-old squalor
to new life

The “squalor” perhaps refers to the days [ed: from the Middle Ages until the 19th-century renovation] when the square was the heart of the Jewish ghetto or when it was the very crowded central marketplace (Piazza del Mercato), which occupied this space for centuries. However, it seems a rich cultural chapter of our city was stripped from the pages of Florentine history when the area was destroyed.

Reaching back into history even further, the piazza sits on the site of the original Roman Forum–the center of the original Roman fort, from which the Romans would trek to Fiesole to attack the Etruscan village. Two thousand years ago, this piazza was the vibrant locus of public life; it was a bustling Roman marketplace and the site for civic ceremonies. In fact, the exact spot where the column of Abundance stands is the spot that marked the crossroads of two Roman roads: cardo (via Roma) and decumanus (via Corso)-the very center of the forum and the very center of the city.

While Piazza della Repubblica might strike the casual visitor as a plain, uninspired piazza with very few dazzling monuments, if you sit at the column of Abundance long enough, you can watch the piazza come alive–as a spontaneous stage, a marketplace, a site for parades, a place to meet friends. No matter what art or architecture was lost in the creation of this new square, today the people of Florence have center stage, and in this respect nothing has changed.

Cheryl Tucker, a teacher and writer based in Florence, loves paying attention to this beautiful city as often as she can. Her blog, Cher in Florence, can be found at www.cheryltucker.net.

This article was originally published on Florence from the Heart. With thanks for the permission to resubmit this work for the contest.

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