The (Re)Birth of a Piazza: Florence’s Piazza del Carmine at the nexus of past and future

FLORENCE, Italy – To “read” the spaces and places of Florence as texts for what they might tell visitors about the city’s residents, its rhythms and values, the logical starting point is the piazza, the public space often referred to as “the living room of Italy.”

Piazzas, which are public squares that are rarely square and rich in variety, serve as a sort of social glue holding Italian society together, and they are where a city’s and neighborhood’s residents, regardless of socioeconomic class or occupation, come together on a daily – and nightly – basis.

The celebration for the reopening of Piazza del Carmine featured orchestral music, opera, a visit from the mayor, a christening with Italian wine, and images projected onto the façade of the piazza’s church, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine.

In June 2018, visitors to Florence were afforded a rare opportunity to see a piazza being born, or in the case of Piazza del Carmine, re-born. As designed by Florence architect Mario Pittalis, the new Piazza del Carmine returns it to Italy’s beginnings and to nature, he said.

With the newly designed piazza, its first re-do in nearly 70 years, “we wanted to balance restoration with modernity,” Pitallis said, as translated by Lilia Lamas. “We wanted to return it to how it was, but as a way of looking forward and adding life.”

From 1950 until the piazza was closed for renovations in 2014, cars covered the main or central area. Pittalis has once again moved the cars off, opening the space again to social, cultural and commercial expression. But absent a large fountain or statue of any kind, the piazza’s open design allows the cars to return for big neighborhood happenings, such as weddings and funerals.

Mario Pittalis

“A lot of people wanted a modern piazza,” Pittalis said. “They believed it was very important to make a fountain, a Las Vegas-like fountain, like Yellowstone — a geyser. Maybe with some music. They want planters. Others want monuments, a statue. We decided no, not at all. We present an empty space.”

Piazza del Carmine now is the only piazza in this richly historic city to feature a limestone surface rather than cement blocks. The limestone gives the piazza an unfinished look, and it allows grass to poke up through the pores and crevices. For Pittalis, this was a way to return nature to the life of the piazza.

“A lot of people have accused it of looking unfinished, undone,” he said. “But that’s the way we wanted it – a line of transition from the past to the future. And in lime, the plants can find space to grow up.”

Social building blocks

Piazzas are central part of Italian culture. They are places that allow people who live around them to interact, for neighborhood kids to play in, for relaxation and commerce, and for evening concerts and movies. The re-opening of Piazza del Carmine on June 16 featured a concert by Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, operatic arias, a wine tasting, choral music, and a film presentation projected on the façade of the piazza’s church, the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine.

For nearly seven decades the piazza was little more than a parking lot. Now, after Pittalis’s re-design and €1 million, it resembles (again) the kind of piazza that is the core of many of Italy’s smaller villages. Like piazzas throughout Italy, it is anchored by a church, the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine and its world-renowned frescoes, and rimmed with residential, shops and cafés.

One of the four benches commemorating Florence’s “Big Four” cathedrals, this one the Basilica of Santa Croce

On the concrete apron are trees that have been planted to offer shade to the space’s new benches, which are unique in Florence. Designed by Cosimo de Vita, they feature the “Big Four” basilicas of Florence in their seat backs, the Duomo, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, and San Lorenzo. De Vita’s benches are mix of natural stone and man-made brass.

“I think [the piazza] will start to have another life, because this place for the last 30 years was for cars and it was a disaster,” said de Vita, an urban designer. “Now I think what happens is you can have people talking in the square like in Santo Spirito and other squares. You have a place to meet and where kids can grow and play and have fun.”

Cosimo de Vita

Both Pittalis and de Vita live in the Carmine-Santo Spirito neighborhood. De Vita said he appreciates how the newly configured piazza honors how the square was historically, even how it was when it was first established in 1200, before the parking lot.

Famous frescoes

Santa Maria del Carmine houses the Brancacci Chapel and includes a former monastery. The chapel is home to Masaccio’s and Masolino’s famous frescoes, which have been called by many art historians as among the finest in the world.

“These frescoes are among the most important artifacts of human history, not only of art,” Pittalis said. “And they are resonant. The same suffering you see in the faces of Adam and Eve you see today in the victims of the war in Syria.”

Two of every three limestone blocks in the new piazza were recovered from the old.

The monastery once housed the Carmelites, who are credited with the foundation of the piazza in the early 13th and 14th centuries, when the church was sanctuary from the dangers outside the city wall. From these origins until a re-design in 1950, the space was open, even empty.

New to the piazza is a sculpture in wood of a lion by Sedicente Moradi, which was unveiled as part of the dedication on June 16.

The new piazza design is “very representative of the old district of Florence, said resident Fabrizio Nencioni. “It is not only for the tourists but also for us,” for residents.

For Carmine resident Barbara Mariotti, the new Piazza del Carmine is “one of the most beautiful in Florence. It matches part of the quarter and is full of life. It is also full of people living here, Florentine people living here.”

Mariotti said she sees the renovated piazza as “a chance to organize something in the square now that it is only for pedestrians and not for the cars.”

For Pittalis, these reactions have to be gratifying because they affirm what he said he tried to do with the design.

“This work was very criticized,” he said, pointing out that only one neighborhood resident championed the design when it was unveiled. “I decided to be stubborn. The problem they’ve done with the other piazzas (in Florence) is fill them up with people, like sheep.”

–Contributed to by Sarah Storey

Piazza del Carmine is on the Oltrarno in Florence, near the church and piazza Santo Spirito, just outside of what once was the outer city wall guarding the city center.

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