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Piazza Grande, a place of the mind

In the Italian language, Piazza Grande means "the large square". A more appropriate translation would be "an italian concept similar to the Northern American Main Street".

Piazza Grande is the archetypal downtown place: it is usual where the Duomo (main cathedral) is located, and the Town Hall is seldom very far. In short, it is the historical,religious and administrative center of the town: almost always, at the time of its establishment - somewhere around the X to XII century - it also represented the urbanistic center of town.

I do not think we can very well understand today what object of awe the typical Piazza Grande must have been for the contemporary town dwellers: a huge expanse, dominated by a titanic white temple which stood in dramatic contrast with a city where the average house must not have been much more sophisticated than a one storey stone hut.

A Piazza Grande, by this name, does actually exist in many Italian towns: my home town Modena, for instance, has a remarkable Piazza Grande, inhabited by an impressive romanesque Duomo. Some other towns rename it, elaborating on the same concept: Bologna has a Piazza Maggiore ("larger square") perhaps as a hint of a superiority complex, Milano - with characteristic precision - opted for Piazza Duomo (and perhaps so does Parma, but I am not sure) while the more civically (or politically) minded Firenze opted for Piazza della Signoria. Siena has a Piazza del Campo which underlines physically its being the barycenter of the city life, not to speak of its being the theater of the all important Palio; while it is very hard to decide if Venezia's Piazza san Marco is central in any geometrical meaning of the word, although its psychological centrality is easily ascertained.

There is a town where Piazza Grande is in another state altogether: the town is Roma where Piazza san Pietro is in Vatican City (Rome has no shortage of important squares, such as Piazza del Popolo, the Campidoglio, i Fori Imperiali, Piazza di Spagna and many, many others, however, I would contend that S. Pietro is the large one).

Some towns are schizophrenic about their Piazza Grande - I cannot say if a person from Padova indicates Piazza Grande as being in the awe inspiring Piazza del Santo - the historical pilgrimage station by the S. Antonio sanctuary - or in Prato della Valle - which is very large, but an unlikely Piazza Grande - or by the, more historically correct, split pair of Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza delle Frutta, surrounding the beautiful Palazzo della Ragione.

The (not unusual, as in Ferrara's case) Erbe (herbs) and Frutta (fruits) names recall that one of the many uses of Piazza Grande was hosting the main market. This is sometimes still the case, as in Ferrara and Padova. Some other towns moved the market to a place considered more proper, often just a few hundred meters away. This is what happened in Modena, with the covered market in via Albinelli: until the cleaning that took place a few years ago, it was possible to discern traces of the ancient market in the Piazza from the blackening that the fires, lit by the vendors for heat during the winter, left on the walls of the Duomo.

Whatever its actual name or current destination may be, inquiries for Piazza Grande in an Italian town are unlikely to go unanswered: I am sure that people in Torino have their idea of where Piazza Grande is, elusive as its physical location may be (speaking for myself, Turin's Piazza Grande is in fact very elusive, but I am not a native).
It is because of this that a famous Lucio Dalla song can be called Piazza Grande and draw instant recognition; and I am sure that every Italian knows by instinct that, close to the center of each of Italo Calvino's invisible cities lies an equally invisible Piazza Grande.


Note: Most European towns I visited do have a square which is similar to Piazza Grande in disposition, meaning and naming (the German "Platz", overseen by the Rathaus, and the Spanish plaza). So Piazza Grande may actually be a european idea, but someone else will have to comment on whether its place in the European mind is similar to the one it occupies in the Italian mind.

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