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Secret Italian Piazzas


Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Siena’s Piazza del Campo. Piazza della Signoria in Florence—the iconic piazzas of Italy have played central roles in the country’s history. That you even recognize their names underscores their significance. Centuries after these town squares were first created, their gravitational pull is as strong as ever. The piazza is still the main stage of Italian city life, where locals and visitors stroll, flirt, shop, chat and sit back to watch the street theater unfold. But not all of Italy’s central squares are as famous as Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori. Here are 9 lesser-known piazzas that offer as much architectural and communal drama, without all the crowds.

Massa Marittima Piazza Garibaldi
This walled hill town is in “the other Tuscany,” the slice of the province along the Tyrrhenian Sea known as the Maremma. A slightly askew triangle, defined by the stairs and facade of the 13th-century San Cerbone Cathedral, the piazza is the setting for Lirica in Piazza, a performing arts festival that has been hosted here for the past 28 years. For a few days each August, the small triangle becomes an opera stage—the perfect setting for this public space that is itself an aria.

Siracusa Piazza del Duomo
The Roman philosopher Cicero described the temple that stood on this spot 2,000 years ago as a beacon, its gilded doors reflecting the sunshine by which sailors could guide their ships. Over the millennia, the house of worship was repurposed, destroyed, plundered, rebuilt, redecorated—resulting in a semi-oval public space whose surrounding buildings articulate the styles of nearly every century. Columns of the duomo are taken from the original Doric temple of Athena. The Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco represents the restrained symmetry of the 16th century. The facade of the cathedral, rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693, is all Sicilian baroque, with ornate wrought iron gates and elegant statues. Walk around this piazza, and it’s as if you’re virtually walking through time.

Bologna Piazza Maggiore
This may be the most underrated piazza in Italy. Here, the stern Italian Gothic brick Basilica of San Petronio faces off against 
the grandly arcaded Palazzo del Podestà. The piazza’s long ends are a study in architectural history, with the squinty-eyed, pointed windows of the Palazzo d’Accursio and its late-medieval sibling, the Palazzo dei Notai, staring down the arches and pilasters of the Renaissance Palazzo dei Banchi. Stroll through this former seat of money changers and bankers today and you’ll find yourself embraced not by the echoes of tinkling gold coins, but by the aromas emanating from a web of narrow streets housing some of the city’s finest food markets.

Marostica Piazza degli Scacchi
The name means the Plaza of Chess, a reference to this medieval piazza’s giant chessboard. On the second weekend of September in even numbered years, it is the setting of a spectacle in which performers dressed in costumes from the Middle Ages enact a live chess game. The show is allegedly based on a match played in the 15th century to settle a romantic rivalry between aristocrats for the hand of Lionora Parisio, whose father was the Lord of Marostica Castle. Even if it’s not true, it makes for a fantastic backstory.

Lucca Piazza dell’Anfiteatro
Piazzas are often a brilliant accumulation of history, and this one is no exception. The elliptical shape reflects its Roman origin as a stadium for large-scale events and gladiatorial games. Over the centuries, though, it has lived many lives—as a prison, a storage place for salt, a communal vegetable garden and as terraced housing—all of which nibbled away at the grand shape. Architect Lorenzo Nottolini restored the amphitheater in the 19th century; it is now crisply outlined by plain-faced 19th-century residential buildings. But the remains of Emperor Claudius’s earliest structures are just 6 feet below the pavement.

Pienza Piazza Pio II
This severe and serene trapezoidal space, paved in herringbone and delineated in travertine, is a manifesto in stone, the centerpiece of an idyllic Renaissance town. It was conceived and built atop an earlier village, Corsignano, by native son Pius II (pope 1458–1464) as a retreat from Rome. Like many idealistic conceptions, it is beautiful but cold, asking for admiration rather than simply saying, “Prego!” But it’s worthy of study; as your homework, watch The English Patient, where the piazza plays a supporting character.

Montefalco Piazza del Comune
This town is known as “the balcony of Umbria,” a reference to the 360-degree panoramas of the countryside that it offers. (The best of them is at Porta Camiano.) Montefalco’s nucleus is the octagonal Piazza del Comune, lined with buildings that date from the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s a rare shape for a piazza, which tend to be triangular or quadrilateral. Should you need another reason for going, the town produces a very good (and very under-the-radar) wine, Sagrantino di Montefalco. Among the best producers: Arnaldo Caprai, Paolo Bea and Còlpetrone.

Rome Piazza Santa 
Maria in Trastevere
In a city of operatic baroque piazzas, this one stands out as a light, lilting piece. It takes its name from one of the oldest churches in Rome (erected circa 340 A.D.), which dominates the space, although the present structure is an accumulation of additions and subtractions—thankfully, however, the splendid mosaics inside have remained a constant since the 13th century. The rest of the square is reinforced with buildings built after the 16th century, and the piazza remains the living room for residents of Trastevere, the very gentrified, once-working-class quarter across the Tiber.

Verona Piazza delle Erbe
The Palazzo Maffei dominates this long, slim triangle. But that’s the piazza’s only aristocratic touch. The sides are composed of a pleasing miscellany of residential buildings that look as though they were slotted in when a space became available. The effect is not dissimilar to that of a nicely worn-in couch. Once you’ve been amply cradled in the piazza’s comfort, spend some time at the Case Mazzanti, a stretch of residences frescoed with allegories of Ignorance, Prudence, Envy and Providence. Dozens of cafés set right in the piazza provide the perfect setting for contemplation.