Post-unification Florence

Sometimes a bit of lateral thinking helps. It’s really hot here, like 38 degrees in the middle of the day. It’s busy in the historical centre. We’ve seen most of the sights before. Time for a different approach. The plan – get up early, head off before the crowds descend and the heat rises. Leave the tourist routes and see something slightly different. A 7.30 am start saw us up and at ‘em before the tourists, with just the locals setting up for the day and heading to work. We headed out to explore some of the sights which are the result of a period of Florentine history much more recent than the Renaissance.

Florence isn’t just a Renaissance museum. It’s a living city with people who need to do what we do – take out the trash, get laundry done and the weekly shop in, get to work, exercise. I lived here for a month in 2018 and found it remarkably easy to do all these and more, even in the apartment we’re in now, within sight of the Duomo.

One of the biggest upheavals in the history of Florence was when, in 1865, it became the first capital of the united Italy. Some 20,000 new workers and their families would swell the population by 50,000; where would everyone go? Unfortunately, the necessary modernisations would inflict considerable damage on the historical fabric of the city. Expansion was overseen by Giuseppe Poggi, whose program over twelve years had a more remarkable effect on the form of the city than any other single episode in Florence’s history.

A large number of religious buildings were sequestered, including Santa Croce, San Firenze, Santa Maria Novella and the Badia Fiorentina. Among famous non-religious monuments so used were the Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi and Palazzo Strozzi.

Via Nazionale was cut through to link the newly created Piazza della Indipendenza to the station at Santa Maria Novella, while Via de’Cerretani and Via Panzani were widened to link the cathedral and the station.

Completely new residential quarters were planned, including new districts in Mattonaia and Maglio and the Cascine triangle. Having thus exhausted all available space within the city walls, Poggi demolished all the city walls north of the Arno – 80% of their length – between 1865 and 1869. Thus the city expanded into the immediately surrounding belt of orchards, olive groves , villas and market gardens, resulting in dilution of the urban fabric and the loss of the sense of identity of the ancient nucleus which had defined the city for five hundred years.

A series of broad boulevards was laid out following the path of the lost walls, and a series of new squares and rond -points echoed the style of Paris. Within this survived the Porta San Gallo, Porta al Prato and Porta alla Croce, now centrepieces of large new piazze – the Piazza della Libertà at Porta San Gallo and Piazza Beccaria at Porta alla Croce. Both squares were surrounded by new apartment blocks in neoclassical style. As the motor car became the mode of transport of the masses, a circumnavigational traffic system was developed which takes traffic to and from the city to this day.

Poggi undertook further street widening and ‘improvements’ in the historic centre:

Via Larga was extended northwards.

Clearances took place around Piazza della Signoria.

Via Martelli and the Ponte alla Carraia were widened.

A new lungarno was created along the eastern part of the north bank to Ponte San Niccolo.

Development took place of an area on Via della Scala.

Setting out of Piazzale Michaelangelo

Construction of the Via dei Colli in the oltrarno.

In 1870, the capital was moved to Rome and the population fell by 28,000 in three years. The main focus now was improvement of the Mercato Vecchio area, which had become overcrowded and unsanitary. The work began in 1885 and unthinkably involved complete demolition and reconstruction in a manner which would never be permitted today. The aim was to create a spacious, modern heart, broader streets, substantial palazzi and a great new square – Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, now Piazza della Repubblica. Numerous tower houses were lost, as were the churches of Sant’Andrea, San Tommaso and Santa Maria in Campidoglio.

The basic plan was a simple rectangular grid. Countless narrow lanes, alleys and courtyards were obliterated in favour of large, simple rectangular blocks of new construction.

Architecture after unification

The new architecture of this brief period tends to be neoclassical – large in scale, grandiose and reinforcing the image of a new capital

It is seen most clearly in the architecture surrounding the new piazze – Piazza d’Azeglio, Piazza Beccaria, Piazza della Libertà and Piazza della Repubblica

The Palazzo della Borsa, the new chamber of commerce, is a dignified Greek structure with a prominent Doric portico on the north bank of the Arno, designed by Michaelangelo Majorfi and Emilio de Fabris in 1858.

Two simple restrained side wings (four bays, three orders) with rectangular neo-Renaissance lights and plain render to the walls

Central section faced with pietra serena and five-bay pedimented Doric temple

Piazza Beccaria was begun in 1865 and is a true rond-point where seven streets converge. Its focal point is the Porta alla Croce.

Surrounding palazzi are elegant and well-ordered, with Poggi’s favoured rustication to ground floor, surmounted by a two-storey giant order of Corinthian pilasters supporting a cornice.

At Piazza della Libertà, the centre is Porta San Gallo (1284-5) and the more prominent Arco Di Trionfo, built by Jean Nicolas Jadot in 1739 – three bays, Corinthian, large central arch flanked by two smaller ones. Six streets and three avenues converge here.

Surrounding palazzi are united by spacious ground floor colonnades, above which are two storeys of simple, rhythmic classical fenestration in neo-Renaissance style. The inability to get a picture without a stream of traffic is testament to how busy this square really is!

Piazza d’Azeglio was not completed until 1866. It is large and rectangular, surrounded by beautifully appointed three- and four-storey apartments. In the centre is a large, well-planted public garden.

Piazza della Repubblica

*At present much of the Piazza is being restored so I am using online images rather than my normal practice of using ones I take myself *

The most monumental result of the era of Poggi and of Florence as capital. Built as Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, arising from the demolition of 1885 and completed by 1893.

The centrepiece, on the west side, is the Arcone, an arch bridging the junction where Via degli Strozzi enters the west side, the central feature of a great block forming the entire west side of the piazza. It was built by Micheli in 1895. Ground-floor colonnades are surmounted by two superimposed orders, Doric and Ionic, looming over the square. The arch is flanked by two orders of paired columns projecting forwards with a bold cornice above. In the centre of the entablature is an inscription celebrating the risanamento of the city’s heart.

The palazzi occupying the other three sides were designed by several of the leading neoclassical architects of the time, including Vincenzo Micheli, who designed the Arcone, Giuseppe Rossi and Giuseppe Boccini. On the north side is the seat of Fondaria Assicurazione by Boccini, an elegant neo-Renaissance block.

On the east side is Hotel Savoy by Micheli, neo-Renaissance with giant pilasters to ground floor and mezzanine then a continuous balcony to the piano nobile with seven bays. Two upper storeys crowned by a cornice.

In the centre of the piazza is the Colonna dell’ Abbondanza, the only physical survivor of the Mercato Vecchio, atop which is a copy of Abundance by Donatello.

Other buildings

The new Mercato Centrale was designed by Giuseppe Mengoni and inaugurated in 1874, a fine example of the iron-and-glass of the era. Main facades have thirteen bays, four to each of five side aisles, four to the central ‘nave’. The block is eleven bays deep. Shallow copper roof with clerestory to the ‘nave’. The lower external structure is traditional, with rusticated stone arches. The iron structure is decorated with neo-Classical columns and pilasters.

The Jewish synagogue was completed in 1882 and is by Vincenzo Micheli in Moorish-Byzantine style.

The Casa Galleria Vichi in Borgo Ognissanti, designed by Giovanni Michelozzi in 1911, is Art Nouveau.

So is his Villino Broggi (1911)

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