Florence and its Markets

Cheese vendor on the San Lorenzo Market
Cheese vendor on the San Lorenzo Market

I am sure that many of you admire the abundance of Italian markets. What a pleasure seeing fresh fruits and vegetables, hundred types of cheeses, various cured meats and hams, infinite types of fresh meat and fish, shrimps, mussels, olive oil, wine, spices and dried fruits displayed on the stalls to attract the clients. The markets are still an essential element of Italian life style and, fortunately, still many people prefer the markets and little shops rather than supermarkets.

In the past, the cities and the markets lived in a perfect symbiosis as the existence of a prosperous market guaranteed the richness of the towns and their inhabitants. During the Middle Ages, after the year 1000, the importance of commerce and markets significantly increased and the commercial life of the cities started to guarantee them certain political autonomy from the emperor and the empire. Thanks to the commercial freedom the Italian cities transformed into independent city-states ruled by a council of male citizens elected for various offices. The rulers belonged to the local middle-class and this particular political system of the Italian cities was truly progressive at that time. The markets were the real centre of the economical and political life of these independent cities and therefore they occupied a relevant place in their urban organization. Medieval Florence had three principal market areas, the Ponte Vecchio which hosted butchers, fish and vegetable sellers, the loggia of Orsanmichele, where functioned the grain market, and the old market area around the Roman forum.

The market in Orsanmichele took the name from the church of San Michele in Orto, which existed there between the eight and the thirteen centuries. At the beginning of the fifteenth century the loggia was transformed in a fully enclosed building with an additional upper floor. The upper floor served as grain storage while on the ground floor the Florentines continued to conduct noisy and lively market activities.
Soon after the refurbishment of the building one of the frescoes of the Madonna painted on the pillars of the ground floor became miraculous and in consequence the grain market had to be moved to a different place. The Orsamichele turned into a church and the Florentine corporations started to decorate its four facades with the tabernacles of their patron saints.

Ponte Vecchio with its shops,
Ponte Vecchio with its shops, photo: Denis Zeppieri

At the same time, in 1345, the Ponte Vecchio was rebuilt after the flood, which had destroyed it in 1333. The new structure included the shops which were assigned to butchers, fish and vegetable sellers. The bridge turned into a flourishing market place. The location of butchery shops on the bridge was not casual. With the river running below, it was easy to clean the shops by simply throwing all the remains directly to the water. As you can imagine, cleaning all the organic leftovers was of crucial importance at that time. In fact, the hygiene was a huge problem in the medieval cities which were very densely populated and lacked any kind of drainage system. Thus, locating the meat market on the bridge was a truly smart solution!

During the Middle Ages developed also the market located around the Roman forum, the Mercato vecchio. Around 1430, the column of Dovizia, allegory of prosperity and abundance, was placed there to mark the space of commercial exchange. The statue was sculpted by Donatello and it soon became one of his most appreciated works. This market survived till the nineteenth century even if the Medici started to reform the Florentine markets much earlier.

The first big reform of the market areas in Florence began in the sixteenth century. First, between 1547 and 1551 Giovanni Battista del Tasso projected the loggia delMercato nuovo – the New Market Loggia, which was located between Calimala and via Porta Rossa. On the Mercato nuovo one could buy precious textiles and various fine products. Today this market is called Mercato del Porcellino – the wild boar market – because of a bronze statue and a fountain of wild boar, which you will find in along via Calimaruzza. You can buy there different leather goods such as bags, purses, backpacks and wallets.

The wild boar next to the New Market loggia
The wild boar next to the New Market loggia

The construction of this loggia initiated a deep reform of the Florentine markets. It was followed by Vasari’s project for the Loggia del Pesce, the fish loggia for the fish market, which was located in the area of the Mercato vecchio in 1567. Since then the Mercato vecchio became the most important market area in the city until the urbanistic revolution of the nineteenth century: the construction of the Piazza della Repubblica and of the new covered markets in San Lorenzo, Sant’Ambrogio and San Frediano districts. The importance of the old market was strengthened in 1593, when Ferdinando I de’ Medici decided to reorganize the shops on the Ponte Vecchio and ordered to assign them to goldsmiths and silversmiths. The previous butchers and vegetable shops were all moved to the Mercato vecchio area and the Ponte Vecchio became a representative place “visited by gentlemen and foreigners” as the Grand Duke Ferdinando said himself.

The last chapter of the Medicean reform of the medieval disposition of the market areas was the construction of the Loggia del Grano, the grain market, occurred in 1619. Projected by Giulio Parisi, Cosimo’s II favourite architect, the loggia was situated behind the Uffizi’s buildings. The ground floor hosted the actual market, while on the upper floor they stocked grain supplies. Together with the Mercato vecchio, the Mercato nuovo and the Loggia del Pesce, the grain market completed the disposition of the markets areas for the years to come.

Important changes started during the years of the unification of Italy. In 1861 the Grand Duchy of Tuscany became part of the Kingdom of Italy and three years later, in 1864 the capital of Italy was moved from Turin to Florence. This important change created few problems for the city itself because the urban character of Florence had remained unchanged since the sixteenth century. Florence struggled to find space for the different ministries and various governmental departments. In the same year the city council appointed Giuseppe Poggi to study a new urban order for Florence and to renew the city in the spirit of urban changes implemented at that time in Paris. Poggi’s demolitions of the city walls are probably the most famous of these modifications, however, the renewal of the market areas occupied an important place in the overall projects of the urban restyling. The new central market of the city was located in the San Lorenzo district and many of the previous crumbling buildings that stood there had to be demolished and levelled in order to make space for the new covered market pavilion. The project of the new market was prepared by Giuseppe Mengoni, famous architect from Milan, author of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – the world’s oldest shopping mall. The central market was projected as a wholesale market and soon became the centre of the commercial life of Florence. Its activity was supported by the two smaller markets, one in Sant’Ambrogio and the other one in San Frediano. This last one was unfortunately demolished at the beginning of the twentieth century but the Central Market in San Lorenzo and the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio are still at the centre of the urban life in the town. The construction of the markets was followed by the controversial restoration of the old market area, the demolition of the ghetto and the construction of the Piazza della Repubblica meant to become new meeting place of the Florentine bourgeoisie. The demolitions destroyed various monuments, such as the churches of Santa Maria in Campidoglio and Sant’Andrea, numerous medieval streets and blind alleys. In fact, the scholars still discuss about the consequences of these profound modifications of the urban structure for the Florentine historical fabric.

Today the Mercato Centrale and the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio define the rhythm of the districts and their inhabitants. This is where we shop, meet, talk, eat and relax. Each of us has its favourite stalls where we buy meat, fruit, fish, vegetables, cheeses and ham. On the market, we not only get fresh, seasonal products but we also feel part of the community and that counts a lot. Still today, just like in the middle ages, Florence and its markets live in a perfect symbiosis.