Piazzas, large and small, are all worth heading to, particularly in the evening. During the day the Piazza dei Priori in Volterra is filled with people criss-crossing its expanse, going about their daily business. Beside the Porta San Francesco the old men and women sit with their dogs watching the traffic in the shade of the medieval walls. In the evening they head up the steep slope of Via San Lino to Piazza dei Priori to sit beneath of the medieval walls of the town hall.
In the past the Piazza dei Priori was the centre for less civil activities. The Volterrans seem to have been a feisty lot and have risen against various rulers over the ages. Perhaps a city dating back to Etruscan settlement, then known as Velathri in the 9th and 8th Centuries B.C., has had plenty of experience with different leaderships and have learnt a thing or two about the vicissitudes of leaders and the need for people to be vigilant about the use of power.
The liveliest piazza in Volterra during the day is the smaller Piazza XX Settembre overlooking the hills and valleys of Tuscany beyond Porta di Dicciola. Here sits the haunting sculpture of the fallen soldier. Sit on a bench under the shade of the old tree and enjoy a panini or gelato while the pigeons gather and peck the crumbs at your feet. Mind you, they will do the same should you sit and lunch at one of the many trattorias.
In the early evening, however, as the day winds down, people drift to the Piazza dei Priori. The old men sit on the stone ledge of the Palazzo dei Priori, the oldest town hall in Tuscany, and smoke and talk, waylaying friends and family passing by. It is enough at the end of the day to sit at the table of one of the two restaurants where the chairs and tables spill into the piazza with an Aperol Spritz and watch the people of Volterra watching the people of Volterra.
I learnt to always be in a piazza in the early evening and wait to find out what was happening. Sometimes it was a long wait. Italians, like most Europeans, are not early diners and entertainment starts at the earliest at 8.30 p.m. Watch for signs and hints of something happening. If nothing particular happens, then you still have enjoyed an evening in the centre of things.
A friend and I were completing our evening meal when I noticed figures dressed in medieval costumes, walking hurriedly down the narrow streets, disappearing around buildings. I rubbed my eyes thinking I was seeing things; but no – there was someone turning the corner from a nearby street and there was another, walking briskly up the street.
“There must be something happening,” I said. “There are people dressed in leggings, jerkins and tabbards darting through the streets.” My friend smiled understandingly and made sympathetic noises as you do to a person whose grip on reality may be tenuous at best.
“No, really, look.” I pointed to a brown clad figure behind her but it was gone by the time she turned around.
“It has been a long day,” she sympathised. It had. We had travelled from Piombino to Volterra and in doing so had had a very long hot wait in the desolated and seemingly deserted station at Campagna. But I was not that exhausted. And then she, too, saw someone. Her jaw dropped. “I think I have seen someone with a cross-bow,” she confessed.
“We need to follow them,” I urged, signalling for the bill. We hot-footed it up the steep cobbled Via Porta all’Arco through the darkening evening. “I think they are heading to the Piazza dei Priori.”
We arrived in the piazza where people were gathering but there was no sign of our medieval folk. We hung around. Children ran hither and thither, chasing one another between the legs of chatting adults. We were about to leave when the children were gathered together in a circle beside various musical instruments and the adults took seats on wooden stalls or sat on picnic rugs or the warm cobble stones. A diminutive teacher with enormous energy and sensitivity to the children’s needs and moods orchestrated the evening of musical entertainment. Her ability with crowd control was awesome.
Some weeks later in Assisi we were in a gallery in Piazza del Commune when we heard a drum roll. Something was afoot in the piazza. What to do? Stay and finish what we were doing or leave? We took note of the staff inching toward the door, barely containing their excitement. Now drums were drumming and bugles bugling and the square was transformed into another century except for the ubiquitous phones and cameras. Squadrons of costumed men and women bearing cross-bows, drums and flags slowly processed around the piazza, each squadron representing an Italian medieval city. Deft flag throwers danced intricate steps while their flags rose into the air before descending into their waiting hands. And there were the brown-clothed Volterrans, here to represent their city at Le Campagnie di Balestrieri.
I saw them again in Volterra while enjoying an Aperol Spritz in Piazza dei Priori some weeks later. They arrived at the Palazzo after marching though the town to a slow drum beat and muffled march of soft leather boots to be honoured for taking out the silver medal in Assisi.
If you want to enjoy the art of flag throwing there is no better place than Siena just before and, of course, during the Palio that takes place in the Piazza del Campo. The Alfieri, or flag wavers, can be found practicing their art in many small squares throughout Siena in the weeks before the Palio. One evening while wandering around identifying the contrada symbols that mark out the territory of the contesting contrade, usually found carved or represented as a fresco on the corner walls of buildings, I heard the slow beat of drums. Following my motto to follow the drum beats I hastened through the narrow medieval laneways until through a space, I saw a flash of colour. I watched two youths throw their flags to one another, leaping across the poles, facing each other chest to chest before stepping back to catch the falling flag. A young boy, no more than 10 years old, beat slowly on his drum and the older men looked on critically.
Afterwards I headed off to the Piazza del Campo to sit at one of the seats of the many restaurants arranged along the slope looking down across the Fonte Gaia in the hope of seeing a procession of contrade. These are colourful and energetic and the excitement of the race is on the breath of every Sienese. With an Aperol in the foreground, the colour and excitement midground and the Palazzo Publico with its Torre del Mangia in the background – ah, la dolce vita. Oh, and between the Palio and sunset aperativos visit the Palazzo and Ambrogia Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. It is in the council room reminding the governors to rule wisely and well.
These frescoes bring to mind the extraordinarily moving Pretoria Fountain in front of what was once the Senate of Palermo but now the Praetorian Palace or town hall in Piazza della Pretoria and completed by Francesco Camilliani in 1555. While it may not have been an intentional allegory for good government, the sculpted figures and the detail of their faces portraying a range of human emotions does seem to warn us that the human is vulnerable and suffers at the hands of others. The fountain is also known as the Fontana della Vergogna or the fountain of shame – a telling warning for poor legislation.
After a day exploring the rich architectural history of Taormina founded by Andromacus in 392B.C. before falling to the Romans in 212B.C. when it became a popular resort for the Roman patricians and senators prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, sit in Piazza Aprile and gaze across to Mount Etna rising above the Ionian Sea. Below lies Giardino Naxos, now a somewhat shabby seaside town but with inviting beaches and a fascinating archaeological park. From Piazza Aprile and its neighbouring Parko Publico one may catch glimpses of an eruption on Mount Etna. During the day this might be seen as a thick cloud of smoke with bursts of red lava. At night, the thin stream of lava runs crimson down the side of the black larval slopes. The most excited people on these occasions are the tourists. For the locals “è normale” and the event barely mentioned as they go about their business comfortable that they have little to fear from their restless neighbour, unlike the Napolitans.
In Val Colle d’Elsa after a long, hot walk from San Gimignano, I found a little bar overlooking the piazza and enjoyed a refreshing drink while jazz played in the background. Again it was towards the end of the day. Branching off the piazza were narrow streets flanked by storied buildings. As I sat my attention was drawn to a woman calling to the window above. Someone opened the window and there ensued a conversation. I assumed that keys had been forgotten and my assumption seemed to be correct because a basket was lowered and the woman on the street removed something. However she then walked away briskly and returned about ten minutes later with a bag of provisions which she placed in the basket which was hauled up.
It would take an entire book to explore all the piazzas, both small and large, in all the cities around Italy. Everyone will have their favourite piazza and the memory that accompanies it. Perhaps there can be no favourite as each brings with it the personality of its neighbourhood, the traditions and the history. The piazza is the ideal place for spontaneous activities such as the amazing rap dance witnessed in Milan alongside the Duomo.
But if all else fail and the unplanned fun of the piazza is not your thing, don’t ignore Piazza San Marco at sunset. What better place to spend the evening having being overwhelmed by the sheer opulence of St Marks than to sit at dusk at a table at Florian’s with an aperitivo and the accompanying snacks while listening to the orchestra and catching the last rays of the sun on the cathedral dome, the clock tower and on the twins, Romulus and Remus, sucking at the wolf’s teats.