“What do you miss most about Italy?” I asked my first Italian teacher in San Francisco many years ago.
“La piazza,” she said so wistfully that I thought for a moment it might be someone’s name. After years of passing time in piazza, I now understand her fondness for these very special places.
The piazza is an Italian’s second home, although it also can double as a shopping mall, day care center, reading room, catwalk, singles club, casino, theatre, sanctuary, office, stadium and dance floor. In the course of a day, the residents of a village or neighborhood come to the piazza to flirt, buy a newspaper, catch up on gossip, show off a new outfit, play cards, complain about the weather, talk politics or just soak in the scene.
Whether large (piazzone) or small (piazzetta), a piazza welcomes everyone, regardless of gender, age, economics or social class —including tourists. If you want a deeper sense of how Italians live, find a comfortable spot on a pretty piazza (not all are) and just wait. Or engage in another Italian pastime: strolling le vie di mezzo (the streets in the middle) that lead from one piazza to another.
Over the years I’ve waded through Venice’s Piazza San Marco when the “acqua alta” (high water) reached almost to my knees, visited Milan’s Piazza Affari (Italy’s Wall Street) and lingered over a limoncello in the theatrical Piazzetta di Capri. Swept into a rally in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, I felt goose bumps when a mayoral candidate addressed the throng as “Popolo di Roma! Romani!” just as countless political leaders have done through the centuries.
I’ve listened to the incandescent voices of Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo echo through the piazza that serves as concert hall for Spoleto’s annual music festival. In Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, my daughter and I watched fireworks rocket into the night sky during an outdoor performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” And in far less famous piazze I've enjoyed eavesdropping on the chiacchiere da piazza (small-town chatter).
Yet I didn’t really “get” what a piazza is really all about until we were making our usual morning shopping rounds in Orbetello, a charming village set amid the lagoons of Monte Argentario in western Tuscany. The local wine merchant appeared in the piazza with a new go-cart for his four-year-old grandson. Within minutes dozens of townspeople clustered around him.
Several nonni (grandfathers), laughing like school boys, took rides themselves. Others inspected and praised the spiffy three-wheeler. Passersby paused to cheer as the boy finally pedaled his way around the square. It may take a village to raise a youngster in other places, I realized, but in Italy it takes a piazza.
Words and Expressions
mettere in piazza –- express private feelings in public
fare una piazzata –- make a commotion, start a loud, vulgar row
fare piazza pulita -- make a clean sweep, rob a house
scendere in piazza -– protest or take to the streets
andare in piazza –- go to a flat open space, slang for going bald
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.
Click below to listen to an Italian classic about a beloved piazza: