Firenze: Walking with the Ancients


Aerial View: Florence, Italy


Bronze maquette of Firenze

Roma, Napoli, Bologna, Parma, Piacenza, and Ostia were all first generation Roman cities. Como, Pavia, Verona, and Firenze (Florence) followed in the first century. Mumford gives the Roman city block as 250 x 250 feet (3.75 chain = 247.5 feet = 75.44 m). Roads were typically 12, 15, 18 and 24 feet wide (0.18, 0.23, 0.27 and 0.36 chain).


Example of a Roman city plan laid as 8 x 8 square blocks encircled by a wall with the forum occupying an open block at the center.

All of ancient Firenze fits within a square measuring 1650 x1650 feet (25 x 25 chains). The block pattern has morphed over 2,000 years, but a regular rhythm is clearly visible presenting some striking coincidences. The most discernible block pattern is 2, 3 and 4 chains long (132, 198, 264 feet). These dimensions vary with the width of surrounding streets and historical events unknown. Roads 48 foot wide appear in the north-south direction; the east west streets are narrower about 31, 36, 39 and 42 feet wide. The method of Roman survey emerges as a fundamental issue. The connection of chain-measure and Roman measure is reflected in the Duomo. The spacing of the columns in the nave of the Duomo measures 63.5 feet on center (or 96.2% of one chain or 66 feet).

Firenze plan alignments
Firenze: plan showing key alignments

Firenze was founded by Julius Caesar as Florentia in 59 BCE. It was laid out as a Roman Castrum at the easiest crossing point along the Arno. A bridge is believed to have stood there since Roman times. The oldest record of the Ponte Vecchio dates to 996 CE. A dedication stone found mid-span gives the year 1333 as the date of its reconstruction ten years after it was lost to a flood. The Cardo (Via Roma) meets the street that rises at an angle from the Ponte Vecchio, and crosses the Decumanus (Via del Strozzi) at the Forum or main square, Piazza della Republica. The old Roman platting suggests a division of the square plan of the city into four ‘quarters’. The cardo and decumanus aligned with highways outside the walls that would not penetrate into the city proper. According to Vitruvius the location of the forum or campo in the town plan was set by ancient practice. In a port city, the main square would be near the water’s edge (for example, Piazza San Marco in Venice); for inland sites, the preferred spot would be in the geographical center (Piazza Maggiore, Bologna). In Firenze, Piazza della Republica is perfectly centered on the west side of the intersection of the Cardo and Decumanus. Piazza della Signoria, the seat of government, is near the Arno, at a point where the gridiron plan of the city would seem to ‘dissolve’ to follow the natural contours of the river bank instead. There is not a more elegant demonstration of the classical notion of a given set of principles—the orthogonal Roman castrum—inflecting to local site-specific conditions. Too often we confuse theory and praxis as one and the same thing.


Near via Torta: contemporary buildings still reveal the oval footprint of the Colosseo

The original city lies some 3 meters below today’s street level, yet continues to make its presence felt on the surface. For example, the outline of the Roman Castrum and the Colosseo are clearly visible in the trace of modern streets. Another alignment visible when one steps off the Ponte Vecchio is confirmed by the aerial photography. A straight line joins the center of the Duomo’s dome and lantern (Brunelleschi, dome 1420-36; lantern 1446-6 finished by Michelozzo) and the extended center line of the Ponte Vecchio. This line most likely dates to the Renaissance projects for the construction of a new Duomo. In the Renaissance the Duomo was built over the church of Sta Reparata constructed in 406 CE. The original church was smaller, and its front was further west of the Duomo in better alignment with the street plan.




A contemporary view of the Firenze region is offered here in a video documenting the work of English architect Richard Rogers.


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