European Squares

The life of European squares is different from city to city, from country to country, from culture to culture. Towards midnight, when the last solitary travellers cross in a relative hurry the city squares in the north of Germany, heading towards their homes, the squares in the Iberian Peninsula are still filled with joy, noise and with people who seem to have no work to do the next day. There are still crowds there for several hours after midnight. Clearly, the liveliest spectacle on the European continent is offered by the Spanish cities. In winter, the contrast between the north and south is diminished, for the north squares have Christmas fairs while the southern squares are emptier than in the summer, but they still win out. The square of a European city, no matter the country, lives from season to season and through different rhythms and rituals, gaining new faces. 

One can find urban squares all over Europe, and the site shows squares from the entire continent. Yet when it comes to squares, Europe has a few privileged areas. The Mediterranean south excels due to its climate, but the Baltic coast also has exceptional squares, much less known than those in the south, but completely worth the attention. There is an obvious difference between north and south, but the squares are even more grouped than this. If one takes the time to position them on a map, it is discovered that the beautiful, aesthetically interesting squares, those with stories to them, are especially found in certain regions, forming a sort of ‘network’. Long before the internet, invisible connections tied cities to each other, creating relatively similar urban systems. No matter their differences, the squares consistently have something in common, from their functions to the way in which the people’s lives are reflected in them. 

Italy is by definition the land of the squares. Almost all the squares considered masterpieces are found in the cities to the north of Rome. It is hard to find one which is unknown or little known. For the site, I nonetheless tried to bring forward some of the less known but highly interesting for the history of urbanism, such as Palmanova. Or that in Pitigliano, perhaps not as interested in itself, but more because of the context of the narrow space of a tiny medieval settlement perched on a volcanic tuff. The number of northern Italian squares is very large, larger than the cities, for the cities have square systems, rather than a single one. The southern half of Italy is, by comparison, much more lacking in beautiful squares, although there are some worthy exceptions.

On the other side of the Adriatic, the squares of the cities on the Dalmatian Coast must be understood as an expansion of the Venetian type. The Dalmatian coast is not well enough commented when it comes to squares. These settlements were once Venetian possessions, but meeting other cultures, particularly the south-Slavic one, offered local squares some truly spectacular nuances. Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro divide these cities, but one can find interesting squares in other Balkan countries as well. 

North of the Alps, in Central Europe, on the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, the number of interesting urban squares is also very large. The historical squares in the region are a few centuries younger when compared to Italian ones. Thus, they were greatly influenced by the latter, but have their own personality. Even on the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, their distribution is not uniform, and paradoxically, it is not the power centre of Austria that has the most numerous and most interesting. Almost all 40 historical cities in Bohemia and Moravia have been declared by the Czech government to be architectural reservations and protected by law – with all of them developing around large, beautiful squares. It is unfair that these squares are so little known. Settlements from Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary or Romania have squares which are part of the same ‘pattern’, but their number is much smaller in these countries. Almost all of these Central-European cities are originally burgs of German colonists, arriving here in the early Middle Ages. Again paradoxically, the square system of these Central-European cities is less ‘sophisticated’ than those of Germany proper. Despite the bombings in the Second World War, Germany nonetheless has a few areas with very interesting squares, such as the medieval ones in the Harz Mountains, among others. Another privileged area when it comes to squares is the one already mentioned, the Iberian Peninsula. Spain and Portugal are countries with ‘dynamic’ squares.

But even when the squares are a ‘cultural import’ as recent as the 19thand 20thcenturies – like in the Balkan cities or those of the Caucasian countries between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea –the squares are a very interesting synthesis of local traditions and histories. In Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, the old stopping place for caravans on the Silk Road, has the Meidan square or Vahtang Gorgasali. Like any selection, this too, embellished with a square every week, is unfair and incomplete.