Legend has it that whenever they wanted to build a village, the wandering shepherds of the Pindus chose a place and planted a tree. If the tree – which they passed by at least twice yearly with their herds – grew well, they would build a settlement there, with the tree as its heart. All of the Aromanian settlements in the Pindus have a square and all of them have an ancient tree at their centre. The locals call the square the plateia, platia, mishori or mesohori. These contain all the important buildings in the life of the community. The church, the school, the fountain, the cafes, all of these are found in the square. Or, rather, they define the square. Where they are the square is as well. It is a spatial, architectural definition, but especially a social and anthropological one, for this is the place where all important community events take place. For this reason, before having an architectural definition, the square has an anthropological definition. These are not squares meant to be seen, but squares where things are meant to happen. Their main function is not aesthetic, but social. And what happens, in brief, is the story of the community, which must function as a whole.
This is one of the largest squares in Spain and lies right at the entrance of the medieval town. Its origins are found in the 11thcentury, when the space was used for the great traditional holidays. The buildings are from different eras, with all of them having a 16th century ground floor colonnade. On the northwestern side, the Bujaco Tower is an eye-catching building, now a symbol of the city. It was built during the Arab rule, on top of Roman foundations. The origins of its name may come from the local word for straw dolls, bujacos.
The story of European squares is tied through a continuous historical thread to Greek antiquity where the plateia and then the agora appear. The urban square is specific to Europe, for such a continuity is not present in other cultures, even if they also posses squares, some very large in size. It was Europe that invented the square and developed it as an architectural form, in order to export it across the world, mainly during the colonial period.
At first a simple widening of the main road in a Greek polis, the square gains, with time, community and religious functions and is also beautified. From the Greeks, the square is adopted by Roman architects, where the forum is essential in the planning of space. After the fall of the Roman Empire, urban life returns to Europe only around the year 900, when many medieval burgs grow on top of old Roman settlements, maintaining their plans, with the forum becoming a central square, as one finds in Zadar or Poreč, on the Dalmatian coast.
Any medieval town, when photographed by a flying drone, allows one to see the fundamental opposition between margin and centre, for medieval towns are always surrounded by walls. Some, such as Óbidos, in Portugal, have kept these fortifications intact to this day. The square is a wide space, standing in volumetric opposition to city streets, always narrow and winding. Almost always, the medieval square has a cathedral and a fountain. For smaller towns, the role of the fountain is also functional. For larger ones, its role is purely aesthetical, for the presence of the fountain has to do with tradition and ritual.
The existence of the walls has had several important consequences for the cities of Western Europe. First of all, limited space meant that, for centuries, the population size remained constant within the walls. When the population size grows, it is preferable that new cities are built, rather than expanding the fortified centre, which is why the Middle Ages excel at founding settlements. Construction always begins with the centre, the square, its spot is the first to be fixed. A second important consequence of walls: the centre always stays the same. In these communities the square is essentially superimposed on the geometrical centre. It was the most protected space. The last place reached by the enemy. Then, there are only a few gates allowing access into the cities. Automatically, all entry roads lead to the central square. Seen from the air, it becomes clear that the square is the centre of the medieval town. The walls visually mark, as clearly as possible, the opposition of the centre to the periphery. Thus, another evolutionary consequence: when, at the dawn of modernity, the walls are torn down, the settlements tend to develop concentrically, rather than linearly, adding more space to a pre-existing structure, a structure still visible in many European cities today.
During the Renaissance, Europe inherits medieval cities. She loves these no longer and wishes them to be completely different: within certain limits, Europe imagines a different kind of urban worlds. The age is, however, not famed for the founding of real cities, but of fictitious ones. When theory does give way to practice, it is usually as a result of calamities. On the 21st of September 1561, a great fire engulfs the city of Valladolid. The city’s catastrophe is a real blessing for urbanism. In the empty space, the splendid Plaza Mayor is built, until today one the largest in Spain. It is the first regular square in Europe, yet, unfairly, it unfairly remains little known. Its symmetry and plan can be clearly seen from above. The architectural and urban pattern instituted at Valladolid is taken by many other squares, reaching perfection in 1729, through Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, one of the most beautiful squares in the world. The aerial photograph immediately shows that the square’s perimeter is not a square, but a trapezoid. Seen from a normal perspective, the square is perceived by any traveller as having perfectly parallel and even sides: a subtle optical illusion, carefully calculated to deepen the perspective and thus counter the relatively small space available to the architect.
Starting with the 16th century, cities still have fortifications, yet they are planned differently. The mission of city planning increasingly passes from the architect-artist to the engineer. The essential moment of change comes in the 17th century and is associated with Vauban. The type of fortification he proposes means stationing a great number of soldier within massively fortified city walls. Star forts rapidly appear across Europe, from Naarden and Bourtange, in Holland, to Almeida, in Portugal, or Alba Carolina, in Romania. These military settlements have a perfect structure, with straight and aligned streets, always leading to a large square at the centre. Seen from the ground, the perfection of the forts can only be felt, especially since the buildings are often austere. They are, however, by far among the most beautiful European settlements which can be photographed from the air, stars set down upon the earth. Nowhere is the importance of the square as a central space made clearer that in their case.
After the middle of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, cities reinvented themselves in a way which reflects the military, technological, but also political changes. The self-governing power of urban communities had steadily dwindled, eventually collapsing before the autocracy of the monarchs. The kings bring soldiers in the cities and the soldiers need straight streets. In order to act quickly, but also in order to properly organise their parades. Thus, the self-governing power of the urban communities gradually drops to nothing. Aristocrats increasingly live in their summer palaces, they wish to be closer to governing centres. They build residences in the city. In time, these turn into their main homes. All of a sudden, many become interested in what the city looks like. The consequence? The planning of cities changes drastically. If ancient medieval settlements have a structure based on the needs of the entire community, cities are modified in order to correspond to the taste of the aristocracy. Essential transformations take place in urban aesthetics. When the streets become straight, the perspective opens, people start seeing further, beyond the first curve. From this to theorising the vista there is but a step. The vista, unknown to classical Antiquity, necessitates a much more complex urban vision: monuments and statues must not only be seen up close. Indeed, they are a landmark and can be found at the end of a long, straight street, which allows the square to be seen from a great distance.
What used to be a chance effect now turns into something to be studied. Triumphal archways, commemorative columns, statues are built so as to also be beautiful from a distance. From here to the ceremonial axes that will go through the cities, tying squares together, there is merely a step to be taken. Seen from above, Lisbon unveils at once the transformations undertaken under the leadership of the Marquise of Pombal, after the devastating earthquake of 1 November 1755. Lisbon’s squares represent a real system. Wide, aligned boulevards link the Trade Square to Rosio, Rosio to de Figueira, Martim Moniz and the Restauradores, the Restauradores to Praça do Marquês de Pombal, and all of these have impressive monuments at their centre.
In order for the square to exist, buildings alone do not suffice. Cities are a blend of people and buildings, and the relation between these two terms is not as clear as it would seem on first glance. People create the buildings, and the way in which a community sets its story, history, religion, beliefs, the concrete needs of daily life into a space, has remained mostly unclear to this day. Indeed, countless nuances of this complicated process are elusive, and will most likely never be fully described. A square is its architecture, but, at the same time, it is more than its architecture. Its entire past, chained in an invisible-visible system of links to the symbolic imaginary of the community, makes its presence felt in the existence of the square.
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.
Today this is a village, with 133 houses and fewer than 300 inhabitants. Yet Bourtange was built as a military fort in 1593, during the Dutch Revolt, on the orders of William the Silent. It held this role until 1851, when it officially lost its defensive function and became populated by craftsmen and farmers. Its initial purpose was to guard the road linking Spanish Groningen to Germany. It is one of the most spectacular star-shaped forts in Europe. The pentagonal plan and its network of canals and fortifications respects the original project. The square stands in the geometric middle and follows the pentagonal shape of the buildings placed within the fort. Its perimeter is perfectly defined by 14 lime trees which are over 300 years old. The square holds the most important houses: the captain’s house, the commander’s house, and the house of the school headmaster, for the placement of its buildings was hierarchical. The Protestant church dates from 1869 and, notably, is situated close to the square but not within the square itself.
On the Portuguese side of the border there are even more fortifications than in Spain. Almeida is found in the north of Portugal. It is a star-shaped fort with 12 corners, Vauban style, built in 1641. The Spanish only entered there once in all their history, and then with the help of the French. The square is an irregular quadrilateral and is not positioned quite geometrically, just as the star is not perfect; but its role as a centre is obvious when viewed in relation to the margins of the citadel.
Coimbra is famous for its university, and monumental squares are located in the university area. The city also possesses a small jewel of a square, modest in size but convincing through its balanced proportions and its historical importance. It is Praça 8 de Maio, found in the city centre, in front of the monastery of Santa Cruz, while further on one finds the Câmara Municipal. This small space manages to not be dwarfed by the height and splendour of the Manueline façade of the church where the first two kings of Portugal lie buried. The buildings on the other three sides are just as visible, likewise the central fountain. The contemporary redesigning of the square also contributes to its openness.
At a short distance from the monumental Praça do Comércio stands the municipal square, which hosts three important buildings: the Municipality, the Court of Appeals and the Naval Arsenal. It is a small, quiet square, with different rhythms from the Praça do Comércio, which, following the Rua do Arsenal, stands less than 70 meters ahead. Praça do Municipio is equally part of the urban fabric woven from the city’s reconstruction under the guidance of the Marquise of Pombal. This historical detail is enough to make it clear that they must be understood as counterpoints, that is, as parts of a broader, interconnected system of squares.
The town took its name from count Rodrigo González Girón. It was he who, in the middle of the 12th century, banished the Moors from the region once and for all, and built the town on top of a former Roman castrum, itself once built on top of a Celtic settlement. The solid fortifications speak of the position on the frontier with Portugal. Paradoxically, although one of the most well defended European borders on both sides, this frontier is the most stable in all of European history and has remained virtually the same for 500 years. The only fighting to take place here was with Napoleon’s armies. Nowhere is the relation between square and margin more obvious than in such citadels.
The construction of this square began in 1729, by order of Phillip V, with the square primarily intended for bull fights. Today, it is seen as one of the most beautiful squares in Spain and in the whole of Europe. The space offers a paradoxical optical illusion. From the ground it appears to be a perfect quadrangle, but when seen from an aerial photo, the shape is irregular. The baroque façades of the building, which surround and define the square’s perimeter, seem perfectly symmetrical at first glance, but in reality, none of them are the same height. Entire books have been written about this square in Salamanca, and, to this day, it is considered the absolute model of Spanish squares.
Perched on a hill top in Tuscany, Pienza was originally called Corsignano. Pope Pius II loved his hometown greatly and wished to transform it into a concrete example of his theories on the ideal city. For this purpose he hires the arhitect Bernardo Rossellino and gets directly involved in the planning. Influenced by Alberti’s writings, Pius plans to raise a uniform and self-sufficient city around the central square. Yet as he dies in 1462, the urban sketch of the city that takes his name stops there, with only 40 buildings finished. In the heart of the “ideal city”, Bernardo Rossellino had managed to implement a trapezoidal square, which represents the first attempt at urban renewal in the postclassical period.
The space is not large, yet the illusion of greater dimension is created through its shape and through the drawing of the pavement. The final effect is that of a scene bordered by important buildings. Palazzo Vescovile forms the east side. On the opposite side stands the papal palace. The city hall lies to the north and Rossellino chose a Florentine model for its tower. Two other buildings form the northern side next to the city hall. The square is dominated by the façade of the cathedral, built on the small side of the trapezoid, so that its dimensions are lessened in order to not end up overwhelming the square, for the Pope did not aim to build a city of monumental but of human dimensions. Everything was carefully calculated, and the construction of the church took the motion of the sun into account. Inspired by Austrian cathedrals bathing in natural light, the Pope asked that the church not respect the traditional west-east alignment, but to be set in such a way so that the sunlight might pour in from the southern windows. The church is lined with the tip of Mount Amiata, an extinct volcano. The southern windows of the church make its peak visible, but the peak itself is not visible from the square. This leads to an interesting perception reversal: the interior of the church creates the sensation of a wide open space towards the landscape, while the square barely offers access to surrounding nature, suggesting instead the feeling of an interior space. The two open and narrow spaces in the square, on the cathedral’s sides, are the first Renaissance examples of viewing rural landscapes from within a town. In this respect, it represents a break with traditional medieval squares. In order to see the landscape, one must reach the very end of the square.
Various details from the façade of a building reappear on another façade in the square, the rectangular shape of the façades is a scale copy of the shape of the windows. The windows at the upper level of the papal palace are one of Rossellino’s inventions, a combination between the Roman cross and the Tuscan rose window. The cross reappears as a detail on the windows of the Palazzo Vescovile and the rose window reappears in the design of the city hall’s windows. Archways and circular details, grouped in threes, repeatedly appear on the façade of each building, The travertine grid and the red brick pavement mirrors the series of compartments on the church façade and are lined with the pillars, doors and corners of all the buildings in the square. In the middle of the square there is a travertine circle, and the distance from the circle to the door of the church is equal to the distance from the base of the church to the occhio, the typical round window from the façade of the church. This is not the only “coincidence”, for the square respects a geometry that is based on the numbers 3, 5, 9. Moreover, it was found in the early 2000s that the shadow of the cathedral lines perfectly with the pavement grid in certain moments. Specifically, 11 days after the solar equinox. It was known already in the 15th century that there is a 11 day difference between the used calendar and the astronomical one. The calendar reform was highly controversial within the Catholic Church, since Easter is calculated according to the equinox. Pieper, who observed the lining of the church shadow with the grid, believes that the square was initially supposed to represent this on the very day of the equinox. Thus, the construction was began, but the project was reconstructed so that the alignment would take place on the official day of the equinox. When the modification was decided, the construction of the square buildings was already underway. Redrawing the pavement grid would have led to discrepancies with building details, so the only solution was found in further raising the roof of the cathedral. This is confirmed since the Albertian proportions on the church pediment are not respected. It is a mystery that the details of the reconstruction, as well as the story of aligning the cathedral’s shadow to the drawing of the pavement, make no appearance in the Pope’s extremely detailed diary.
Every two years, in the second week of September, Maroustica hosts a chess game. The place of wooden figurines is taken by living people, and the score board is the very square of the tiny medieval town, whose pavement was thought out especially for this purpose. For this reason, the Maroustica Piazza Castello is also called Piazza degli Scacchi. The story goes that, in medieval times, two young nobles, Rinaldo D’Angarano and Vieri da Vallanora, fell madly in love with Lionora, the daughter of the local lord. The custom of the time demanded that the girl’s fate be decided through a duel. But the father does not wish to make enemies, he wishes no blood spilt, so he forbids the duel and proposes a chess game in its stead. The winner was to become the husband of the coveted Lionora. The loser would not lose, but instead win the hand of the younger daughter, Oldrada. Of course, the story has no basis in historical fact. Not one of the characters in the story ever existed, just as there was no chess match in the medieval Marostica, a town called in the local Venetian dialect, Maròstega. But there was a writer and an architect called Mario Mirko Vucetich from Dalmatia, who imagined the entire story right after the Second World War. And the local chess club found it proper to consider the story true and to organise, every two years, a competition with living people as chess pieces in the scenic square and with real medieval origins of the tiny town of Marostica, from northern Italy.
Already from the 14th century, markets were constantly held in Piața Sfatului in Brașov and produce was exchanged. Back then it was called Marktplatz. The space is dominated by the Casa Sfatului, constructed in 1420. It not only forms the centre of the square, but also offers an interesting chromatic counterpoint, through its lightcolour, to the nearby Schwarze Kirche, the Black Church, visible from the square.
In a side of the square lies the statue of Jan Žižka, a leader of the Hussite movement, one of the few military commanders in the history of the world to have never lost a battle. Today, his name is found in the square in Tábor. Situated on a hilltop, with the square right on the summit, and near the lake called Jordan, after the biblical river, the city was founded in the spring of 1420 as a centre of the Hussite revolutionary movement. Initially regular, it later had the tendency to develop organically, and the shape of the square points to this. The streets have been designed in a zigzag on purpose, so that the enemy would have a hard time reaching the centre. Although it is hard to see in the photograph, the square is sloped, which adds a new dimension to its space.