Trg Herceg Stjepana from Herceg Novi, Montenegro

Herceg Novi (Castelnuovo in Italian) is not new as the name claims, but rather quite old, for it was founded in 1382 on the site of a fishing village by the Bosnian King Stephen I, which is also the name of this town’s central square. The Turks conquered the town in 1482 and remained there for two centuries, with a brief Spanish interlude. The town came under Venetian rule in 1687, then passed to Austro-Hungary. After that, Herceg Novi was temporarily ruled by Napoleon, the Russians, and Mussolini, and then became part of Yugoslavia. Its history, though not in its entirety, can be found in its square. It is paradoxical square, for it was built in a typically Italian style, with a splendid Orthodox church in the middle, surrounded by palm trees. Unofficially, the name of the square is Belavista. From there the sea is visible, as well as an Ottoman clock tower, a Spanish fortress, the bell tower of the Catholic church and the lower part of the city.

Náměstí Svornosti from Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Náměstí Svornosti is a small, 45 x 60 meter square. Beautiful but unexceptional, grouping a number of houses with Renaissance façades, it has a baroque column and is bounded on one side by the arches of the old City Hall building. The town, called Krumau in German, grew around the splendid castle, whose first historical mention is encountered in a 13th century poem. The castle has always remained the focal point, whilst the square held a secondary role, which accounts for its size, also determined by its location on a bend of the Vltava river. But it too remains a key element in the fairy-tale like atmosphere of the settlement, which has become renowned across the world and, thus, invaded by far too many tourists for such a small town.

Marktplatz from Elburg, Holland

Elburg’s square is the result of an intersection between two main arteries, and reproduces on a much smaller scale the quadrangular shape of the city. Elburg has perfect geometrical proportions, thought out in such a way that its measurements link to the golden number[MOU1] . The city, whose shape has remained unchanged, was built between 1392 and 1396, and is unusual for the Middle Ages, as all of its roads are linked both to the city’s edges and to its square, which lies exactly at the geometric centre of the quadrangle.

Praça Francisco Rodrigues Lobo from Leira, Portugal

This square has an important role in the social and economic life of the Leira community, for it is filled with cafes and terraces, where numerous events are organised. The square’s pavement is considered one of the most beautiful in Portugal. In medieval times, the square held seasonal fairs.

Náměstí Přemysla Otakara II from Český Budějovice, Czech Republic

This square is among the largest in Europe, and bears the name of King Ottokar II of Bohemia, who in 1256 founded the town, called Budweis in German. The Black Tower, built in the 16th century, and the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas are found in its south-eastern corner. The Baroque City Hall building lies at the opposite corner of the square, whilst its central point is occupied by Samson’s Fountain, featuring elaborate Baroque decorations. Completing the square are 48 houses with coats of arms; a beer factory; and a salt market.

Plaza Mayor from Cáceres, Spain

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.

European Squares

The lives of European squares vary from city to city, country to country, culture to culture. In northern Germany, when it is close to midnight and the last solitary travellers are hurrying across the city squares heading towards home, the squares of the Iberian Peninsula are still filled with joy, noise and people who seem to have no work or responsibilities the following day. The crowds usually remain there until the early hours of the morning. Clearly, the liveliest spectacles on the European continent are to be found in the Spanish cities. In the winter, the contrast between north and south is not as sharp, for the northern squares have Christmas fairs while the southern squares are less busy than they are in the summer, but they still win out. The square of a European city, no matter what country it is in, passes from season to season through various rhythms and rituals, manifesting its many different faces. 

Urban squares exist throughout Europe, and the site shows squares across the entire continent. Yet when it comes to European squares, some areas are more endowed than others. Those in the Mediterranean south are superb, due to the climate, but the Baltic coast also has exceptional squares, less well-known than those in the south, but still completely worthy of notice. There are obvious differences between the squares in the north and south, but they can be divided into even more complex groups. If one takes the time to position them on a map, it can be seen that the most beautiful and aesthetically interesting squares, the squares with real stories, tend to be found in specific regions, forming a sort of ‘network.’ Long before the Internet, cities were tied to one another through invisible connections, creating somewhat similar urban systems. Despite their differences, the squares have much in common, from their broader functions to the ways in which they reflect aspects of people’s lives. 

Italy is by definition the land of squares. Almost all of the squares that are considered masterpieces are found in cities north of Rome. It is difficult to find one there that is unknown or lesser-known. For the site, I nonetheless have tried to highlight some of the lesser-known but highly interesting squares in the history of urbanism, such as Palmanova. Or the one in Pitigliano, which is perhaps not so interesting in and of itself, but has a fascinating existence in a narrow space of a tiny medieval settlement perched on volcanic tuff. The number of squares in northern Italy is very high, higher than in the cities, for the cities tend to have systems of squares, rather than single ones. The southern half of Italy, by comparison, has fewer beautiful squares, although there are some noteworthy exceptions.

On the other side of the Adriatic, the squares in the cities along the Dalmatian Coast must be recognised as holdovers from the Venetian era. The Dalmatian Coast is not discussed enough when it comes to squares. These settlements were once Venetian possessions, but encounters with other cultures, particularly south-Slavic ones, allowed local squares to acquire some truly spectacular nuances. Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro all host such cities, but one can find interesting squares in other Balkan countries as well. 

In central Europe, north of the Alps, and throughout the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, there are also a number of interesting urban squares. The historical squares in this region are a few centuries younger than the Italian ones. Thus, they were greatly influenced by the latter, but they still have their own unique features and personalities. Even within the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, their distribution is varied, and paradoxically, the most interesting and highest concentrations of squares are not to be found in the powerful centre of Austria. Almost all of the 40 historical cities in Bohemia and Moravia have been declared by the Czech government to be architectural reservations protected by law – with these cities developing around large, beautiful squares. It is an injustice that these squares are so little-known. Settlements from Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania contain squares that form part of the same ‘pattern,’ but they are fewer and more far between in these countries. Almost all of these central European cities were originally burgs of the German colonists who arrived in the early Middle Ages. Again, paradoxically, the system of squares in these central European cities is less ‘sophisticated’ than those in Germany proper. Despite the Second World War bombings, several very interesting German squares have been preserved, including medieval ones in the Harz Mountains, among others. Another area containing special squares is the aforementioned Iberian Peninsula. Spain and Portugal are both countries with ‘dynamic’ squares.

But even when squares are ‘cultural imports’ as recent as the 19th and 20th centuries – such as those in the Balkan cities or in the Caucasian countries between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea – they demonstrate a very interesting synthesis of local traditions and histories. Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and an ancient rest stop for caravans travelling on the Silk Road, has the Meidan square or Vahtang Gorgasali. 

This selection, as with any list, is incomplete and does not do this topic justice. 

Marktplein from Bourtange, Netherlands

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.

Praça de São João from Almeida, Portugal

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.


Praça 8 de Maio from Coimbra, Portugal

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.

Praça do Municipio from Lisbon, Portugal

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.

Plaza Mayor from Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain

This town took its name from Count Rodrigo González Girón. It was he who, in the mid-12th century, banished the Moors from this region once and for all, and built this town on top of a former Roman castrum, itself built atop a Celtic settlement. Its solid fortifications speak to its position on the border with Portugal. Paradoxically, although it is one of the most well-defended European borders on both sides, this frontier was the most stable in all of Europe’s history and has remained this way for 500 years. The only fighting to take place here was against Napoleon’s armies. Nowhere is the relationship between centre and periphery more marked than in such citadels.

Piazza Pio II from Pienza, Italy

Perched upon a hilltop in Tuscany, Pienza was originally called Corsignano. Pope Pius II loved his hometown greatly and wished to transform it into a concrete illustration of his theories about the “ideal city.” For this purpose he hired the architect Bernardo Rossellino and was himself directly involved in the city’s planning. Influenced by Alberti’s writings, Pius wished to build a uniform and self-sufficient city around a central square. Yet when he died in 1462, the urban sketch of the city that had taken his name was stopped, with only 40 completed buildings. At the heart of this “ideal city,” Bernardo Rossellino had managed to install a trapezoidal square, representing one of the first attempts of urban renewal in the postclassical period.

The area is not large, yet the illusion of space is created through its shape and the design of the pavement. The overall effect is that of a stage set flanked by important buildings. The Palazzo Vescovile lies on the eastern side of the square. On the opposite side stands the Papal Palace. The City Hall lies to the north, with a Florentine-style tower chosen by Rossellino. Two other buildings complete the northern side next to the City Hall. The square is dominated by the façade of a Cathedral, built along the smaller side of the trapezoid, so as not to end up overwhelming the square, for the Pope wished to build a city of human, rather than monumental, dimensions. Everything was carefully calculated, with the construction of the church even taking the movements of the sun into consideration. Inspired by Austrian Cathedrals that were bathed in natural light, the Pope asked that this church not respect the traditional east-west alignment, but be set in such a way that the sun would pour in from the southern windows. The church is aligned with the top of Mount Amiata, an extinct volcano. Its peak is visible from the southern windows of the church, though it is not visible from the square. This leads to an interesting reversal of perception: the interior of the church feels like a wide space that opens out to the landscape, while the square allows little access to its surroundings, and instead feels like an interior space. The two narrow open areas inside the square, on either side of the Cathedral, are some of the earliest Renaissance examples of visual access to rural landscapes from within a town. As such, it diverges from traditional medieval squares. In order to see the landscape, one must arrive at the very end of the square.

Within the square, various details from one building’s façade reappear on another façade; the rectangular shape of these façades recreates the shapes of the windows to scale. The windows at the upper level of the Papal Palace are Rossellino’s inventions, a combination of 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 on 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 mirror the series of compartments on the façade of the church, and are aligned with the pillars, doors, and corners of all of the buildings found along the square. At the centre of the square is a travertine circle, and the distance between the circle and the door of the church is equal to the distance between the base of the church and the occhio, a typical round window on the façade of the church. This is not the only “coincidence,” for the square respects a geometry based on the numbers 3, 5, and 9.  Moreover, in the early 2000s it was found that the shadow of the Cathedral aligns perfectly with the grid of the pavement at particular moments in time—specifically, 11 days after the solar equinox. It was known as early as the 15thcentury that there was an 11-day difference between the civil 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 alignment of the church’s shadow with the grid, believed that the square was initially intended to demonstrate this on the day of the equinox. Thus, the construction had begun, but the project was adjusted so that the alignment would take place on the exact day of the equinox. When the modification was decided, construction on the square’s buildings was already underway. Redrawing the pavement grid would have led to discrepancies in the buildings’ details, so a solution was found by raising the roof of the Cathedral. This has been confirmed by evidence that the Albertian proportions on the church pediment have not been respected. It is still a mystery why details of this reconstruction, as well as the story of the alignment of the Cathedral’s shadow with the drawings on the pavement, make no appearance in the Pope’s extremely detailed diary.