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.