La Piazza

       Anyone visiting Italy will eventually enter upon something called a piazza. The piazza is considered to be the heart and soul of the town, a kind of outside home with which many Italians identify and which seemingly turns individual families into one large extended family. It is a public square surrounded by buildings and possibly some shops and a church. It’s where your Italian cugini will take you for una passeggiata (a stroll) when you’re visiting.
       It is virtually impossible to visit Italy without spending at least some time in a piazza somewhere in the country. The Italian piazzas exist in practically every town and village across the land. Some towns or cities have several piazzas depending on their size.
        At daybreak, in Italy, the piazza slowly comes to life and becomes a theatrical stage where one can watch everyday happenings and get an authentic flavor of Italian life. Children run and play, men play cards, some discuss politics, a teenager races by on a loud buzzing motorino and friends call and wave to one another across the expanse: All this and more is happening at the same time. 
       The piazza may have a bar or café with tables outside where one can enjoy a cup of coffee while observing humanity in action. One of the joys of touring Italy is the prospect of passing the time of day in a piazza just sitting around facendo niente, which means, “doing nothing.” It is a comfort zone, where young people go to see and be seen and where scheming lovers arrange accidental meetings. 
       In the piazza, the pastime of “people-watching” has proven to be an interesting form of entertainment, but the intrigue comes, not so much from watching the passers-by, but from watching the watchers. An amusing scenario describes a young man, whose head turns slowly as though on a swivel as he follows the movements of a beautiful girl walking from one end of the piazza to the other until she is out of sight and he whispers to himself, “Magari,” meaning “I wish.”
Piazza San Marco, 2001
       Many piazzas are famous for certain events at certain times of the year such as concerts or horse races complete with costumes and pageantry (usually during tourist season) and some become outdoor markets, selling fresh produce, fish and other foods on certain days of the week. Even those who have never been to Italy have heard of a piazza such as San Pietro in Rome or San Marco in Venice. Over centuries, the piazzas have developed character through their history. If they could only speak, they would reveal many stories, personal and public, joyful and tragic.
        Michelangelo, for example, was said to have killed a man in a duel in a Roman piazza. In the Piazza della Signoria in 15th century Florence, the heretic priest, Savonarola was hanged just before two of his followers were burned alive. During World War II, the blood of many partisans was spilled upon the ground of many piazzas in the fight against the Nazi-Fascist machine. Yet, the piazza is also a place of joy to honor a town’s patron saint or to celebrate civic or religious holidays or to enjoy the public showing of a recent film. The piazza has had its place in fiction as well, having been the setting for a countless number of stories and films.
       The piazza has sometimes been ignored or taken for granted, yet it has become a national institution, derived from a simple idea of setting aside a parcel of land in the city’s design. By its very nature, this parcel of land speaks of Italian culture which in effect draws people together to create an ambience of familiarity where life’s daily drama unfolds.

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