Piazza Ghiaia and the city markets

Author: Giancarlo Gonizzi

The area of Piazza Ghiaia, where fairs and markets have been held for centuries, was created by the devastating floods of 1177.[1] After the tumultuous floods swept away the weak embankments meant to protect the city upstream, filled with debris the arches of the bridge called Ponte di Pietra and completely covered it with gravel (it still lies buried under via Emilia), the course of the torrent was moved west to the left bank by 130 metres, creating new spaces on the abandoned river bank that were later called Ghiaia Piccola e Ghiaia Grande[2]. The former ran from the current Lungo Parma Toscanini to Palazzo dell’Università and the Convent of the Carmelites, while the latter included the current Piazza Ghiaia up to the Church of San Bartolomeo.[3] An embankment was then built to prevent further flooding of the city, using blocks of stone and marble (now recovered and kept at the National Archaeological Museum) taken from the Roman Theatre, which was located in the area in front of the current Church of Sant’Ulderico. In 1232, the Podestà Gherardo Manara reinforced with new defence works the front of the Ghiaia area, and had the coat of arms of his family, shaped like a cleaver, displayed on it.[4] More embankments were built in the following years.

The public slaughterhouse was moved here in 1509. In the 19th century the different city markets were gathered here, thus freeing up Piazza Grande and its surrounding areas, and Ghiaia became the commercial heart of the city. The Chancellor of the City[5] was in charge of this area and was entrusted with keeping it always free for the use of merchants and the grazing of animals and herds.[6]

Ghiaia was also a popular meeting place that witnessed many important city events. From 1512 to 1515, to celebrate the return of the city to Papal rule, the Fair of Sant’Ercolano held in the first half of September was stretched to twelve days.[7] On the occasion of this important fair in which many communities of northern and central Italy participated, “there was an auction for spaces in the larger and smaller square where to build huts as Ghiaia shops». In order to support business at the fair, markets were forbidden throughout the countryside and all legal causes were suspended for its duration.[8]

The fair, organized in this way by Pope Julius II, was later suspended by Francis I, King of France and Duke of Milan. In 1522 the ancient fair was reinstated and 24 cities, among which Milan, Genoa, Rome, Bologna, Florence, Venice and Pisa, were invited with a circular letter. The Piazza Ghiaia market was also frequented later, as authorities wanted all goods and livestock gathered in this one place in order to collect duty on sold goods.[9]

In addition to the markets, Piazza della Ghiaia housed from 1509 the public slaughterhouse, located between Borgo Paggeria and Piazza Ghiaia. It was built by order of Pier Luigi Farnese (Duke from 1503 to 1547), enlarged under the direction of architect Gian Battista Ferrari in 1780,[10] and back in operation the following year. A plaque composed by Paciaudi[11] crowned the entrance to the slaughterhouse, while inside there was a painting of Saint Rocco, the patron saint of the Guild of Butchers, as well as two lunettes depicting two oxen painted on the wall by the Parmesan artist Antonio Olivieri (1749-1811), presumably on the occasion of the renovation under Bourbon rule.[12] There was also a large oil painting of Mary, the Child and Saint Anthony, which one can see in a section of Sanseverini’s drawing.[13] The slaughterhouse, newly renovated in 1838 according to a design by Nicola Bettoli, who also worked on the Beccherie (the butcher’s shops), was closed in 1898, and on that occasion “the marble inscription – today stored in the National Gallery – and the great oil painting made for the Guild of Butchers were removed.” [14] In 1900, with the opening of a new slaughterhouse outside Barriera Saffi, the building in Piazza Ghiaia became the site of shops and housing; only the exterior is left of the original edifice.[15]

With the construction of Pier Luigi Farnese’s slaughterhouse the sale of fresh meat, which up to the 16th century had taken place in numerous shops located in the Via Cavour area, was now concentrated within the same building in Piazza Ghiaia. In 1809, however, a government provision decreed the separation of the two functions of slaughtering and selling. Butcher’s shops were once again opened in the city, giving rise to quite a few hygiene problems.[16]

The Town Council decided “to bring together in one single area the different outlets of slaughtered meat.[17] The approach of a cholera epidemic that had broken out in India, had spread through Russia and was invading Europe, drove the Podestà of Parma, Antonio Lebrun to speed up the construction of the Beccherie, in order to eliminate the most dangerous sources of infection. It must be remembered that at the time it was only possible to preserve meat by salting and slaughter leftovers deteriorated very quickly.

This, however, was a very costly project and could not but weigh heavily on the already scarce municipal revenues. An appeal was made to the Duchess Maria Luigia, who agreed to take charge of it.[18] The works were started immediately, in 1836, and were completed the following year. The Court Architect Nicola Bettoli designed the project, and the Paolo Bettoli company built the Beccherie. On the ground floor there were 21 butcher’s shops, well-ventilated and clean, and at the end of the western wing was a large and deep ice house for preserving meat in the summer; above the shop there were large premises that at first were used as warehouses, and in 1841 were converted into kindergartens.[19]

The Beccherie cost 155,000 new liras to build. On 12 January 1838, the Duchess made a gift of it to the Municipality of Parma, which acknowledged it with an inscription under the clock adorning its facade.

At the same time that the Beccherie were opened, the Fruit and Vegetable Market which for years had been held in front of the Bishop’s Palace (after being removed from Piazzale della Steccata) was moved here.[20]

Between Bettoli’s Beccherie and the long strip of buildings that delimit the very large area of Piazza della Ghiaia, were the makeshift stalls of merchants and greengrocers under the bunting of multicoloured canvas, while crowds of people milling around the merchandise displayed with no pretensions to elegance made for a festive scene.[21]

When the Beccherie were built, a large area east of the Ducal Park was assigned to the new cattle market, which was accessed from Strada delle Fonderie. As this was a wide, one-way road, relatively close to the market square, it was much frequented by farmers, who would come into the city at dawn and, after unloading their goods in Ghiaia, come here to “park” their carts and horses.[22]

As a result of the removal of the Piazza Grande market, decreed in 1851, Ghiaia had become the commercial heart of the city. In order to connect the market square with the Ponte di Pietra area, which are on different levels, in 1856 the Town Hall built at its expense wide stairs in granite and white Verona marble.[23]

In 1880 the Town Council authorized “the establishment of horse meat butchery within the public Slaughterhouse[24] with an expenditure of 360 Liras.[25]

In 1883 two long metal canopies were built for the fishmongers, replacing the old, worn-out ones, and 16 counters in pink marble of Verona were installed, according to a design by Sante Bergamaschi, Chief Municipal Engineer.[26]

Following completion of the avenue along the river from the Ponte di Mezzo to Ponte Verdi bridges, and the partial restructuring of Piazza della Ghiaia with shops underneath the new road, “in 1928 the Town Hall decided to demolish the Beccherie building and replace it with a grandiose (sic) Covered Market,[27] a quite controversial plan in the city.

At one stage the demolition works were suspended and the Ministry of Education had “vetoed – as can be read in the third issue of the magazine Cronache d’Arte of 1928 – the planned demolition of the Beccherie built in Parma by Maria Luigia, Duchess of Parma, in 1836-37 with a splendid colonnade by Nicola Bettoli; this colonnade is the most skilled example of neo-classical architecture in the whole Emilia region.” But even this attempt was in vain and the beautiful colonnade was sentenced to oblivion.

The Beccherie were replaced, in the space underneath the new avenue – named after Mariotti, the mayor – by the “grandiose Covered Market.” Shops were built along the whole length of Piazza Ghiaia according to the design by Architect Ettore Leoni (1886-1968).

“The old Ghiaia, devastated by the useless and arbitrary demolition of the Beccherie, finds a new dimension and content in the rearrangement proposed by Leoni, whose substantial validity is not diminished by the poor quality of the material used, hammered concrete; above all in the vertical connections, which in the least obstructive way possible overcome the 6-meter difference in level between the shops and the road.”[28]

On completion of the work, Ghiaia was occupied once more by the merchants’ stalls, many of them now under the large metal canopies installed by the Town Hall in the centre of the square, thus putting an end to the multicoloured and picturesque disorder of “open air” selling.

The introduction of permanent shops – pre-fabricated structures that were inaugurated on 16 September 1961 – made the whole environment of the square more rigid, ever more different and distant from its original characteristics.[29] On 1 August 1962 the new general market built in the north-west area just outside the city came into operation, and Piazza Ghiaia lost the characteristic wholesale fruit and vegetable market that had been a lively feature of the square for centuries.[30]

In 2010 the canopies were replaced by the current glass covering. According to a long tradition, these are the shops selling typical local products.

[1] According to the testimony of Affò («… the Enza, Parma and Taro rivers overflowed so as to unite their waters into a lake”», AFFO’, 1793, I, p 99), the Chronicon («In millesimo CLXXX flumen Taronis et Parme et Hentie miscerunt se simul, et flumen Parme entravit in foveam et de muro rupit et de taralio diruit, et magna pars favearum impleta fuit». Chronicon Parmense, Città di Castello, 1902, p 6 [5-7]) and Angeli in 1180, following violent heavy rains the three rivers Taro, Parma and Enza «… made a single riverbed of themselves…» «… hitting so violently the walls of the city that a great part of them collapsed, the embankments were flattened, the wells were filled with stench and dirty waters» (ANGELI B., Historia della città di Parma et descrittione del Fiume Parma. Parma, Viotti, 1590, p. 82; AFFO’ I., Storia di Parma. Parma, Ducale, 1793 4 vols., II, p 265; BANZOLA V., Le esondazioni della Parma nel corso dei secoli, in “Parma nell’Arte”, 2 (1976), pp. 27-46).

[2] CORRADI CERVI M., Profilo della Piazza della Ghiaia nel Medioevo, in Parma Economica, 1967, XI, pp. 17-18.

[3] PELLEGRI M., Parma medievale. Dai Carolingi agli Sforza, in Parma la città storica. Parma, Cassa di Risparmio, 1978, p. 100.

[4] AFFO’ I., Storia di Parma. Parma, Ducale, 1793 4 vols., III, p 149; SITTI G., Parma nel nome delle sue strade. Parma, Fresching, 1929, p. 91.

[5] Statuta Communis Parmae digesta anno MCCLV. Parma, Fiaccadori, 1856, p 185; Statuta Communis Parmae ab anno MCCLXVI ad annum circiter MCCCIV. Parma, Fiaccadori, 1857, p. 197.

[6] DALL’OLIO E., Le Sagre in Espressioni sociali e luoghi d’incontro. Cultura popolare nell’Emilia Romagna. Federazione delle Casse di Risparmio dell’Emilia e Romagna, Milan, Pizzi, 1978, p. 123.

[7] BAZZI T., BENASSI U., Storia di Parma. Parma, Battei, 1908, Vol. VI. Illustration by Daniele de Strobel – Vol. II, Chapter X on Pope Julius II.

[8] Parma State Archives, Gridario (Collection of proclamations)

[9] DALL’OLIO E., Sagre, mercati, fiere di Parma e provincia. Parma, Silva, 1979, pp. 123 and ff.

[10] The Duke paid a visit to his new Slaughterhouse, as Gazzetta di Parma reported of September 28, 1781: ” «On Thursday of last week [and therefore on September 20] His Royal Highness the Infante towards five in the evening went with an escort of noblemen to observe the public slaughterhouse of this city, renovated, enlarged and improved by Architect Gianbattista Ferrari, skilled Parmesan who has on many occasions received awards from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, paid for by this Treasury and under the inspection (sic) of the city deputies, Pietro Fedolfi, adjutant general of the Royal Halbardiers, and Lieutenant Bortesi. All the sections dedicated to meat cutting, preservation in ice, distribution and cleaning met with royal approval, as did the inscription carved on the main door by the golden pen of P. Paciaudi, Royal Librarian, which highlights the solemnity and value of the work.” (“Gazzetta di Parma”, 28 September 1781).

[11] The report obsequiously compared the work of the Duke Ferdinand of Bourbon to that of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, builder of the great Livian slaughterhouse.

[12] EMANUELLI A., La Piazza della Ghiaia, in “Corriere Emiliano” 1928, 5. VII, p. 3.

[13] Parma State Archives, Sanseverini Collection, Vol. I. no. 16.

[14] PELICELLI N., Guida commerciale della città e provincia di Parma. Parma, Zerbini e Fresching, 1913, pp. 83-84. “One of the three paintings was detached and removed by Professor Bigoni, an art restorer from Modena. It is now kept in the city’s Art Gallery. No trace is left of the other two, as it was not possible to detach them.” (EMANUELLI A., La Piazza della Ghiaia, in “Corriere Emiliano”, 5 July 1928, p. 3) The large painting, reduced in size and round in shape after being torn off, is now stored at the National Gallery (SBAS, Inventory 1116)

[15] CASTAGNETI C. – HAINESS O. – PELLEGRINI E., Le mura di Parma. Vol. III. Da città murata a organismo in espansione. Parma, Battei, 1980, pp. 133-134.

[16] CASTAGNETI C. – HAINESS O. – PELLEGRINI E., Le mura di Parma. Vol. III. Da città murata a organismo in espansione. Parma, Battei, 1980, pp. 135-136.

[17] SITTI G., Parma nel nome delle sue strade. Parma, Fresching, 1929, p. 92.

[18] The following advertisement was published in the Gazzetta: “Among the most important health and cleanliness measures are those concerning the wholesomeness and sale of meat. That is why this Municipality planned long ago to gather in one place the butcher’s shops, so that it would be easier to monitor them and ensure that no harmful meats were introduced, and to remove the disgusting impression of numerous such shops located in some of the main streets. However, the execution of this plan was delayed by the limited means of the Municipality and by several other circumstances. This having been brought to the knowledge of Her Majesty by His Excellency the Count of Bombelles, her Grand Chamberlain, whom Doctor Antonio Lebrun, Podestà of Parma, had humbly and fervently petitioned, the August Sovereign, for whom days are never so happy as when she can bestow new benefits, was moved not only to promote the execution of this useful plan, but with spontaneous and royal munificence, neither extraordinary nor rare in our eyes, to order that, at the expense of her Ducal Treasury, a building with an extended facade should be erected in Piazza della Ghiaia, near the free-flowing air of the river, where the sale of meat can be gathered in one place, and to declare it from now as gifted to the Town Council. […] (“Gazzetta di Parma”, 1836, 10.II.; GONIZZI G., Cara vecchia Ghiaia, in “Parma Vecia”, 19, 1982, V, p. 11).

[19] Ducal decree 27.I.1841.

[20] EMANUELLI A., La Piazza della Ghiaia, inCorriere Emiliano” 1928, 5. VII, p 3.

[21] CAPELLI G., Botteghe di Parma tra Ottocento e Novecento, Parma, PPS, 1993, p. 44.

[22] GONIZZI G., Via delle Fonderie in “Parma Vecia”, 2 September 1980, p. 14.

[23] Decision of the Municipal Council, 30 December 1863.

[24] Decision of the Municipal Council, 31 December 1880.

[25] The horse meat slaughterhouse was to be set up in the manner specified by the report of the Works Office of 17 November 1880 no. 673 and by the Commission of 24 November 1880 no. 1826. Parma, Municipal Historical Archive, 1882, b, 645, Polizia 1, f. 1 Macello, Beccherie, Ghiacciaia.

[26] Parma, Archivio Storico Comunale, Carteggio, 1884, b. 720. PIAZZE E MERCATI, fasc. 1.

[27] Decision of the Podestà 10 April 1928.

[28] CAPELLI G., Gli architetti del primo Novecento a Parma. Parma, Battei, 1975, p. 154.

[29] CAPELLI G., Botteghe di Parma tra Ottocento e Novecento, Parma, PPS, 1993, pp. 45, 60.

[30] Mercato Generale di Parma: 25 anni di attività. Parma, Tecnografica, 1987.