Commercial activity in Piazza Grande

Author: Giancarlo Gonizzi

Until the end of the 18th century, the Town Hall was the centre of the town’s economy and of all the commerce taking place in its vicinity. Wheat, vegetables, flours, fish, meat, salt, wood and coal were sold in the market of Town Hall Square, where in the Middle Ages stood the porticoes of the Merchants’ Palace – right across from the access route to the town from the south, that is, from the Liguria region, one of the most ancient trading connections – and the Portici del Grano, which can still be seen today. The livestock and foodstuffs markets were held nearby, in Piazza della Ghiaia. Through the centuries, albeit with interruptions due to natural, political and military causes, Piazza Grande continued to be the main site of the weekly market within the town walls.

Commercial use of the square goes back to Roman times – and probably even further back than that – when the Forum was the heart of political and religious life as well as the venue of commercial exchanges for the town and surrounding areas. It was quadrangular in shape (45×50 metres) and was located on the via Emilia route, which ran just south of the present one. This commercial meeting space must have been greatly frequented by wood merchants in the Roman Imperial era, as the area was particularly well known and appreciated for its extensive and excellent sheep production.

In the 12th century, with the town’s economy revival after the period of barbaric invasions and the achievement of administrative independence, the Town acquired the square and the houses at the south-east end and over a long period of time put up several public administrative and community service buildings – The Torello, Podestà, and Capitano Palaces and the civic Tower – which reduced the area of the square.[1] Since its size was insufficient for the social and commercial needs of the time, the Town took a decision of great urban significance, namely, to expand the square, while safeguarding the above-mentioned buildings, on the only possible side: the one to the north, consisting exclusively of private buildings and with no prestigious or religious ones.[2] Following the demolition of a number of houses purchased by the Town, the square was widened by several tens of metres. Only a part of the houses was rebuilt, resulting, as the historian Ireneo Affò wrote, into “a large crenellated and painted house with shops for merchants in the same place where now we see (1795) the so-called Governor’s Palace. A marble plaque remembers it.”[3] A trace of the commercial character of the building is preserved in the “shape of the Parma brick” carved into a stone and located in the north-east corner. Other measurements related to commerce were found near the Church of San Pietro, while the “pertica” size – the linear measurement – was shown, and can still be seen, on the façade of the Cathedral, to the left of the porch.[4]

The market had been held since time immemorial on Saturdays and in order to promote this civic event, the town’s Statutes forbade all the inhabitants of the district from going “alium forum nisi Parmae[5] (to any market other than Parma’s), with special guards commanded by the podestà patrolling the border roads.

After 1266, the market’s frequency was increased, with the addition of a market on Wednesdays, and everybody, whether a citizen or foreigner, was allowed to transport goods of every kind and sell them wholesale or retail in Parma in order to ensure that the town had a sufficient supply of wheat, oil, coal and fabric.[6]

These provisions, confirmed in the Municipal Statute of 1494, were intended to remove past obstacles to the entry of goods into the town’s market and to guarantee the personal safety of participants. This same Statute[7] also allocated the market for chickens, sheep, geese, and cheese to that part of the square that had been recently extended, north of Via Emilia.

The market continued to develop, and plans and views of different eras, today kept at the State Archives, provide evidence of its commercial vivacity and of the Authorities’ regulatory interventions to ensure its orderly conduct. In the 17th-century plan dedicated by its author Giulio Sensi to the Duke Francesco Farnese, the square is divided by the access roads into three sectors marked by a grid of 310 squares denoting the daily “boundaries” of the various traders.[8]

In 1760, at the time of the Bourbons and by express desire of Prime Minister Du Tillot, Court Architect Ennemond Alexandre Petitot (1717-1801) gave the square the structure that remains mostly unaltered to this day, moving the facade of the Church of San Pietro, which until then faced west, standardizing the external walls of the different buildings and repaving the area with brick and stone squares, and delimiting the different areas with marble curbstones.

The layout of the markets held between the Municipal Palace, the Governor’s Palace and the Church of San Pietro was rigidly set by rules and regulations issued by the municipal Authorities, and the area of the different stalls was determined using the paving squares. Several maps and plans kept in our archives bear witness to this complicated practice. Of particular interest is one dating to the early years of the 19th century,[9] during the period of French domination (as can be seen from the annotations): “In this map one observes that in the part of the square before the Governor’s Palace, “Ancien logement du Gouverneur”, at the centre of which was the Altar to Friendship erected in 1769 on the occasion of the visit of Emperor Joseph II, were the covered stalls of the cheese and butter sellers (marked with no. 1), of the tinkers and of the sellers of trinkets and haberdashery (marked with no. 2). Between the Altar and the palace were the peasants selling eggs, tomatoes and poultry, and further back the sellers of hemp and coloured linen fabrics; on the right were sellers of second-hand books and of iron farm tools; on the left, the greengrocers with fruit, onions and melons. […] Behind them the stalls of the second-hand dealers (marked with no. 3) and the old furnishings merchants, while on meatless days the fishmongers came here. Towards Via dei Genovesi, the present Via Farini, sellers of pork meat or second-hand books set up their wares, according to the season.”[10]


The liveliness of the Piazza Grande market is attested to by various art and literary works such as the famous painting by Giulio Carmignani (1813-1890) La Piazza Grande il giorno di mercato, ca. 1850[11], the canvas by Luigi Marchesi (1827-1862), La piazza di Parma[12], and by a vivid description written in the last decade of the 19th century by Emilio Casa, doctor, writer and liberal historian.[13].

“Piazza Grande was the heart of the town, more than it is now: it represented the movement, the life, the Forum rerum venalium (the food market), and the place where the townspeople, for many different reasons, used to meet. There was the market of herbs, of fruit, of victuals, of poultry; on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the grain market as well. All retail trade was done in the square, which was not laid out exactly as it is now.

  In the square-shaped space called di San Pietro, there was an ancient and large palace that the people called del Bondani, because it belonged to Count Bondani’s family. Around 1857, the builders believed that the great Verona marble columns supporting the facade wall were leaning dangerously and might, with time, cause great damage. The question arose, and was also debated in courts, as to how to remedy this, and in the end it was decided to remove the portico and move the facade wall by the measurement of its depth. And this is what was done. The square gained in square symmetry but lost in architectural severity, as the facade of Palazzo Bondani evoked (albeit in an unadorned manner) the old Lombard style…

  The eastern section of the square (called arms’ Square), the one that makes up a side of the municipal palace, on market days used to be the meeting place of country merchants, grain sellers and, in general, small retailers, and under the adjacent vast and majestic portico of the Town Hall they sold hay: in one corner of it, from the basement of the Tower that collapsed in 1606, soldiers guarded the area …

  The other section of the square, the one called of San Pietro, presented a different appearance. Here were the merchants with their stalls or, rather, their covered booths: the first row was aligned with Strada de’ Genovesi (now Farini) and the other three or four rows were arranged in parallel rows towards the Church of San Pietro. On the main door of the ancient Church of San Pietro there used to be, above the shutters, the reference measurement of two arm lengths of canvas, later moved elsewhere.

  These small mobile shops, covered with rather flamboyantly displayed and very vividly coloured cotton fabrics and handkerchiefs, and the small canopies put up to the protect the sellers from the sun, made a beautiful and cheerful show. Life was added to this picture by the swarm of commoners and peasants, the merchants’ calls and the haggling, often seasoned with witticisms. It was also pleasant to see the shopkeepers sit down at midday to their modest lunch, in front of everyone, and enjoy it in the midst of that racket. It was like being at a village fair. The inhabitants of this small wooden city belonged to the lower class of shopkeepers: quiet, industrious people, respectful out of duty, custom and self-interest…

  Behind the booths, in the free space left in front of the Church of San Pietro and the Bondani porch, the fishmongers held their market on Fridays and Saturdays. The fish came from Genoa and Chioggia by expedited transport, and was very fresh. …

  The merchants’ Bazaar was very useful to the peasants, who did not dare enter the more showy shops; but it was a great nuisance to those living in the houses overlooking the square or in nearby streets. Municipal regulations decreed that the square had to be entirely free on holidays: the wooden booths had to disappear on Saturday night and only come back on Monday morning; consequently this meant that the two nights during which the wooden town was disassembled and assembled again were lost to nearby light sleepers. There was an almighty cacophony of chests being dragged, tables being dropped, banging noises, accompanied by the voice of porters calling to one other with no consideration or discretion.

  In the Municipal Archives there is a small model of the merchants’ stalls, and those who would like a precise idea of them can go and see it; and we are ready to bet that they would not want to have one built like it. (The small model, made in 1875 and used as a regulatory example for merchants, is still kept at the Municipal Historical Archive of Parma).

  The other great rectangle of the Piazza, corresponding in length to the two great square areas called di San Pietro and delle Armi, was taken up by the herbs market and by very small retailers of foodstuffs and cured meats.

  This was also the area open to the puppeteer, who set up his booth here, and to no small number of beggars, who sat against the wall of the Governor’s palace, between shops, to enjoy the sun when it showed itself and to receive a few coins from passersby.

  At noon everything was gone: no stalls, no greengrocers, no wagons or carts: once everything was gone and the area had been swept, only the beggars were left, who did as they liked.

  When a storm broke out, there would be a general stampede, with chaotic confusion, and the merchants had to abandon, if not their weapons, their baggage and their odds and ends, uttering imprecations against the angry sky. In such a predicament, the vast portico of the town hall, like a father, would welcome the fugitives and resound with an indescribable clamour until the storm had passed.

  Among the notable and almost famous frequenters of the Square was Mr Sante Ferrari, called Santén, Municipal Usher, herald of the laws, the last heir of an ancient trade. A man of medium height, rather big and fat, with ruddy cheeks and an expression on his face that was half pedantic and half mocking.

  In the exercise of his duties as herald, Mr Santino was a celebrity. He would come out on the railing of the tower, alone; with a stern yet very calm appearance that would attract general approval. He would look at the crowd with the confidence with which one looks at an old acquaintance; he would lay down his hat on the windowsill and, before starting, would pick up the trumpet and blow it twice, as a preacher clears his throat before speaking.

  He pretended to look through his papers to give people the time to come closer; and when, from above, he could see the square filled with people, he would start declaiming in a high and sonorous voice. He would read for a long time, tirelessly, never making a mistake, with the fluency and inflection of one who understands the substance of the writing. Once he had finished reading, he would fold the text of the law and put it in his pocket, put his hat back on, and without turning his back to the audience would disappear through a door that was too small for him”[14]

The market in the square lasted until July 25, 1813, the year in which a decree by the Prefect of Taro[15] provided that the mobile shops in Piazza Grande should be moved to Piazza della Steccata (the fruit and vegetables sellers would later be moved from here to Piazza del Duomo, and finally settle in Piazza Ghiaia once the Beccherie, the butcher’s shops, had been built there), and to the squares of San Nicolò, San Tiburzio, Santa Apollonia and Pescheria Vecchia, leaving only so-called “flying markets” in Piazza Grande. In 1851 the suppression of the market was complete and the scattered stalls were gathered together in Piazza Ghiaia. Only the lemon stalls were left. But these too disappeared with time.[16]

The grain market, on the other hand, was held under the Portico of the Municipal Palace, which for this reason is called Portico del Grano, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The old stajo – the grain measurement – was abandoned on July 23, 1861 and replaced with the double decilitre. This last surviving market in the Square was closed in 1909.[17]



[1] CORRADI CERVI M., Evoluzione topografica della Piazza Grande di Parma dall’epoca romana alla fine del secolo XIII, in “Archivio Storico per le Province Parmensi”, XIV, 1962, pp. 39-51.

[2] PELLEGRI M., Parma medievale, in Parma la città storica, Parma, Silva, 1978, p. 115.

[3] AFFò I., Storia di Parma, Parma, Ducale, 1793, IV, pp. 50, 63. One can see a copy of this stone in the wall on the via Cavour side of the square, and its original in the stores of the National Gallery.

[4] BANZOLA V., Le antiche misure parmigiane. Parma, La Nazionale, 1968, pp. 14-17; PELLEGRI M., Parma medievale, in Parma la città storica, Parma, Silva, 1978, p. 115.

[5] Statuta Communis Parmae digesta anno MCCLV. Parma, Fiaccadori, 1856, p. 330; MICHELI G., Le corporazioni parmensi d’arti e mestieri, in “Archivio Storico per le province Parmensi”, 1896, p. 13.

[6] Statuta Communis Parmae ab anno MCCLXVI ad annum circuiter MCCCIV. Parma, Fiaccadori, 1857, p. 68: «Capitulum quod bis in hebdomada cuiuslibet mensis, videlicet in die sabbati et in die mercurii, fiat mercatum in civitate Parmae, et omnes volentes possint venire ad vendendum cum rebus suis venalibus ad utrumque dictorum mercatorum, sicut veniunt et soliti sunt venire in die sabbati»; MICHELI G., Le corporazioni parmensi d’arti e mestieri, in “Archivio Storico per le province Parmensi”, 1896, p. 23.

[7] Statuta Communis Parmae ab anno MCCLXVI ad annum circiter MCCCIV. Parma, Fiaccadori, 1857, pp. 66-67.

[8] CAPELLI G., Botteghe di Parma tra Ottocento e Novecento, Parma, PPS, 1993, p. 49.

[9] ASPr, Mappe e Disegni, Vol I; see MENDOGNI P.P., Il mercato in Piazza Grande in “Gazzetta di Parma”, 1979, 27 January, p. 3.

[10] MENDOGNI P.P., Il mercato in Piazza Grande in “Gazzetta di Parma”, 1979, 27 January, p. 3.

[11] Parma, Private collection.

[12] Parma, National Gallery, Inventory no. 991.

[13] Cited in MENDOGNI P.P., Il mercato in Piazza Grande in “Gazzetta di Parma”, 1979, 27 January, p. 3; in DALL’OLIO E., Sagre, mercati, fiere di Parma e provincia, Parma, Silva, 1979, pp. 88-97; and in a manuscript published with the title: La vita privata a Parma nella prima metà delle’Ottocento, in Aurea Parma 10 (1926) pp. 213-227.

[14] CASA E., La vita privata a Parma nella prima metà delle’Ottocento, in “Aurea Parma” 10 (1926), pp. 213-227.

[15] Decree of 10 September 1813.

[16] SITTI G., Parma nel nome delle sue strade, Parma, Fresching, 1929, p. 8.

[17] Decision of the Municipal Council, 18 December 1909.