The Merits of the Piazza in Urban Design

Last night, over dinner at Ar Galletto across from Palazzo Farnese, Mauro and I fell into a favorite topic of conversation: New York vs. Rome. We playfully oppose eachother, laughing about the differences in the two places.

Piazza Farnese
Views from our table at Ar Galletto on Piazza Farnese

“Nothing gets done in Rome.”


“New York is too frenetic.”

“Romans are cliqueish in their friendships.”

“There’s no time for friendships in New York.”

“Rome is beautiful, but I miss modernity.”

“New York has no piazzas.”

What about Central Park, Washington Square Park and the numerous other small parks popping through the grid? These are not the same as a real piazza.

A piazza is open, its centerpiece is space, allowing the free flow of pedestrian movement and a kind of stage where the scenes are in constant flux. Tables and businesses are relegated to the piazza’s periphery. In Italy, fountains add decoration and have a cooling affect in the summer. Walking around Rome, there is a sense of breadth and wonder when thin roads or even more trafficked modern streets open up  to these ample spaces, uncluttered with cars and surrounded in most cases on all sides by palazzi (buildings).

They form natural meeting places, offer a kind of exhale in the in and out movement of the city. With little effort, they transform into ampitheaters, sites of rallies and marketplaces. Devoid of rows of benches and parking lots, the piazza is a blank urban space constructed in human dimensions, forcing the pedestrian to slow down and cars to go around. Its emptiness does not overwhelm.

As we dined under the umbrellas at the edge of Piazza Farnese, watching people on their way to parties and dinners, tourists wrapping up their day and some teenagers clustered together near the large fountain (whose basin was formerly a pool in the ancient baths of Caracalla) –– it was impossible not to appreciate the genius of this aspect of Rome’s city design.


At Ar Galletto, we gave the Carbonara a 7 out of 10 rating.

John Varrianno’s description of Bernini’s design of the piazza of St. Peter’s is truly brilliant

Piazzas of note:

  • Piazza Sant’Andrea della Valle — my first apartment in Rome was here, across from the church where part of the opera Tosca was set.
  • Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina — tucked away from the chaos of Via del Corso and around the corner from some favorite shops. I prefer the last bar on the right facing in.
  • Piazza Mazzini — ok, it’s a circle and full of traffic, but the sleek media crowd at Gran Caffè Mazzini makes for wonderful people watching. Nearby Via Settembrini has a favorite clothing store, shoe store and children’s store, while an outdoor market off of Via Ferrari often has great finds, like cashmere sweaters for 40 Euros.
  • Piazza di Pietra — Hadrian’s Temple forms a dramatic backdrop to this fine square, which is home to a couple of wonderful eateries like Salotto 42.
  • Piazza della Repubblica — once again, a busy traffic circle rather than a tranquil pedestrian square, this is where I remember having a coffee with my family as a young girl. The interior of Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri was designed by Michelangelo and is connected to the ancient Diocletian Baths. It’s also where I was married.