Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna
Square in Ravenna
Piazza del Popolo, the heart of Ravenna, has been a central gathering place for its citizens for over seven centuries. It has been home to important palaces of power, including the Municipality and the Prefecture, once the Papal Legation, making it a focal point for civic life.
The square’s origins can be traced back to the second half of the 13th century when the Da Polenta family ruled the city. However, it was during Venetian rule in the late 15th century that the square underwent significant changes and expansion, ultimately taking its current form.
The former “town hall” of Bernardino Da Polenta was rebuilt when the first Venetian mayor, Vittore Delfino, arrived in Ravenna. This building was adorned with coats of arms, a stone balcony, and terracotta rings in the arches.
The opposite side of the square was defined by the facades of the churches of San Marco and San Sebastiano, which have since disappeared, reflecting the characteristics of Venetian rule.
In 1483, two columns were erected in the square, similar to those in Piazza San Marco in Venice. One column bore the lion of San Marco, while the other featured the statue of the patron saint, Sant’Apollinare. Later, the lion was replaced by the patron saint, and the statue of San Vitale was added.
The square was named after Vittorio Emanuele II after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy. Its current name, Piazza del Popolo, was adopted following the institutional referendum of 1946, in which the people of Ravenna overwhelmingly chose the republic over the monarchy.
Over the centuries, various buildings have enriched the square, primarily serving political and administrative purposes. Palazzo Merlato is the municipal building, which was rebuilt and expanded over time. The Apostolic Palace was renovated and expanded in the late 17th century and today houses the Prefecture.
Other noteworthy civil buildings around the square include the former headquarters of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, designed by architect Camillo Morigia, and Palazzo dei Rasponi del Sale, which now houses a banking institution.
On the site of the former religious complex of the churches of San Marco and San Sebastiano stands Palazzo della Torre dell’Orologio. This building has served various purposes over the years, including housing the central customs office, a cinema, and the first Casa del Fascio in Ravenna from 1928 to 1939.
Columns in Piazza del Popolo
The columns in Piazza del Popolo have a significant history and serve as a symbol of power and identity for Ravenna.
In 1441, when the Venetians exerted their influence over Ravenna, they made substantial changes to what was then Piazza del Comune. They enlarged and paved the square, introducing elements of Venetian art and culture.
Taking inspiration from Venice’s Piazza San Marco, two granite columns were erected to demarcate the square’s borders. One column displayed the statue of Saint Apollinaris, Ravenna’s patron saint, while the other featured the lion of Saint Mark, symbolizing the Serenissima Republic of Venice. These columns were not only a reference to Venice but also acted as boundary markers, defining the square’s limits along the course of the Padenna river.
At the base of these columns, one can still see two circular plinths dating back to Roman times. One plinth is adorned with a series of bas-reliefs depicting the twelve zodiac signs, including an additional representation of Ophiuchus or Serpentarius, often considered the thirteenth zodiac sign. Ophiuchus shows a powerful figure, possibly Asclepius, restraining a large snake.
Below the inscription confirming the plinths’ authorship by Pietro Lombardo in 1483, there is a depiction of an “Ercole Orario,” a miniature version of a large statue of Hercules erected by Emperor Claudius, which is believed to have stood in the city center.
In 1509, when Pope Julius II took control of the city following the defeat of the Venetians at Ghiaia d’Adda, the Venetian insignia were removed from the square. The lion on one column was replaced by a statue of Saint Vitalis, crafted by Clemente Molli.
One of the columns also features a “meridian line” clock, initially created by the Venetians and later engraved in 1793. This clock served to indicate the solar noon in Ravenna and the corresponding Italic hours known as “da campanile,” which were in use at that time. It also regulated the square’s mechanical clock.
After undergoing restoration in 1868, the sundial was left without a gnomon due to perceived inaccuracies, especially concerning the solstices and equinoxes.
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Visiting Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna