Kim H. Veltman 

Review:  Piazze, Palazzi del Potere, Mercati del Cibo nell’Italia di Dante: Docufilm on Early Italian Market places, IULM  and University of Bologna, directed by Professors Rosa Smurra and Francesca Bocchi, Bologna and Milan, 2015


Throughout Europe, weekly markets are such a familiar feature of everyday life in towns and cities that most of us seldom stop to think about their history. A recent docufilm by the universities of IULM and Bologna throws unexpected light on four such early markets in Milan, Florence, Bologna and Verona.

The 32 minute video uses virtual reality techniques to reconstruct the four markets. In Milan, the market was linked with its two cathedrals (Santa Tecla and Santa Maria). This was linked with gardens to the south of the city near Porta Ticinese and Porta Romana. In Florence, the Old Market was on the grounds of the old Roman Forum. In Bologna, it was in the loggia of the Palazzo del Podesta, while in Verona it was in Piazza delle Erbe adjacent to the Palazzo Pubblico, the merchants’ house (domus mercantorum) and money changers’ lodge (loggia dei cambiatori). In all four cases, the markets were in central locations of religious and civic power. They were also intimately connected with new distinctions between public and private space that accompanied the rise of free cities (commune) and city states (città) which gradually led to new distinctions between church and state.

The reconstructions are accompanied by citations from Bonvensin da la Riva, Antonio Pucci and Giovanni Villani, with images from historical sources such as the Tacuinum sanitatis (Vienna), Libro del Biadaiolo (Florence) and other Archivi di Stato. These provide a firm historical foundation to reconstructions of events over half a millennium ago. 

In some respects, the reconstruction is artificial, namely, we see the markets, their wares, and their vendors, but none of the bustling crowds that would have been there on an actual market day. It is as if we had arrived in the early morning before the actual trade began. The advantage is that we can reflect on the essential ingredients without being dragged into the hurly-burly of everyday life. 

Mediaeval reconstructions have become popular in cinema. The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) was a book by historian Natalie Zemon Davis, and also a film. The Navigator: a Mediaeval Odyssey (1988) explored a mediaeval village at the time of the plague. Timeline began as a novel (1999) and became a science-fiction adventure film (2003), complete with time travel to save a modern archaeologist from a battle in 1357. Such examples illustrate how history can readily become edutainment, entertainment and even escapism. The short video by two important historians shows us that new media can also help us in understanding historical traditions. The past is another country, said L. P. Hartley. The past is also a key to understanding how our present country acquired its current boundaries and viewpoints.   

Maastricht, 10 October 2015.