The Piazza dei Cavalli is the large square in Piacenza’s city centre. Under normal circumstances it probably attracts sizeable crowds, but when we were there in August of 2020 the square was almost deserted. This likely had everything to do with fewer people in the streets because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but fortunately it was still possible to have a drink at one of the bars with an outdoor terrace overlooking the piazza. The Piazza dei Cavalli was initially simply called the Piazza Grande. Construction of the square started in 1281, together with that of the Palazzo Comunale, also known as the Palazzo Gotico or simply Il Gotico. I will therefore open this post with a discussion of this famous palazzo.
The Palazzo Gotico was commissioned by Alberto Scotti, a scion of an illustrious family of bankers and merchants. Between 1290 and 1313 he was, intermittently, sole ruler of Piacenza, but his orders to build the palazzo predated his rule, as they were issued as early as 1281. The names of the architects have been preserved: Pietro da Cagnano, Negro de Negri, Gherardo Campanaro and Pietro da Borghetto, who were all locals. Unfortunately the palazzo was never completed. In fact, only its north side has been realised. This immediately becomes clear when we pass through the colonnade of the ground floor and enter the inner court: the buildings behind the northern façade are made of a different kind of brick. This can also be seen if one takes a look at the palazzo from above using Google Maps. So why was the Palazzo Gotico never finished? The reason usually given is that Piacenza was struck by a plague. There were epidemics in the city in 1348, 1361 and 1374, so perhaps we can hold them jointly responsible for the non-completion of the palazzo.
The colonnade of the palazzo is cladded in beautiful marble from Verona (marmo rosso di Verona). We immediately notice the large pointed Gothic arches that give the Palazzo Gotico its nickname. The floor above the colonnade was executed in red brick. Here we see Romanesque rounded arches, six mullioned windows and many geometric decorations. The east side of the building has a rose window, but for some reason the west side was given a square window. The battlements topping the palazzo have the shape of a swallow’s tail, from which we may conclude that Alberto Scotti supported the Ghibellines, the pro-imperial party in Italy (see Sirmione: Rocca Scaligera). If you look closely, you will notice a statue of a Madonna and Child just below the eaves, to the right of the centre. The original statue dates from the thirteenth century and was made by a sculptor who worked in the style of Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230). In 1988 the original was moved to the museums of the Palazzo Farnese. Since the statue was apparently considered of extreme importance, the palazzo got a replica in return.
The large hall on the first floor of the Palazzo Gotico was originally intended for meetings of the city council. It does not seem to have been used for that purpose for long, serving first as a warehouse and then, starting in 1644, as a theatre. Despite the fact that it was never completed, the palazzo is still a building that Piacenza can be proud of. It is a prime example of the splendour of the Lombard-Gothic style.
Now over to the Piazza dei Cavalli, the ‘square of the horses’. The name obviously refers to the two superb equestrian statues of the Dukes Alessandro Farnese and his son Ranuccio I. The statues were made in 1612-1628 by Francesco Mochi (1580-1654). It is said that before starting his project, the Tuscan sculptor closely studied the equestrian statues that Donatello and Verrocchio made in Padova and Venice respectively. Ranuccio’s statue was finished first, followed by Alessandro’s. The supporting bases of the statues have beautiful bronze reliefs.
Between 1586 and 1592, Alessandro Farnese served as the third Duke of Parma and Piacenza. His mother Margaret of Austria (1522-1586) had been governess of the Netherlands between 1559 and 1567. In that capacity she had in 1566 accepted an important petition (‘Smeekschrift’) from the nobility of the Low Countries. Alessandro himself – often called Alexander Farnese or ‘the Duke of Parma’ (which he only became as late as 1586) – features prominently in the history of the Low Countries as well. In 1577 he was sent north to quell the rebellion there that was led by figures such as William of Orange. The next year King Philip II appointed him supreme commander of the Army of Flanders and governor of the Netherlands.
The new commander quickly proved himself to be a brilliant general. In July of 1584, after many victories, he started the siege of Antwerp, which was an important commercial centre at the time. The city had a population of about 100.000, half of whom were protestants (Calvinists or Lutherans). The Calvinists controlled the city council and in 1579 had even proclaimed a Calvinist republic. If Alessandro could take Antwerp, he would deal the rebels a heavy blow. As a direct assault on the city would lead to too many casualties among his own soldiers, the governor decided to starve Antwerp into submission. The Spaniards built a bridge to close off the Scheldt river, so that the defenders could no longer be supplied or reinforced by water. The bridge was 720 metres long. It was composed of 33 boats tied together, 10,000 trees and 1,500 masts. The bridge connected two forts and was defended by 96 pieces of artillery. The whole construction can be seen on a relief that is part of the supporting base of Alessandro’s statue. The bridge of boats and the fortresses are clearly visible, and in the distance we see Antwerp and the bell-tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady.
The Spanish artillery quickly proved to be indispensable. On several occasions the defenders of Antwerp tried to destroy the bridge by using fire ships. During one such attack 800 Spanish besiegers were killed, but it was not enough to get rid of the bridge. On the contrary, the damage was quickly repaired and on 17 August 1585 the city was forced to surrender. The governor granted the defenders very favourable terms. Protestants were allowed to remain in the city for a maximum of four years, but then they had to choose between either converting back to Catholicism or leaving. Practically all Protestants decided to leave. Most moved north, where they would make important contributions to the Dutch Golden Age.
A further two buildings adjoining the piazza should be discussed in this post. First of all, the Palazzo dei Mercanti, built in 1676-1697. It can be found practically next to the Palazzo Gotico. It was built for the merchants guild, but now serves as city hall. Opposite the Palazzo Gotico is the Palazzo del Governatore, which was built in 1787 by the architect Lotario Tomba (1749-1823). It nowadays houses the Chambre of Commerce, but it once served as a governor’s palace, as is demonstrated by its name. The question is: which governor? Let us take a walk back in time.
In 1731 Antonio Farnese, the eighth Duke of Parma and Piacenza, had died childless. The duchy then passed to crown prince Charles of Bourbon of Spain (the future Charles III), as his mother was Antonio’s niece. The War of the Polish Succession caused the duchy to pass into the hands of the Habsburg Austrians, but they kept it for only thirteen years. In 1748, at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, the duchy was returned to the Bourbon-Parma family. It was their governor who ruled the city from the palazzo, until Piacenza became part of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1859.
Most of the information used in this post came from the website of the comune of Piacenza and from Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 14-15. I previously wrote about Alessandro Farnese and the siege of Antwerp in this post (in Dutch only).
 The duchy was a French possession between 1802 and 1814. It was then ruled by Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife, until her death in 1847. In 1821 she married Adam Albert von Neipperg. Upon her death the duchy was returned to the Bourbon-Parma family.