Another Curiosity from Florence
By Margo Lestz
In Florence’s New Market (the same one where the bronze pig resides) you can find leather good and all kinds of souvenirs. But be careful about going there if you have any outstanding bills. This is where people were once punished for failing to settle their debts.
The 500 year old New Market
In the centre of Florence, the New Market, or il Mercato Nuovo in Italian, has been in the same location since the 16th century so it’s not really all that new. It was originally called the New Market to distinguish it from an older market which no longer exists.
It’s covered by an elegant loggia to keep the merchants and shoppers dry in inclement weather. At first, it was a market for silk and other luxury goods and had an upstairs room where the official measuring instruments were kept. If there was a dispute and someone claimed that a merchant was trying to cheat them. The official measure would be brought down to settle the matter.
Later it became the straw market where Florentine straw hats were sold. And today, leather and souvenirs are sold. But there’s something very interesting here that you can only see in the evening or early morning when the loggia is emptied of the portable market stalls that fill it every morning.
The stone of shame
It’s a round stone embedded in the floor in the centre of the loggia. It resembles a wagon wheel and in medieval times, there was a special cart which would be placed here. This cart was used as a movable war alter. It held the Florentine flag and before the troops went to battle it would be brought to this place where the priest would say mass at it. Then it accompanied the soldiers into battle.
Later this stone took on a second use. It was a place of public humiliation and punishment for merchants who became insolvent or were found to be dishonest. This is where it gets its current name, the pietra dello scandalo or pietra dell’acculata in Italian, which means the “stone of shame” or the “stone of the butt (or bum for British readers) on the ground” in English.
Cruel and unusual punishment?
If a merchant went bust, he was brought to this spot which was always full of people. Then his trousers were removed and his hands and feet tied. He was soundly spanked and then he had to drop himself bare-bottomed onto the stone three times while shouting, “I give my belongings to pay my debts”. Then he had to sit bare-bottomed on the stone while his possessions were divided up among those he owed. After this the debts were considered fully settled and no one could pursue it further.
This punishment sounds quite severe and humiliating but apparently it was common throughout Rome and was introduced by Julius Caesar to replace a more severe law. The old law allowed an unsatisfied creditor to either kill the person owing the debt or take him as a slave. So I guess it was, indeed, an improvement.
There is still a Florentine saying, stare col culo a terra which literally means “to have one’s butt on the ground” and means that someone has no money, they are broke.
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