The agora was the classic ancestor of what we call today plaza, in a very similar way as polis is of city. In today´s world when more than half of the global population lives in cities, it´s necessary to highlight the importance of these two Ancient Greek urban discoveries. The agora (o αγορά) was a porticoed enclosure, that occupied a central position in the polis, conceived in an innovative way to house a public use. It was the heart of the city, the place by excellence to meet, trade and discuss about business, philosophy, or politics. Due to this, the concept of agora is closely linked to that “democratic” new way of life.
Architecture and Urban History could be explained, analysed and thoroughly understood, taking the Greek Agora as a starting point and paying our attention exclusively to these public places. Thus, the Roman Forum would be seen as an evolution of the agora, although adapted to the conditions of the new Empire. Unlike the agora, the Forum had a very clear architectural definition. It usually had a rectangular form, and one of its sides was dominated by a temple dedicated to Jupiter, the father of all the gods and goddesses.
Centuries later, in the case of the Moslem medina, or the core of the Islamic city, the outstanding thing is the complete absence of any agora´s heir. This is largely due to the hardness that these big open spaces present in hot climates, and to the conception of an introverted typology of houses overlooking an interior private patio.
On the other hand, in the medieval Christian city, the importance of public area reappears in front of the façades of the main churches and cathedrals. In the late Middle Ages, the growth of the boroughs out of the walled enclosure and the strength of the guilds, favoured the birth of market squares, that in the Kingdom of Castille used to be called Plazas del Arrabal , which means squares on the outskirts, the germ of the later and typical main squares, such as the Main Madrid Square.
The Renaissance Man believed in an Ordered Universe and in the Divine Perfection. That is the reason why when he had the chance to take part in the design of the squares, regularized their plants, reconfigured their façades by means of repetition and added new sculptural elements that articulate and provide them with more visual richness. In the Baroque, the last artistic period that introduced important developments in the design of squares, these principles were considered to the utmost. Most of the projects were merely decorative, even when squares were designed from scratch, such as the San Pedro Square in Rome. It was a big step forward in terms of scale that made them exceed the limits of human perception.
In the same manner and in the particular case of Madrid, if we go sightseeing from square to square, or which is the same thing, go out and walk through the emblematic squares, observing carefully the façades that delimit them, the materials that paved them and the ruins, statues, and fountains that contain many of them, we can easily understand the History of this European capital. We invite you to accompany us to see how through the squares, we can know more about our city and the people of Madrid.
Image: Perspective of the Agora of the Ancient Athens, extracted from «Ancient Greece, 8 Engravings» drawn by J.Bühlmann, August 1881
If you are interested in this article, arrange a visit with us! Agorear: de plaza en plaza por el centro