Hidden in Plain Sight: The “Pietre di Paragone” and the Preeminence of Medieval Measurements in Communal Italy

Hidden in Plain Sight: The “Pietre di Paragone” and the Preeminence of Medieval Measurements in Communal Italy


Gesta, Vol. 49, No. 2 (2010), pp. 77-95


In the squares of many Italian cities, unnoticed by most passersby, incisions carved in stone reproduce the dimensions of the measurements that were employed locally until 1861, when the nation endorsed the metric system. by gathering the evidence pertaining to these forms of display, this essay hopes to bring them back into historical consciousness. The story that follows is a rich one, for these carvings – here are called pietre di paragone – performed many key functions in medieval society. Besides regularizing trade, they were at the centre of concordance of gazes and bodies, social rituals that contributed to the construction of collective identity, and the political establishment of the Italian communes.

An investigation into the nexus between politics and the measurements shows how the latter originated in the crumbling of imperial authority at the end of the tenth century. In addition, the political significance of the pietre is underscored by the tremendous attention that local authorities have paid to their preservation. These maneuvers lend weight to the cause of those scholars who challenge the idea of the Middle Ages as a dark, uncivilized era.

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