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The infamous column

Piazza Mercantile - 6010 - 70122
Free -
Owner Pietro di Toledo
Beginning of construction Installed in 1546
Current use Monument
Piazza Mercantile (Merchants’ Square), situated in the south-eastern part of the old town directly past Piazza del Ferrarese, had been the city’s economic and civic heart for centuries. Today, the area is dotted with numerous restaurants and eating-houses, making it the perfect meeting place for the people of Bari and visitors, alike. At the head of the road called Via Re Manfredi, which branches off Piazza Mercantile, stands a full-relief sculptured group that silently dominates a corner of the square; it is the “Colonna Infame” (The Infamous Column). It is so called because insolvent debtors used to be exposed there for punishment by public humiliation.
The sculptural group is composed of a circular pedestal consisting of four concentric steps, with a bare white marble column erected in the middle, surmounted by a cannon ball. A lion, made of Apulian limestone breccia, lies at the foot of the column.
The lion was probably removed from a Roman tomb dating back between 1st B.C. and 1st A.D. It symbolises power and justice as the epigraph custos iusticiae (guardian of justice) engraved on the animal’s collar confirms. The column, on the other hand, represents the city over which the lion keeps watch and protects (the juxtaposition of the lion and the column, as well as the apotropaic power are similar to those of the Lion Gate of Mycenae). This interpretation of the monument is reinforced in light of the fact that the sculptural group was originally positioned near the old port, and was only later moved to its present location in the square.
Beginning of construction Installed in 1546
Owner Pietro di Toledo
The origin of the sculpture had been widely debated until a detailed investigation and autopsy conducted in the late 1980s revealed that the funerary lion had been sculpted by a Roman-Apulian craftsman between the end of the 1st century BC and the beginning of the 1st century A.D. A. Perotti believes that the column with the lion was originally a torture instrument (a pillory) installed around 1546 subsequent to an edict issued by the Viceroy Peter of Toledo, Marquis of Villanova, in an effort to make punishment by pillory less inhumane. Perotti also reports that before then, insolvent debtors who were punished by public humiliation had to stand with their arms wrapped around the column and their bare backside exposed to the guffaws of the onlookers. The lion was added to the foot of the column subsequent to Peter of Toledo’s edict to allow the insolvent debtors to sit on it, thereby lessening the sense of shame. Old legends, however, narrate that the Lion was a tribute to the Venetians who had freed the city of Bari from the Saracen fleet in 1002. The lion supposedly stood at the old port as a warning sign to those entering the city.

Piazza Mercantile (Merchants’ Square) has an irregular shape. It is embellished by a public fountain called “Fontana della Pigna" (literally, Pinecone Fountain) and the “Colonna della Giustizia” or “del Infame” (Column of Justice or of the Infamous), a symbol of this part of the old town. The sculptural complex features a lion dating to between 1st B.C. and 1st A.D. In the Augustan period, lions used as tomb guardians were represented in an attack position, as was the one of The Infamous Column before its hind legs had been severed. The antique piece had been re-handled and the entire protome (head of the lion) reconstructed prior to the mid-12th century. It was later moved to the former Piazza Maggiore (Main Square, today, Piazza Mercantile) and added to the column-sphere complex that was used as a public pillory. This may have occurred during the works of general reorganization of the area as ordered by Isabel of Aragon.

The lion is facing forwards with its head turned slightly to the right, from the observer’s perspective. The slender body shows its ribs, and appears calm. However, in the original piece, the lion’s hind legs were raised, conferring a forward leap attack position to the lion. The rounded head has large, wide, bulging eyes and a huge, open mouth showing teeth. The mane covers the head and the entire front part of the animal's body, and falls in long, thick locks, culminating with flowing volute curls. The tail, which used to pass downwards under the rear right paw (now missing), flows back up along the right flank, etching a circular arch, and then the plume turns downwards once again. The collar bears the inscription custos iusticie (guardian of justice), and is an important element for dating the lion. The letters appear rather "compressed", perhaps to fit all the letters into the limited space available. A triangular shield sits beneath the collar, between the front legs. Some scholars believe it to be the emblem of the Altavilla family, attributed with commissioning the restoration work, while other scholars believe it to be the emblem of Bari.

How do I reach downtown?
airport Airport  

From Viale Enzo Ferrari, continue in the direction of Strada Provinciale 204 / Viale Gabriele d'Annunzio / SP204.
Take Viale Europa, SS16, Via Napoli and Corso Vittorio Veneto in the direction of Piazza Mercantile in Bari.
Continue along Lungomare Augusto Imperatore. Piazza Ferrarese is on the right.
Walk towards Piazza Mercantile

motorway Toll road  

From the toll booth at Bari Sud of the Autostrada A14,
Take E843, Viale Giuseppe Tatarella, the underpass Sottopassaggio Giuseppe Filippo, Via Brigata Regina
Continue along Lungomare Augusto Imperatore in the direction of Piazza Mercantile in Bari.
Piazza Ferrarese is on the right.
Walk towards Piazza Mercantile

other Public Transport  

AMTAB bus lines #2, #4, #10, #12, #12/, #21, and #35 stop near Piazza Ferrarese (continue on foot to Piazza Mercantile)

park Parking lots  

Lungomare Imperatore Augusto-Corso Vittorio Emanuele

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