A Florentine Arm’s Length

So… in Florence, pre 1860 (when all of Italy went metric), the length of stuff and things was tricky to measure consistently. Not that people just lived out their lives happy and free of the tyranny of meters … my lordy no… the official unit of measurement was the braccio fiorentino, or Florentine arm, so called because it was considered to be the length of an adult’s arm.

In this photo you can see the groove where a metal Florentine arm was housed

A Florentine Arm – Palazzo del Podestà https://www.giornaledibarga.it/2019/12/il-braccio-fiorentino-misura-di-stato-328934/

Shockingly some merchants Ripped Off their customers.



Somewhat entertainingly these questionable merchants had their 12 – 14 year old apprentices measure fabrics – this was most sneaky because these apprentices, being young, had shorter arms. One would imagine vertically challenged apprentices were in high demand.

Anyhoo, a braccio fiorentino is about 58.36 cm in the metric system.

And to get around the stumpy armed apprentices and their morally reprehensible bosses – and maybe check, and possibly correct, the measuring instruments of those who had to use them for their work – standard measures were scattered around Florence.

These official ‘Florentine Arms’ were basically a metal rod built into a wall at arm height. They were placed outdoors, somewhere easy to access, and members of the public could use them whenever they needed to outsmart a merchant.


The Lombard foot

The Baptistry

It is said that before the Florentine Arm, things were measured in a Lombard Foot.

Apparently based on King Liutprand’s (690-744) actual appendage, a Lombard foot measured about 43 cm – making Liutprand a man of exceptional stature.

The Piazza San Giovanni was another spot where Florentine locals could go measure stuff. Here you can see a Florentine arm and a Lombard foot carved into the columns of the south entrance of the Baptistry.

A Florentine arm carved into the column of the Baptistry

Very sadly this tale is a legend since the Baptistry was renovated during the 11th century and the marble cladding of the monument dates back to around 1128. This is long long after Liutprando’s death. Disappointingly this means the king couldn’t have lent his oversized foot to measure out the mark on the column.