Florentine measures: have a short arm…

“He has a short arm” is an expression still used to indicate a stingy person. The origin seems to derive from the fact that the sellers of fabrics, in the past, really shortened the arm, where the arm that measured was that of the seller. Many traders to sell and measure the fabric used very young boys, still growing and therefore with shorter arms. Since disputes often arose between the seller and the buyer, so much so that they became real fights, the measure of the “Florentine arm” was established.

Even today in via de’ Cerchi, between via della Condotta and via dei Cimatori, we can see the sign where the metal bar was housed bearing the linear unit of measurement: “the Florentine arm”, also known as a broken arm, corresponding to 58,32cm.

In case of disputes, customer and merchant would go together to check if the measurement of the “arm” matched that of the bar in the wall.


In Villani’s Nova Cronica we read: “Reigned king of the Lombards Eliprando, who was as big as a giant, and the measure of the lands was taken by the size of his foot…”

Also in Florence units of measurement were used such as the foot, the palm, the thumb, the arm and the brim (the distance between the middle fingers with the arms spread apart), all different from those used outside the Florentine territory. The foot of Liutprand, in use during the High Middle Ages, was replaced by the Florentine foot which took over as the official unit of measurement and for this reason the bas-relief engraving of two rectangles was ordered right on the Baptistery, “hidden” on the columns flanking the South Gate (that of Andrea Pisano).

A way to rationalize the transition from one unit of measurement to another, avoiding useless disputes that could have arisen.