Meet The Umarell: Italy’s Quirky Construction Site Watchdogs

Umarells in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna.

If you’ve traveled to Italy, you may have noticed small groups of older men, seemingly riled up and speaking loudly, sometimes with their hands behind their backs.

Once you get closer, you may hear them offering heated but unsolicited advice primarily about construction and street repairs but also about the economy and politics. 

Bologna (in the region of Emilia Romagna) is the epicenter of the umarell phenomenon because it was here that Danilo Masotti, a writer, blogger, and communications expert, literally wrote the book on and coined the term umarell in 2005.

Masotti also created a photo archive, a popular blog, and a Facebook page documenting his observations. 

What is a umarell?

Men watching the repaving of Via Rizzoli in Bologna
Men watching the repaving of Via Rizzoli in Bologna, Wikipedia CC, Wittylama

It’s easy to recognize an umarell when you see one. 

“Men of retirement age who spend their time watching construction sites, especially roadworks, stereotypically with hands clasped behind their back and offering unwanted advice to the workers.”

—Wikipedia’s definition of umarell

In the Bolognese dialect, the term means “little man” or “grandfather” (in Italian, omarello).

It is a lighthearted term of affection and endearment—rather than a slur—used to refer to men (usually pensioners) with enough time on their hands to gather informally for these discussions. 

Masotti tacked an English “s” onto the plural form to make the term sound more comical. Even the men themselves use the term in a self-deprecating fashion. 

By 2021, the word umarell had achieved such cultural significance that it was included for the first time in Zingarelli, a modern Italian dictionary.

“Never ever would I have imagined that from the chance encounter with an elderly gentleman walking with his dog in the frozen parking lot of a well-known cinema in Rastignano (Bologna) in the early morning of February 4, 2005 (topical moment in which I conceived this term with the meaning with which we mean it now), the word umarell and its plural umarells would end up in the dictionary of the Italian language,” said Masotti to the Italian news agency ANSA.



Are umarells only in Bologna?

Umarells in Pieve di Cento (Emilia Romagna)
Umarells in Pieve di Cento (Emilia Romagna) Credit: Jerome Levine

No! Although they may go by different names, umarells can be found at construction sites and other public spaces throughout Italy—in cities, towns, and villages from north to south, and have become a folk term associated with Italy. 

For example, Giuseppe Lenzo, a private tour guide in Sicily, explains that these men are called schiffarati (free people with nothing to do) in his region.  

Once you are familiar with the concept, you will likely find them wherever you go, even close to home. In the U.S., we might call them “sidewalk superintendents.”

Umarell in Lucca, Italy (Tuscany)
Umarell talking on the city wall in Lucca, Italy (Tuscany)
An umarell in Lucca watching the construction of the stage for the summer festival
An umarell in Lucca watching the construction of the stage for the summer festival

What are some ways the umarell phenomenon has spread culturally?

An umarell figurine from Superstuff
An umarell figurine from Superstuff

Aside from making it into the Italian dictionary, the term has cropped up elsewhere:

  • Umarells appear in the digest-size comic magazine Topolino.
  • There are reports that some Italian companies and cities have installed viewing windows at construction sites for “umarell observation.”
  • Some umarell are paid to watch over construction sites overnight to deter theft of materials.
  • In 2015, Riccione (a city in Emilia Romagna) authorized funds to pay umarells to oversee city work sites.
  • In the same year, Franco Bonini, was named the first “Umarell of the Year” for his oversight of a shipyard construction project.
  • Bologna named a square (under construction) on the city’s outskirts after them: Piazzetta degli Umarells. It is located along via Mario Musolesi. 
  •  Superstuff makes a desktop umarell elder who observes digital building sites on computers, hopefully to improve productivity.
  • Amazon.it sells a yellow umarell vest and plastic desk figurines.
  • Burger King created a video campaign featuring an umarell as the “site foreman for a day” to promote new BK branches in Italy.
  • Inspired by the little men of Bologna, Karman, an Italian designer lighting company, sells ceramic umarell wall sconces by artist Giorgia Biscaro.
umarell wall sconces by artist Giorgia Biscaro
Umarell wall sconces by artist Giorgia Biscaro (Karmen)

What is the significance of the umarell experience?

Umarells in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna
Umarells in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna (credit: Jerome Levine)

Umarells offer a glimpse into the friendship and camaraderie of Italian pensioners. With age, a wealth of experience, and time to observe, these men freely offer their opinions and advice often for the good of the community.

Like other enchanting aspects of Italian culture, the umarell stands out as a charming embodiment of tradition and community. Umarells allow an unexpected peek into the soul of Italy, a land where time slows down, conversation flows freely, humor is appreciated, and observation is elevated to an art form.


When in Bologna: The Umarells Square

 


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