I’ve always had a passion for the piazzas scattered across Italy. These outdoor areas, virtual homes away from home, invite people to eat, drink, meet, hang out, people-watch or wander.
Several years ago, my husband and I rented an apartment for a month during the fall. Our home base was in a historical building, Palazzo dei Banchi, that overlooks the magnificent Piazza Maggiore, the main square in Bologna.
Unlike previous trips, we found it hard to leave our accommodations because our balcony window was filled with life from early morning to well into the night. It was like having a box-seat theater ticket for a 24/7 live performance, often accompanied by an engaging musical soundtrack in the form of street performances.
The rhythm of the piazza
Our days living over the piazza began quite early with the hum of the vacuum sweepers maneuvered by municipal employees picking up remnants of the revelers who had been there the night before. By sunrise, people were zigzagging across the square, either by foot or on bicycles, heading to businesses in and around the piazza. Others were rushing to catch public transportation on the adjacent corner.
The piazza was a popular meeting point for tourists waiting for their guides because the city tourism office is positioned on the north side of the piazza. Of course, visitors seized the opportunity of idle moments to photograph the spectacular architecture all around them.
Seven days a week, church-goers and visitors alike moved in and out of the doors of the Basilica of San Petronio, which dominates the piazza. Umarell, retired pensioners acting as quasi-sidewalk superintendents, bantered with each other. Mothers with children in tow stopped in the square so their kids could ride a tricycle, throw balls, or fly a kite in the wide-open space.Evenings attracted students who live and study in this university town, young lovers, and groups of friends and colleagues who arranged to meet at the piazza on their way for aperitivos in the Quadrilateral, the ancient market area just off the piazza that’s filled with outdoor bars and tables.
On the square itself, musicians, singers, and jugglers provided almost continuous entertainment.
We began to recognize a predictable rhythm to the weekdays which, as one might expect, changed a bit on weekends. However, each day always brought something new and unexpected: religious processions, musical performances, displays of street art, right-wing and left-wing protests, and even a mortadella festival.
But what is a piazza?
The literal translation of an Italian piazza is a “public square,“ but they are so much more than that.
“The piazza is as Italian as it gets: not an architectural or urban feature, but rather from a cultural and social point of view,” writes Milan-born journalist Giulia Franceschini in L’Italo Americano.
As she points out, the concept of a piazza isn’t defined by design or architecture alone. In fact, they’re not always the same geometric shape (a square).
Rather, every piazza, like Piazza Maggiore, is unique, deeply rooted in the history and culture of a city or town. They provide a third place, open to everyone. For the tourist, they put the spark and soul of a locality on public display.
Piazzas after the pandemic
Now, from our home in New York, we watch YouTube videos of Italy taken during the COVID-19 lockdown and are crestfallen seeing some of the country’s most beautiful piazzas devoid of life.
Like millions of others, we sadly watched Andrea Bocelli’s 2020 Easter concert on the Piazza del Duomo in Milan. The tenor performed in front of the steps of the empty cathedral, seemingly without another human being in sight.
An article reported in Il Restino del Carlino, a local newspaper in Bologna, told of a recent gathering (during the pandemic) of some 600 people at Piazza Verdi, a far smaller piazza than Piazza Maggiore, located in the city’s university area.
Some in the group were students protesting the lack of study space at the university. But many others were young people tired of the onerous but necessary COVID-19 pandemic restrictions put into place by the Italian government; few in this group wore masks or observed social distancing measures.
According to the news report (imperfectly translated from Italian):
“Some of the participants in the improvised party – with music and even the inevitable bongos – left behind a series of writings on the walls. ‘I was not born to live in a cage’, the tenor of the sentences.”
A few days later, the same newspaper reported that 200 people had congregated at Piazza Puntoni, another piazza in Bologna. When policemen and carabinieri arrived to disperse the crowd in an effort to protect public health and safety, the young people began throwing bottles.
The pandemic has disrupted and toppled so many aspects of life and culture around the world. And its upheaval on piazzas and the people who enjoy them, too, has been nothing short of profound.
Our view of the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna from above blessed us with long-lasting memories of Bolognese life and culture before the pandemic. Hopefully, with the greater availability of vaccines, the vitality of the piazzas in Bologna and throughout Italy will be restored. Like those frustrated youth lamenting their losses, we yearn to recapture those blissful experiences.
Previously on More Time To Travel: The Best Piazzas in Bologna
All photo credits: Jerome Levine (except for Pinterest pin)
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