Coming Back to Bologna


Bologna is just as I remember it: the city’s warm red and orange façades cutting across blue skies (and often across heavy clouds), bikes rattling down cobbled streets, market vendors selling sweet and fragrant fruits and veggies, hand-drawn or computer-typed manifestos of revolt and protest, the unmistakable smell of pee in the dirtier corners of the porticoes, the pierced and dread-wearing punkabbestia with their big dogs lounging dirty and drugged in the University’s main square, the constant haze of cigarette smoke and smog. It’s lovely and vibrant and dirty and carefree. It’s the perfect city to be in your 20s, desirous of everything, life and learning and love and alcohol. Everything seems simultaneously eternal and unchanging and yet impossibly fragile and precarious.

Last night, walking through a broken-bottle strewn and emptied Piazza Verdi, it felt as if everything might really be collapsing. Piazza Verdi is the heart of the student population of University of Bologna, a decentralized campus that spans the city and its periphery. On sunny afternoons, the tables from the coffee shops spill into the sunlight, and students fill the tables and often the cobbled pavement, sitting in groups to eat lunch or chat for hours. Recent graduates, or laureati, wearing silly costumes and performing funny stunts, are toasted, celebrated, and sung to. On warm evenings, the same students return to the piazza bearing bottles of wine and beer, guitars and African drums, and sit on the curbs and under the porticoes with the punkabbestias and their dirty dogs and stolen bikes, drinking and talking and living, until the sun turns the night sky pale with its early morning rays. Usually, the square is packed with crowds of students; last weekend, we wandered through an impromptu protest and reggae dance party.

Piazza Verdi is also the historical nucleus of the University’s student protests in the 1960s and 1970s, the site of important encounters between dissenting students and police. Last night, an autonomous student group that leads the majority of student protests at the University organized a protest in solidarity with the employees of Sodexo, a multinational food services and facilities management company. During preparations for the assembly, police arrived in anti-riot gear, and a tense encounter ensued: police and students alternately pushed forward, with bottles thrown back and forth and four people injured. Students barricaded the street leading to Via Zamboni 38, the Literature Department that they were planning on occupying for the evening.

Piazza Verdi is the heart of the student population of University of Bologna, but is also the historical nucleus of the University’s student protests. (Lenau e rido/Flickr CreativeCommons)
Piazza Verdi is the heart of the student population of University of Bologna, but is also the historical nucleus of the University’s student protests. (Lenau e rido/Flickr CreativeCommons)

I arrived late in the evening and headed towards the occupied Literature Department where the protesting students had set up a DJ set and bar to play reggae music and serve alcohol in the halls where they usually attend class. By 11 pm, the battles between students and police were long over and the barricades had been dismantled, but the square was still strewn with broken glass. Police vans and thick, burly men patrolled the side streets leading to the square, glaring at innocent students moving towards the piazza. We floated in and out of the party in the Literature Department, back and forth from nearby bars through the desolate, empty and bottle-strewn piazza, watched like hawks by the police. Signs had been posted on nearby pillars of the red porticoes: PIAZZA VERDI IS FREE/SELF-GOVERNED AND ANTAGONISTIC. The usually thriving square was empty, students hovering in its corners and gravitating towards the pounding music and cigarette smoke wafting from the Literature Department, a few feet beyond the square. The police stayed away from the party.

“It’s incredible to be living these moments of transition,” said Giorgia, a friend of mine, as we passed through the emptied square towards a nearby bar. Police monitoring of student assemblies in Piazza Verdi has increased recently, an indication of growing gentrification of Bologna and its residents. Though the students at University of Bologna have a long history of political activism, the future might look very different for those most adamant for action.

This first week in Bologna has been filled with such transitional moments, moments where the future is palpably near, where the fragility of what seems so eternal is suddenly clear, in the broken bottles beneath our feet — or, like last weekend, in the soft breath of the newborn baby of a friend of a friend. As the group of twenty friends gathered around the new parents and newborn baby, it was clear that things had changed. Conversations were about diapers and barbecues and how to say mom, dad, uncle in the Bolognese dialect, rather than about the next evenings’ parties or their drunk antics from the night before.

Time passes, things change. I want Bologna to be the same every time I come back, but I know it won’t be and I won’t be. We change and grow, as does the city. For the moment, I’ll enjoy it in all its eternal fragility.

Angelica Calabrese ’14 is in Morse College. This summer she will be blogging from Italy and from Ghana. Contact her at