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Bologna: 1861 to the present

Bologna Today

View of Bologna from S. Michele in Bosco

Continued from Bologna: 1506-1861

Bologna defies the Fascists

In the 19th century Bologna was the birthplace of Guglielmo Marconi, who carried out his first experiments with radio at the Villa Grifone, and of the composer Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), whose music was popularized abroad by his fellow Emilian Arturo Toscanini.

It was also at this time that Bologna took the lead in the Italian socialist movement, building strong industrial unions in town and prosperous rural co-operatives on the plains – as well as in enduring the brunt of the Fascist reaction in the 20th century, starting with election of the Socialist 'Mayor for a Day' Ennio Gnudo in 1920 and the deadly shoot out at the Palazzo d'Accursio.

In 1944 Bologna participated fully in the big wave of courageous strikes meant to slow down the Fascist war effort, and partisan activity in the hinterlands led to brutal Nazi reprisals such as the massacre at Marzabotto. The city found itself on the ‘Gothic Line’, where the Germans held the Allies at bay in 1944–5, and it was the scene of fervid partisan activity, including pitched battles between the Nazis and partisan brigades around the University and the Ospedale Maggiore. Bologna emerged from the war relatively unscathed, though a number of important monuments were damaged in bombings.

Post-war: Red Bologna

After the war Bologna’s Communists got their chance to run the city, and they made the most of it. An excellent mayor, Giuseppe Dozza, made the city the showcase of the Italian brand of Communism, providing the most honest, efficient and innovative municipal government in the country. Dozza greatly improved public transport and health care, while leading the nation in building new schools, housing and other facilities – even municipal launderettes. The new housing projects may have been ‘vomit-coloured cement barracks’, as conservative critic Indro Montanelli put it, but that after all was the style of the time, and in the middle of a huge housing crisis the most important thing, as everywhere else in Europe, was getting something built. Nevertheless, the shabby planning that gave the city its distinctly unpleasant band of sprawl is something that Bologna, like most prosperous Italian cities, is going to have to live with for a long time.

Like the rest of Italy, Bologna in the late 1960s and 70s had more than its share of troubles. Italy was making a sharp left turn. While the Communist vote increased greatly in local and national elections, a younger generation was forsaking the PCI for more radical alternatives.

The Years of Lead

The climax of a wave of student agitation in Bologna came in March 1977, when the shooting of a demonstrator by the police led to riots. In these Anni di Piombo, the ‘Years of Lead’, shadowy groups in the armed forces and security police infiltrated and manipulated the so-called ‘Red Brigade’ and other operations, along with radical rightist groups they controlled directly, into fomenting terrorism throughout the country, with the hope of destabilizing democracy and perhaps even staging a coup.

Now that it’s all over, most Italians would like to forget all about the Anni di Piombo. Others, however, are still trying to get to the bottom of this murky business. There’s even a new word, dietrologia (the study of who was dietro, or ‘behind’, the attacks), to describe the endless conspiracy theories and speculation about which national figures and institutions were directly involved.

Parliamentary and judicial investigations have established the existence of ‘Operation Gladio’, in which the infamous P2 ‘masonic lodge’ led by Licio Gelli (a wartime fascist and an officer in the SS at the war’s end, who pulled a lot of strings in Italy for decades afterwards thanks to his cooperation with the CIA) coordinated the terrorist effort, along with the leaders of the Italian secret service, the SID (almost all of whom were P2 members, along with many army chiefs, business leaders and Christian Democrat politicians) and elements in the CIA. Bologna’s Communists, labour leaders and the city itself were prime targets.

In 1974 the terrorists blew up a Bologna-Florence train, killing 12 and wounding 105. In 1978 they assassinated Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who favoured bringing the Communists into the government coalition, and two years later made their bloodiest strike ever – the bomb in Bologna’s Stazione Centrale that killed 85 people and wounded over 200 on 2 August 1980.

Change under the porticoes

Things gradually calmed down after that – the ghouls had made their point. Bologna’s earnest Reds soldiered on, despite a national ‘reform’ that severely limited local government powers in the 1970s. Even the most useful regimes, however, grow old and tired eventually, and in the 1990s many Bolognesi became increasingly discontented with the way their city was moving; a sharp increase in crime and drug addiction, and a general decline in the quality of life were the main concerns (spray-paint graffiti is always an indicator of urban disarray, and Bologna has more of it than almost any Italian city). Many also found the city government becoming too rigid and bureaucratic, and out of touch with the citizens.

The ‘catastrophe’, as local leftists called it, came in the mayoral election of 1998, when a conservative businessman and head of the Chamber of Commerce named Giorgio Guazzaloca squeaked in with 50.69% of the vote. The right crowed and cackled across Italy. The great Red bastion had capitulated, and in their enthusiasm some even spoke of the election as the ‘fall of the Berlin Wall’.

Guazzaloca, who was often compared to New York’s Rudy Giuliani, wasn't quite the bogey that leftists feared; his most controversial move was to cut back on the limitations on cars in the centro storico, the reversal of a policy that had been expanded since 1972, when Bologna became one of the first cities in Europe to create pedestrian zones and limit traffic in the centre.

The Left Returns, Embarrassingly at First

Bologna soon tired of its flirtation with conservatism, and the left climbed back into power in 2004, where they have remained ever since. Many Bolognese came to regret it, when Mayor Flavio Delbono, a much-touted academic who also held the chair of economics at Bologna's University, got nabbed in one of Italy's more colorful recent scandals. 'Cinziagate', so called after Delbono's girlfriend and secretary Cinzia Cracchi who spilled the beans, told a sordid tale of corruption, fraud and abuse of office that left the proud Bolognese wondering if their virtuous city had somehow overnight turned into Naples. Delbono was forced out of office in 2010, and Italy's forgiving justice system let him off with only forty days in jail. His replacement, centre left mayor Virginio Merola, won a second five year term in 2016.

Fingers in many pies

Bologna, in its quiet way, takes very good care of itself. One of the wealthiest cities in Europe, and one where the quality of life is constantly rated among the very highest, Bologna bases its prosperity not so much on the University and research spinoffs as a good old-fashioned industrial base. The metro population of just over a half-million produces Lamborghini cars and Ducati motorcycles. It's big in high-tech machinery, foodstuffs, clothing, printing and publishing, not to mention insurance and banking. Firms headquartered here range from big fashion names (Bruno Magli, La Perla) to Italy's biggest supermarket chain which, fittingly for Bologna Rossa, is the Coop. And it won't be long before it unveils the first theme park anywhere dedicated to one of its great passion: food.

In short, a little bit of everything, where no one corporation or industry dominates; with over 16,000 businesses Bologna ranks third in Italy, behind only the much bigger cities Milan and Rome. Despite the current economic hard times, the virtuous old postwar model hangs on: economic diversity, medium and small enterprises, enlightened labour relations and strong social policy. Opportunity and quality of life have made the city a very attractive destination. Over 15% of the Bolognese today are immigrants, and they come from all over the world, with no more than a few thousand from any one country.

Many people, in Italy and beyond, think of Bologna as a stolid, fusty, highbrow sort of town, its endless arcades reminiscent of a university cloister. Serious culture is certainly well served here. Few cities in the world have as many imposing theatres, galleries and concert halls, or such a full schedule of events.

But behind the Baroque stage curtain there's a city that does its honest best to stay up-to-date and relevant. Bologna is known in Italy as a centre for everything trendy and new, from comics to street art to alternative music. The Bolognese will never let modernity change their city, but they're not too proud to assimilate whatever catches their fancy.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: MartinaFerrara, Creative Commons Licence